Wednesday’s Book Review: “Bound for Santa Fe”


Bound for Santa FeBound for Santa Fe: The Road to New Mexico and the American Conquest, 1806-1848. By Stephen G. Hyslop. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. Xiii + 514 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95.)

Once in a while a book attains benchmark status in the historiography of a particular subject. Bound for Santa Fe, by Stephen G. Hyslop, has done so.  Its palate is sweeping, and the author’s handling of the story both complex and captivating. More than any other recent work of history on the Santa Fe trail and trade, it captures the essence of the story and relates it to an audience removed from it by more than 200 years. Most of all, Bound for Santa Fe is an exceptionally well-written work of history, tantalizing in its depictions and seductive in the power of its narrative.

Beginning with the earliest exploring parties from the United States into the Southwest, Hyslop takes the reader through the origins and development of the Santa Fe trade, using narratives from the trail as the centerpiece of a journey from Missouri to New Mexico. Along the trail readers meet the native peoples who had made the region their homes for centuries, the Santa Fe culture and its sometimes uneasy coexistence with Anglos from Missouri, and the unique world these various cultures made through their interactions.

At the same time, the interactions proved surprising to both sides. As only one example, Missourians expressed dismay at the mores of the New Mexicans, and that cultural divide never seemed to end despite years of close contact. When trader John Scolly hauled his Latina wife, Juana Lopes, before a Mexican judge for adultery the outcome was remarkably different to what Scolly had expected. Lopes did not deny the charges, instead offering the belligerent explanation, as reported in the court record, that “it was her ass, she controlled it, and she would give it to whomever she wanted” (p. 266). The judge told her to quit “roving” and stay with her family but stopped short of punishing her, as would have undoubtedly been the case in the U.S. Such cultural differences sprinkle this work, demonstrating the oddity and attraction of these two civilizations.

Hyslop completes his work with a discussion of American conquest of New Mexico in 1846-1848. He follows the path of the Army of the West under Stephen Watts Kearny, the experience of Alexander Doniphan and Sterling Price and their Missouri volunteers, the creation of a territorial government under Charles Bent, and the bloody Taos revolt.

In 1979 John D. Unruh Jr. published The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60 (University of Illinois Press), unraveling the complex story of the overlanders on America’s longest trail. Hyslop offers a work very similar to Unruh’s in style and substance for the Santa Fe trail, and it may become a standard on the subject for many years.

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A Clash of Engineering Cultures? NASA Engineers, R and D Culture, and the Space Shuttle as an Operational System


Possible configurations considered for the Space Shuttle as of 1970.

Possible configurations considered for the Space Shuttle as of 1970.

One of the more interesting conferences being organized is set to take place on April 8, 2016, at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. It is called “The Maintainers” and it focuses on what is the norm for engineering practice. It reacts to the emphasis on innovation in America, and plays off of the important 2014 book by Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Historian Andrew Russell quipped that there needed to be a counter-history entitled, The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time. Since then many people interested in science and technology studies have been discussing these twin themes in history. This conference is an attempt to bring together some of those thinking about the idea of maintenance of technological systems.

I am proposing a paper for this meeting entitled, “A Clash of Engineering Cultures? NASA Engineers, R&D Culture, and the Space Shuttle as an Operational System.” My abstract is as follows, and I would welcome any thoughts that anyone might have on it.

Abstract: The aerospace engineering culture of NASA emphasizes innovation and the development of new technologies, and those who go to work for the space agency have long been attracted by the thrill of tackling new and unresolved problems. In its first twenty-five years, seemingly, NASA had a new R&D project constantly underway and design engineers happily moved from one to another of these efforts. This was largely the norm until the first orbital flight of the Space Shuttle in 1981. At that point, the program was intended to become operational, providing relatively airline-like space access. This meant that the bulk of the research, development, and testing for the Space Shuttle would be halted—NASA officials intended to pursue only modest upgrades thereafter—as the vehicle would open orbital space to “routine” operations. The Space Shuttle, of course, never delivered “routine” spaceflight and its flights were never airline-like. Most of the explanations for the shuttle’s failure to deliver on this promise emphasize its experimental status, its different flight requirements, and its advanced technology.

Those explanations are fine as far as they go, but in addition the NASA engineering culture emphasizing innovation and R&D ensured that those who were a part of the shuttle program constantly sought to upgrade the system rather than maintaining and flying it as is common among airlines. The result was that none of the orbiters were identical, and that constant efforts to alter shuttle technology meant that no two flights were even similar. The “maintainers” were not dominant at NASA and the constant modification of the technology ensured that there was never an opportunity to operate it efficiently. This paper will explore this theme in the 35-year history of the Space Shuttle program and offer some thoughts on the clash between the divergent ideology of R&D versus maintenance in the context of NASA and the Space Shuttle. As such it addresses one of the central questions asked in the conference’s Call for Papers: “How does labor focused on novelty and innovation differ from labor focused on maintenance and conservation?” To this I would ask another: “How do these divergent engineering cultures interact and achieve useful synergy?”

Please give me your comments. Am I off base?

