Something Fun for a Friday: “Stairway to Heaven” by Heart

This is a stunning live performance of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” by Heart at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, D.C., on December 2, 2012. Ann and Nancy Wilson offer a memorable performance. This song features Jason Bonham on drums. He wears a Clockwork Orange bowler hat in honor of his father. Enjoy!



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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Spanish Borderlands Frontier”

download (1)The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, 1513-1821. By John Francis Bannon. Tucson: University of New Mexico Press, 1984. (Histories of the American Frontier). ISBN: 0-826-303-09-9. Originally published by New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970.

Originally published by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston in 1970, I first read Father Bannon’s history of The Spanish Borderlands Frontier while in graduate school in 1980. I recently reread it to see if it still offered a useful overview of the subject. It does, despite the publication of David J. Weber’s excellent The Spanish Frontier in North America (Yale University Press, 1992), which covers the same period and location and should be read in conjunction with Bannon’s work. The Spanish borderlands was first denoted by Herbert Eugene Bolton, the great early twentieth century historian of the Spanish experience in North America, as the region originally settled by Spain but later incorporated into the United States. Bannon was one of his last students and the inheritor of his scholarly mantle.

The Spanish Borderlands Frontier presents a balanced and thorough history of Spanish exploration and settlement from Ponce de Leon’s landing in 1513 to the end of Spain’s North American empire in 1821. It is a magisterial textbook that presents an authoritative account of the Spanish colonial period in North America. It focuses largely on the political, economic, and religious activities of the borderlands, and always explores the relationship of the European conquerors to the Native American population. It takes a largely geographical approach, moving from region to region analyzing the development of the borderlands over time.

Father Bannon’s work is still quite excellent and I applaud the University of New Mexico Press’s decision to keep it in print more than forty years after its original publication.

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Curiosity’s Remarkable Findings after Two Years

This self-portrait of Curiosity combines dozens of images to create this self-portrait on Mars, February 3, 2013.

This self-portrait of Curiosity combines dozens of images to create this self-portrait. taken by the rover’s Mars, February 3, 2013.

Since the 1960s humans have been engaged on a concerted effort to understand Mars. The landing of Mars Curiosity on the surface in the early hours of August 6, 2012, is the latest effort to learn about one of our closest neighbors in the solar system. And its success has been remarkable.

NASA has been pursuing a strategy for Mars exploration that may best be characterized with the motto, “Follow the Water.” In essence, this approach noted that life on Earth is built upon liquid water and that any life elsewhere would probably have chemistries built upon these same elements. Accordingly, to search for life on Mars, past or present, NASA’s strategy must be to follow the water. If scientists could find any liquid water on Mars, probably only deep beneath the surface, the potential for life to exist was also present.

The Mars of today, without any evidence of water whatsoever currently on the surface, probably had water flowing freely in its ancient history. Evidence of changes to the planet’s surface from fast flowing water has been collected by many space probes orbiting the planet since the latter 1990s. The spacecraft to open this possibility was Mars Global Surveyor, reaching the planet in 1998 and a new and exciting era of scientific missions to study the red planet. Its discoveries tantalized us about the possibility of life on Mars, at least in the distant past, for there was evidence present that there might actually be water in the substrata of Mars.

But reaching Mars has always been difficult, and globally more missions have failed than have succeeded in accomplishing what they set out to do. Early on, there were spectacular failures, but even in the last fifteen years there have been several failures. Until Curiosity’s successful landing, out of 40 missions, only 16 have been successful. This means that overall any individual Mars mission has a 1 in 3 chance of success. That is not a bad batting average in major league baseball, but for the limited number of chances we have for reaching Mars with individual missions we have to increase our success rate.

With Mars Curiosity’s successful landing on August 6, this new mission represents a major step forward in a long process of Mars exploration. It is important to recognize just how difficult exploration of the red planet has been and continues to be. For one thing, the success of the entry, descent, and landing technology pioneered on this mission will permanently affect how NASA undertakes future Mars efforts. Many were skeptical about the Sky Crane Landing System used here, questioning its complexity, but it proved to be spectacularly effective. This will become a standard approach to touching down on the Martian surface for successively heavier and more capable payloads in the future.

Since landing, Curiosity has made some stunning discoveries. For example, in measuring radiation levels on the surface of the red planets it has found that Martian radiation levels are comparable to those experienced by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. This enhances the possibility that human activities on the surface are possible. Additionally, Curiosity has found beyond any real doubt that there is an ancient streambed where water once flowed roughly knee-deep for thousands of years at a time. In drilling into the soil, Curiosity also spotted some of the key chemical ingredients for life, including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon.

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Why Do Academics Blog?

textbook-thumb-200x282-80797There is an interesting article in the journal, Studies in Higher Education, published in 2013 entitled, “Why Do Academics Blog? An Analysis of Audiences, Purposes and Challenges.” Written by Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson the abstract reads: “Academics are increasingly being urged to blog in order to expand their audiences, create networks and to learn to write in more reader friendly style. This paper holds this advocacy up to empirical scrutiny. A content analysis of 100 academic blogs suggests that academics most commonly write about academic work conditions and policy contexts, share information and provide advice; the intended audience for this work is other higher education staff. We contend that academic blogging may constitute a community of practice in which a hybrid public/private academic operates in a ‘gift economy.’ We note however that academic blogging is increasingly of interest to institutions and this may challenge some of the current practices we have recorded. We conclude that there is still much to learn about academic blogging practices.”

For those interested, a copy of the article is available free from the journal here.


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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Dog Whistle Politics”

Dog Whistle PoliticsDog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. By Ian Haney López. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

There is no doubt, and it is confirmed in this book, that racism is the original sin of the United States. It has changed over time—manifesting itself at various times through slavery, Jim Crow, excessive incarcerations of minorities, and the like—but it has remained a constant in American society. Ian Haney López, a law professor at UC-Berkeley, has written a useful, but highly partisan, history of the manner in which racism has been used in politics since the 1960s. His focus is on the manner in which the Republican Party has embraced certain types of subtle race-baiting arguments to win votes and therefore elections. Hence the term “dog whistle politics” to describe it; it is something not everyone perceives but when attuned to the nuances it is definitely perceptible.

López succeeds best when he sticks to an engaging and informative history of how certain politicians, especially conservative Republicans of the 1960s but certainly they were not the only ones, adopted a stance in opposition to racial desegregation, Great Society programs, and other initiatives aimed at achieving a more equitable society. Some, such as Alabama Governor George Wallace, did so in no small measure as means to cater to his racist electorate and not out of any deep seated racism on his part. This became known as the “Southern Strategy” to win elections. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan took this route as well, but they became much more subtle in their arguments. Instead of directly mentioning race in arguments, Reagan, for instance, made much of made-up Welfare queens who collected multiple government checks, drove Cadillacs, and abused the system. Never mentioning race in this denunciation of abuse of the system, Reagan’s story used coded language to make it clear that he was speaking of African Americans.

Those efforts have continued to the present. We find now that attacks on the social safety net are largely couched in “dog whistle” political arguments. Very few people want to dismantle such programs as Unemployment Insurance, Medicaid, and Social Security. The only inroads that those opposed to them ideologically can make is through coded attacks that suggest that those receiving these benefits are somehow obtaining them illegitimately because they are lazy, etc. Many of these attacks play on racial stereotypes; this is the “dog whistle” of racism in modern society.

The same was true of the Tea Party of the recent past, according to López. Fueled by the economic meltdown of 2008, largely older disaffected whites energized the political arena with a class/race/ethnicity/religious perspective that sought to overturn the New Deal/Great Society consensus that had been in place for much of the twentieth century. The villains in this great disaffection, somewhat incomprehensibly to those on the political left, were not the corporate bad actors who had destroyed the economy but those who were accepting government subsidies to keep them afloat through a tough  period. López makes much of Rick Santelli’s rant on CNBC on February 19, 2009, about the government bailing out “losers.” At sum, this was a not so muted “dog whistle,” complaining that “money from hardworking Americans was being siphoned off to reward minority freeloaders” (p. 149). Couple that with the first African American president in history and the Tea Party’s racism emerged to question the president’s legitimacy, even his birthplace, in ways never encountered before.

This is a useful book in many ways, relating as it does the evolution of this aspect of political discourse in the U.S. But in becoming an editorialist more than an historian López goes too far in his discussion. He diagnoses the problem, fair enough, but his proposed solutions are less helpful. He recommends attuning ourselves to the “dog whistles” and responding to them as they arise. He embraces the idea of political organizing to force the elimination of race from the political equation. I am uncertain how that might work. In the end it will probably convince you that racism is alive and well in modern America despite efforts to eliminate most outward vestiges of it.

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Edward P. Warner and the Transformation of Aeronautics in America

 The only NACA staff member ever to serve on the Main Committee, Edward P. Warner was chief physicist at the Langley laboratory in that facility's early days before returning to the NACA as a member from 1929 to 1954.

The only NACA staff member ever to serve on the Main Committee, Edward P. Warner was chief physicist at the Langley laboratory in that facility’s early days before returning to the NACA as a member from 1929 to 1954.

I have been researching the history of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and compiling biographical information on several of the early leaders of the organization. Edward Pearson Warner (1894-1958) is one of those key people. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Warner became one of the foremost American aeronautical engineers, consultants, writers, and educators of the first half of the twentieth century. Although not a famous flyer or aviation corporate executive, during the last forty years of his life few in the U.S. were more important in shaping the course of aviation.

From his position as assistant secretary of the navy for aeronautics (1926-1929); editor of Aviation (1929-1934); committee member of the NACA (1919-1920, 1929-1945); and chair of the interim council (1945-1947) and then president of the International Civil Aviation Organization (1947-1957), Warner fundamentally influenced virtually every policy decision affecting aviation.

Warner charted a path toward aeronautics in 1911 when he and a friend won a soaring competition in Boston; Warner designed a glider and his friend piloted it. Warner went on to Harvard University, receiving a B.A. in engineering with honors in 1916. He then pursued additional work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), earning a B.S. and then and M.A. in 1919.

After a short time as an employee of the recently created NACA in 1919-1920, Warner returned to MIT as an associate professor of aeronautical engineering. He stayed at MIT for the next six years, attaining the rank of full professor. While at MIT Warner was member of the faculty involved in teaching in Dr. Jerome C. Hunsaker’s pioneering aeronautical engineering curriculum. Known as a no-nonsense, staccato-style lecturer, his students both feared and respected him.

It should come as no surprise that few students were upset when the demanding professor left MIT in 1926 to become the assistant secretary of the navy for aeronautics, a position he held until 1929. In this position, Warner shaped the course of naval aviation, bringing to fruition plans that had been gestating for several years for the development of ship-based air power. During his tenure, the aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga entered service. Warner was tireless in his quest for additional funding for naval aviation, expanding facilities, personnel, and operations. But he also took time to continue his academic studies. In 1927 Warner published his first book, Aerostatistics, quickly followed the same year by Aeroplane Design: Aerodynamics, an important textbook for a generation of aeronautical engineers.

Warner left federal service in 1929 to become the editor of Aviation, the premier U.S. periodical dedicated to flight. He had already made a name for himself as a writer not only of technical papers, several of which he published while at MIT, but also as a thoughtful policy analyst and popular writer on aviation for such publications as the Christian Science Monitor.

Taking a leave of absence from his editorial post in 1934-1935, Warner returned to government service as vice-chair of the Federal Aviation Commission. This blue ribbon commission had been appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to review the structure of aviation in the U.S. and to make recommendations for legislation. At stake were the twin issues of air carrier regulation and airmail service. Warner, who drafted much of the final report, recommended the creation of an overarching organization to regulate air commerce, to establish and operate airways, and to set safety standards and investigate accidents. This was made a reality when the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 (Public Law 75-706) signed into law in July 1938, creating the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) and the Air Safety Board.

When this work was finished, Warner did not return to Aviation, but began an engineering consulting business. Among other projects, between 1935 and 1938 Warner worked with the Douglas Aircraft Company on the first practical four-engine transport aircraft, the DC-4. He was especially perceptive in taking general descriptions of desirable flying qualities provided by pilots and converting them into the exacting specifications required by engineers. In 1936 Warner also rewrote his classic text and published it under a new title, Aeroplane Design: Performance. Most important, Warner included in this book a calculation, later known as the Warner K speed formula, which allowed designers and engineers to compute the performance of specific aircraft.

Edward P. Warner (seated) in 1939 during his time at the CAA.

Edward P. Warner (seated) in 1939 during his time at the CAA.

In 1938 Warner again reentered federal service, this time as an economic and technical advisor to the Civil Aeronautics Authority. A year later he was appointed a formal member of the authority. In 1940 some of the functions of the CAA were split, particularly those of rate setting and policy formulation for scheduled air carriers, and vested in a new entity, the Civil Aeronautics Board. Warner moved over to serve on this board and by 1941 he had been called as its vice-chairman. He held that post until the end of World War II.

Edward Warner addressing First ICAO Assembly held in Montreal in 1946.

Edward Warner addressing First ICAO Assembly held in Montreal in 1946.

While working on the CAA Warner had been exposed to some of the issues affecting international aeronautics, and began to take greater interest in the policy considerations than ever before. It was appropriate, therefore, that he headed the interim council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an organization answering to the United Nations, between 1945 and 1947. When the ICAO was institutionalized in 1947, Warner became its first president and served for a decade. This organization, which grew from 26 to 70 member nations during his tenure, was involved in a variety of international aviation issues from establishing procedures for diplomatic clearances for overflight and landing to establishing standards for air traffic control and the transfer of flight information around the globe.

Warner retired in 1957 and died at his home in Duxbury, Massachusetts, the next year.  His career had been significant not only because his contributions to the engineering of aircraft, but also because of his efforts to structure and executive rational aviation policy both in the United States and throughout the world.

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Apollo 11 and the World’s Reaction

The Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins, wearing sombreros and ponchos, are swarmed by thousands in Mexico City as their motorcade is slowed by the enthusiastic crowd. The GIANTSTEP-APOLLO 11 Presidential Goodwill Tour emphasized the willingness of the United States to share its space knowledge. The tour carried the Apollo 11 astronauts and their wives to 24 countries and 27 cities in 45 days.

The Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins, wearing sombreros and ponchos, are swarmed by thousands in Mexico City as their motorcade is slowed by the enthusiastic crowd. The GIANTSTEP-APOLLO 11 Presidential Goodwill Tour emphasized the willingness of the United States to share its space knowledge. The tour carried the Apollo 11 astronauts and their wives to 24 countries and 27 cities in 45 days.

When the Apollo 11 spacecraft lifted off on July 16, 1969, for the Moon, it signaled a climactic instance in human history. Reaching the Moon on July 20, it’s Lunar Module—with astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aboard—landed on the while Michael Collins orbited overhead in the Apollo command module.

Armstrong soon set foot on the surface, telling millions on Earth that it was “one small step for [a] man—one giant leap for mankind.” Aldrin soon followed him out and the two planted an American flag but omitted claiming the land for the U.S. as had been routinely done during European exploration of the Americas, collected soil and rock samples, and set up scientific experiments. The next day they returned to the Apollo capsule overhead and returned to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24.

This flight to the Moon received great scrutiny. “This is the greatest week in the history of the world since Creation,” President Richard M. Nixon enthused upon greeting the Apollo 11 crew when they returned from the Moon. Christopher Flournoy recalled that as a five-year-old when the mission occurred he may not have understood much of what took place but nonetheless was excited by the experience. He remembered his father saying that “he was never more proud of being an American than on the day our flag flew on the Moon.” One seven-year-old boy from San Juan, Puerto Rico, said of the first Moon landing: “I kept racing between the TV and the balcony and looking at the Moon to see if I could see them on the Moon.” These experiences were typical.

The flight of Apollo 11 met with an ecstatic reaction around the globe, as everyone shared in the success of the astronauts. The front pages of newspapers everywhere suggested how strong the enthusiasm was. NASA estimated that because of nearly worldwide radio and television coverage, more than half the population of the planet was aware of the events of Apollo 11. Although the Soviet Union tried to jam Voice of America radio broadcasts most living there and in other countries learned about the adventure and followed it carefully. Police reports noted that streets in many cities were eerily quiet during the Moon walk as residents watched television coverage in homes, bars, and other public places.

Official congratulations poured in to the U.S. president from other heads of state, even as informal ones went to NASA and the astronauts. All nations having regular diplomatic relations with the United States sent their best wishes in recognition of the success of the mission. Those without diplomatic relations with the U.S., such as the People’s Republic of China, made no formal statement on the Apollo 11 flight to the U.S., and the mission was reported only sporadically by its news media because Mao Zedong refused to publicize successes by Cold War rivals. It was not until February 1972 when Nixon flew to China and met with Mao Zedong that the United States established formal diplomatic relations with the nation.

China now desires to go to the Moon, fully recognizing the success of the Apollo program. Perhaps they will be successful. I would sure like to see humans on the Moon again!

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Science of Shakespeare”

Science of Shakespeare, TheThe Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe. By Dan Falk. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’ Press, 2014.

I had never before considered the scientific worldview of William Shakespeare. Like almost every other American I had read the Bard’s great tragedies in high school and college—Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet—and only gained an appreciation of his comedies and historical works later in life. One of the things I learned early on, however, if one wanted to understand the real history of Julius Caesar or King Richard II or name the historical actor of your choice don’t rely on Shakespeare for knowledge. He was a playwright focused on producing engaging, successful theater aimed at the masses, not in recording accurate historical narrative.

Although this is an interesting and enlightening book with more to offer than I initially thought about Shakespeare and science. At no point in the past have I ever thought of his plays as exemplars of understanding about the Scientific Revolution then under way when he wrote them. True, in the early 1600s Galileo was turning his telescope on Jupiter and published The Starry Messenger; somewhat before that Copernicus was developing a new model of the solar system that replaced the Ptolemaic geocentric explanation. The ferment in science was palpable. Shakespeare may not have been educated at Cambridge or Oxford, but according to author Dan Falk he certainly took in the intellectual milieu around him.

Did the Scientific Revolution find expression in the writings of Shakespeare? That is the core question posed by Falk. He answers it in the affirmative. Some of the connections are well developed, and some are so much speculation, but the reality is that if one reads his plays seeking evidence of a reflection of the scientific ferment around him it is there in abundance. The lion’s share of the book teases out these connections.

The most reflection on science in Shakespeare’s plays concerns astronomy. There are constant references to the stars and other bodies, their place in the sky, and their portents and transits. Some of these references offer quite accurate depictions of movements of individual constellations, the Moon, and the like. None of them, or so it seems, were central to the plot of any play, instead they enrich the dialogue and sometimes offer humor in the story. Falk makes the case that Shakespeare had a connection to Thomas Digges, a proponent of the Copernican view of the solar system, and reflected that understanding in his plays. This looks to be a solid observation.

Less solid, in my estimation, is the argument presented about Hamlet as an allegory for the debate over the Ptolemaic/Copernican world views, with characters standing in for the various positions and protagonists in the debate. This is not Falk’s theory, to be sure, but he spends considerable effort in relating the thesis as developed by Penn State astronomy professor emeritus Peter Usher. Like a lot of literary theories about Shakespeare, this one has very thin evidence and a lot of wishful thinking. It’s interesting and fun to consider, but ultimately not particularly convincing. Falk seems to know this as well and constantly qualifies the argument.

Beyond astronomy, Falk includes chapters on astrology, magic, medicine, religion, and the material world as presented in Shakespeare. In every case we find an individual who generally reflected the current thinking of the Scientific Revolution but also had vestiges of earlier mediaeval perspectives on the world. That is pretty much what I would expect to be the case.

The unsurprising result does not mean that The Science of Shakespeare is not worth a go. It is an easy read, and an interesting and informative book. It helps explain a bit about how the public of the era thought about the scientific world then emerging. At the same time, this is far from a scholarly work that advances the historical discourse. There are sections that are blatantly fictional, and as a work of journalism there is more about the current actors discussing these issues than there is in terms of path-breaking historical investigation. That said, it is an enjoyable, easy to follow, and moderately useful book helping to bring together the literary world of Shakespeare and the scientific world of the early modern period.

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The Cold War Origins of Space Access

This launch of the Titan IVB/Centaur launch vehicle from the Cape Canaveral Air Station, Florida, started the Cassini orbiter and its attached Huygens probe to Saturn. Launched on October 15, 1997, from Launch Complex 40 it would undertake a 2.2-billion mile journey that included two swingbys of Venus and one of Earth to gain additional velocity, arriving at Saturn in July 2004 where it entered orbit and soft landed Huygens on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

This launch of the Titan IVB/Centaur launch vehicle from the Cape Canaveral Air Station, Florida, started the Cassini orbiter and its attached Huygens probe to Saturn. Launched on October 15, 1997, from Launch Complex 40 it would undertake a 2.2-billion mile journey that included two swingbys of Venus and one of Earth to gain additional velocity, arriving at Saturn in July 2004 where it entered orbit and soft landed Huygens on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

It is almost a truism that the primary U.S. space launch capabilities were created only because of the challenge of an exceptionally desperate Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. Accordingly, the development and deployment of ballistic missiles, space-based intelligence-gathering capabilities, and the orbiting of scientific satellites into space were all critical to ensuring the national security of the United States.

For the first decade of the space age, the U.S. space effort operated and evolved in response to consistently focused governmental policy of the highest national priority. During that era the focus was on test and evaluation of ICBMs and on developing these systems into space launch vehicles, primarily to support the reconnaissance mission operated from Vandenberg Air Force Base (AFB) on the West Coast and the robotic space flight mission operated from Cape Canaveral on the East Coast. The initial development, test, and evaluation of ballistic missiles also drove the development for extensive tracking, telemetry collection, and precise photographic capabilities.

During this earliest period of space launch development the United States began employing the principal launchers—Atlas and Delta, as well as the now retired Titan—that found use beyond the Cold War era. It is hard to believe in the year 2014, but the United States still relies on the descendants of these three ballistic missiles for the bulk of its space access requirements. Even though the three families of space boosters—each with numerous variants—have enjoyed incremental improvement since first flight, there seems no way to escape their beginnings in technology (dating back to the early 1950s) and their primary task of launching nuclear warheads.

The first-generation ICBM, the Atlas, was flight tested beginning June 11, 1955, and made operational in 1959. A second ballistic missile, the Thor, also dates from the 1950s and under the name Delta became an early workhorse in America’s fleet of launchers. The Titan ICBM quickly followed the Atlas and Thor into service with the U.S. Air Force in 1959 and remained on alert until the end of the Cold War at the end of the 1980s.

Since these space launch vehicles began existence as national defense assets, they reflected both the benefits and liabilities of those origins. For example, the national defense requirements prompted the developers to emphasize development schedule and operational reliability over launch costs. Consequently, these vehicles were exceptionally costly both to develop and operate.

Indeed, the Eisenhower administration poured enormous resources into the development of these first generation space access vehicles. As a measure of government investment, through fiscal year 1957 the government spent $11.8 billion on military space activities in 1957 dollars. “The cost of continuing these programs from FY 1957 through FY 1963,” Eisenhower was told, “would amount to approximately $36.1 billion, for a grand total of $47 billion.”

In 2014 dollars, for comparison, this would have represented an investment of more than $235 billion. An investment of even 25 percent of that amount today would make possible an enormous advance of launch vehicle technology.

Vanguard on launch pad (TV-3), Dec. 6, 1957.

Vanguard on launch pad (TV-3), Dec. 6, 1957.

The period between 1957 and 1965 might best be viewed as the height of the Cold War era and the age of the great race for space. Engaged in broad contest over the ideologies and allegiances of the non-aligned nations of the world, space exploration was one major area contested. The Soviets gained the upper hand in this competition on October 4, 1957, when they launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, as part of a larger scientific effort associated with the International Geophysical Year. The Soviets did not relinquish their apparent lead in the space race until the mid-1960s.

At the same time that the United States seemed incapable of conducting space operations effectively—notably during the failed launch of the Vanguard satellite on national television on December 6, 1957—the Soviets seemed to enjoy every success. In those first 8 years of the space age, it looked as if the Soviet Union did everything right in space flight, and the United States appeared at best a weakling without the kind of capabilities that the command economy of the “workers’ state” in the Soviet Union had been able to muster. The result was that the United States mobilized to “catch up” to the apparent might of its Cold War

About 1965 the Cold War began to wane as a powerful motivator behind space activities. From the point where America began flying the Gemini spacecraft, and especially with the flights of Apollo—1968-1972—it became obvious that the United States led the world in rocket technology. Accordingly, the space race began to wane during that era, as the nation was consumed with issues other than crises with the Soviet Union, especially it focused on the war in Vietnam.

Since the beginning of spaceflight more than fifty years ago, those who seek to travel in space have been, in essence, between a rocket and hard place. The enormous release of energy made possible through the development of chemical rocket technology, allowed the first generation of launch vehicles to free humanity and its robots from the constraints of Earth’s gravity. It allowed the still exceptionally limited exploitation of space technology for all manner of activities important on Earth—communications, weather, GPS, and a host of other remote sensing satellites—to such an extent that many individuals in the United States today cannot conceive of a world in which they did not exist.

This launch of Falcon 9 in 2012 signals a step forward in space access–especially new, non-DoD developed rockets–but the technology is only incrementally improved and still relies on basic chemical propulsion.

This same chemical rocket technology made possible human flight into space, albeit for an exceptionally limited number of exceptional people, and the visiting of robotic probes from this planet to our neighbors in the Solar System. These have been enormously significant, and overwhelmingly positive, developments.

The rockets that make space access possible, however, have also been enormously expensive despite sustained efforts to reduce the cost of spaceflight. Most launch vehicle efforts throughout the history of the space age, unfortunately, have been fraught with a fair measure of self-deception and wishful thinking. A large ambitious program is created, hyped, and then fails as a result of unrealistic management, especially with regard to technical risk. These typically have blurred the line, which should be bright, between revolutionary, high-risk, high-payoff R&D efforts and low-risk, marginal payoff evolutionary efforts to improve operational systems. Efforts to break the bonds of this deception may well lead in remarkable new directions in future launcher development efforts. I hope so.


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The Legacy of Apollo: 45 Years On

Apollo 11 Launch by Ralph Crane.

Apollo 11 Launch by Ralph Crane.

July 2014 marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the epochal lunar landing of Apollo 11 in the summer of 1969. Although President John F. Kennedy had made a public commitment on May 25, 1961, to land an American on the Moon by the end of the decade, up until this time Apollo had been all promise. Now the realization was about to begin. Project Apollo had originated as an effort to deal with an unsatisfactory situation (world perception of Soviet leadership in space and technology), and it addressed those problems very well. Even though Kennedy’s political objectives were essentially achieved with the decision to go to the Moon, Project Apollo took on a life of its own over the years and left an important legacy to both the nation and the proponents of space exploration. Its success in was enormously significant, coming at a time when American society was in crisis.

A unique confluence of political necessity, personal commitment and activism, scientific and technological ability, economic prosperity, and public mood made possible the 1961 decision to carry out an aggressive lunar landing program. It then fell to NASA, other organizations of the federal government, and the aerospace community to accomplish the task set out in a few short paragraphs by the president.

By the time that the goal was accomplished in 1969, only a few of the key figures associated with the decision were still in leadership positions in the government. Kennedy fell victim to an assassin’s bullet in 1963, and science adviser Jerome B. Wiesner returned to MIT soon afterwards. Lyndon B. Johnson, of course, succeeded Kennedy as president but left office in January 1969 just a few months before the first landing. NASA Administrator James E. Webb resolutely guided NASA through most of the 1960s, but his image was tarnished by, among other things, a 1967 Apollo accident that killed three astronauts. Consequently, he retired from office under something of a cloud in October 1968. Several other early supporters of Apollo in Congress and elsewhere died during the 1960s and never saw the program successfully completed.


Neil Armstrong during Apollo 11 mission.

The landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon took place on July 20, 1969, when the Lunar Module, with astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aboard, landed on the lunar surface while Michael Collins orbited overhead in the Apollo command module. After checkout, Armstrong set foot on the surface, telling millions who saw and heard him on Earth that it was “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Aldrin soon followed him out. They planted an American flag but omitted claiming the land for the U.S. as had been routinely done during European exploration of the Americas, collected soil and rock samples, and set up scientific experiments. The next day they launched back to the Apollo capsule orbiting overhead and began the return trip to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific on July 24.

Project Apollo in general, and the flight of Apollo 11 in particular, should be viewed as a watershed in the nation’s history. It was an endeavor that demonstrated both the technological and economic virtuosity of the United States and established national preeminence over rival nations; this was the primary goal of the program when first envisioned by the Kennedy administration in 1961. It had been an enormous undertaking, costing $25.4 billion (about $125 billion in 2014 dollars) with only the building of the Panama Canal rivaling the Apollo program’s size as the largest non-military technological endeavor ever undertaken by the United States and only the Manhattan Project being comparable in a wartime setting.

Overall view of the Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center, Building 30, Manned Spacecraft Center, showing the flight controllers celebrating the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.

Overall view of the Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center, Building 30, Manned Spacecraft Center, showing the flight controllers celebrating the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.

The most important legacy of Project Apollo that needs to be remembered is that the program was successful in accomplishing the political goals for which it had been created. Kennedy had been dealing with a Cold War crisis in 1961 brought on by several separate factors, the Soviet orbiting of Yuri Gagarin and the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion only two of them, that Apollo was designed to combat. At the time of the Apollo 11 landing Mission Control in Houston flashed the words of President Kennedy announcing the Apollo commitment on its big screen. Those phrases were followed with these: “TASK ACCOMPLISHED, July 1969.” No greater understatement could probably have been made. Any assessment of Apollo that does not recognize the accomplishment of landing an American on the Moon and safely returning before the end of the 1960s is incomplete and inaccurate, for that was the primary goal of the undertaking.

Second, Project Apollo was a triumph of management in meeting the enormously difficult systems engineering and technological integration requirements. James E. Webb, the NASA Administrator at the height of the program between 1961 and 1968, always contended that Apollo was much more a management exercise than anything else, and that the technological challenge, while sophisticated and impressive, was also within grasp. More difficult was ensuring that those technological skills were properly managed and used. Webb’s contention was confirmed in spades by the success of Apollo. NASA leaders had to acquire and organize unprecedented resources to accomplish the task at hand. From both a political and technological perspective, management was critical. For seven years after Kennedy’s Apollo decision, through October 1968, James Webb politicked, coaxed, cajoled, and maneuvered for NASA in Washington. In the process he acquired for the agency sufficient resources to meet its Apollo requirements.

Third, Project Apollo forced the people of the world to view the planet Earth in a new way. Apollo 8 was critical to this sea change, for on its outward voyage, the crew focused a portable television camera on Earth and for the first time humanity saw its home from afar, a tiny, lovely, and fragile “blue marble” hanging in the blackness of space. When the Apollo 8 spacecraft arrived at the Moon on Christmas Eve of 1968 the image of Earth was even more strongly reinforced when the crew sent images of the planet back. Writer Archibald MacLeish summed up the feelings of many people when he wrote at the time of Apollo that “To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold, brothers who know now that they are truly brothers.” The modern environmental movement was galvanized in part by this new perception of the planet and the need to protect it and the life that it supports.

Finally, the Apollo program, while an enormous achievement, left a divided legacy for NASA and the aerospace community. The perceived “golden age” of Apollo created for the agency an expectation that the direction of any major space goal from the president would always bring NASA a broad consensus of support and provide it with the resources and license to dispense them as it saw fit. Something most NASA officials did not understand at the time of the Moon landing in 1969, however, was that Apollo had not been a normal situation and would not be repeated. The Apollo decision was, therefore, an anomaly in the national decision-making process. The dilemma of the “golden age” of Apollo has been difficult to overcome, but moving beyond the Apollo program to embrace future opportunities has been an important goal of the agency’s leadership in the recent past. Exploration of the Solar System and the universe remains as enticing a goal and as important an objective for humanity as it ever has been.

Project Apollo was an important early step in that ongoing process of space exploration.

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