 

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Immediate Outcomes from the Columbia Accident in 2003


Space shuttle Atlantis is seen through the window of a Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA) as it launches from launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on the STS-135 mission, Friday, July 8, 2011 in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Atlantis launched on the final flight of the shuttle program on a 12-day mission to the International Space Station. The STS-135 crew will deliver the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module containing supplies and spare parts for the space station. Photo Credit: (NASA/Dick Clark)

Space shuttle Atlantis is seen through the window of a Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA) as it launches from launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on the STS-135 mission, Friday, July 8, 2011 in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Atlantis launched on the final flight of the shuttle program on a 12-day mission to the International Space Station. The STS-135 crew will deliver the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module containing supplies and spare parts for the space station. Photo Credit: (NASA/Dick Clark)

The loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003, signaled the beginning of an important policy debate about the future of human spaceflight. NASA grounded the shuttle fleet, appropriately so, at the time of the accident, but wanted to return to flight as soon as possible. Its leaders pointed to the lengthy grounding of the fleet after the Challenger accident and publicly stated that a repeat of that was not what NASA wanted. Others, some of them members of Congress, thought that the shuttle fleet should not only be grounded but immediately retired.

For instance, Representative Bart Gordon (R-Texas) said he would never vote for funding to return the shuttle to flight. “It’s my opinion that we can’t make the existing orbiter as safe as it needs to be,” said Barton. “I’m not going to just sit by and put Americans at risk every time they go into space. If we had the same accident rate in our commercial aviation industry, thousands of people would be killed every day in this country, and we would not accept it.” 

Most others, including the head of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) head Admiral Al Gehman, announced that America must find the technical problem that caused the loss of Columbia, fix that problem on all of the remaining orbiters, determine the appropriate organizational and management issues that allowed the technical problem to go unresolved, and only then return to flight. If NASA could not return the shuttle to flight status before the end of 2003, he believed, then so be it. “We are cautioning NASA to use the analogy” of commercial airliners, Gehman said on May 12, 2003, “in which you have to undergo a rigorous, expensive requalification or recertificaton program, and to be thinking along those lines. Even though each orbiter gets essentially hand tooled between every flight, it is not the same thing in our mind.”

During the spring of 2003 the debate over the pros and cons of human space flight seemed to swing—as it also did in the aftermath of the 1967 Apollo fire that took the lives of three astronauts, after the United States won the “Moon Race” in 1969, and after the 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy that claimed seven lives—more toward the cons. Although continuation of NASA’s human spaceflight program might proceed essentially unchanged after the Columbia accident, several serious options deserved sustained debate.

A core question was whether or not United States should terminate the U.S. human space flight program, including the space shuttle, U.S. participation in the International Space Station (ISS) program, and plans to develop a follow-on vehicle to replace the shuttle?

The International Space Station from the Space Shuttle during the STS-117 mission.

The International Space Station from the Space Shuttle during the STS-117 mission.

Doing so would save an annual budget for the space shuttle of approximately $4 billion, and for the space station approximately $2 billion. That amount of funding, plus whatever would be spent on a shuttle follow-on could be saved, or redirected to other space or non-space priorities such as robotic spaceflight, scientific research, homeland security, or the costs of the war on terrorism. Additionally, human lives would no longer be at risk in human spaceflight. As attractive as that might have been for some people, prestige has long been a critical component of space policy-making and dominated so many of the spaceflight decisions that it sometimes seems trite to suggest that it has been an impressive rationale over the years.

Yet, there was more to it than that, for while all recognized that prestige sparked and sustained the space race of the 1960s the failure to recognize that it continued to motivate many politicians to support NASA’s programs was significant. John F. Kennedy responded to the challenge of the Soviet Union by announcing the Apollo decision in 1961, and that rivalry sustained the effort. Kennedy put the world on notice that the U.S. would not take a back seat to its superpower rival.

The United States also built the Space Shuttle and embarked on the space station largely for prestige purposes as well. For example, the turning point for Richard Nixon’s decision in favor of proceeding with the Space Shuttle as the centerpiece of post-Apollo spaceflight came in August 1971 when Caspar Weinberger wrote an impassioned memorandum to the president that not to do so “would be confirming in some respects, a belief that I fear is gaining credence at home and abroad: That our best years are behind us, that we are turning inward, reducing our defense commitments, and voluntarily starting to give up our super‑power status, and our desire to maintain world superiority.”

Weinberger appealed directly to the prestige argument by concluding, “America should be able to afford something besides increased welfare, programs to repair our cities, or Appalachian relief and the like.” In a handwritten scrawl on Weinberger’s memo, Richard Nixon indicated “I agree with Cap.”11 Prestige also entered into the decision in one other way. Nixon was also unwilling to go down in history as the president who gave away the nation’s leadership in the exploration of space and ended the practice of flying astronauts, and a decision against the shuttle in his mind would have done both.12

Prestige ensured that no matter how difficult the challenges and overbearing the obstacles the United States will continue to fly in space indefinitely. In the aftermath of the Columbia accident on February 1, 2003, when it appeared that all reason for human spaceflight should be questioned, no one seriously considered ending the program. Instead, support for the effort came from all quarters. Even President George W. Bush, who had always been silent on spaceflight before, stepped forward on the day of the accident to say that “The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on.”13

What might be more likely is to return the Space Shuttle to flight on a limited basis with a skeleton crew, using it only for ISS construction missions where the payload bay would be fully utilized. An added advantage, if the space station could be equipped with a system to inspect the shuttle prior to undocking problems could be identified and possibly repaired.

The public memorial for the Columbia accident at the gate of the Johnson Space Center, Texas.

The public memorial for the Columbia accident at the gate of the Johnson Space Center, Texas.

At the same time, the U.S. could proceed with an aggressive program to replace the shuttle with another human-rated vehicle, with first flight in less than a decade. This new vehicle could be safer and more cost effective to operate. For most human spaceflight in the interim, however, the United States would rely on Russian vehicles for taking U.S. astronauts to and from ISS. As policy analyst Marcia S. Smith told a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space on April 2, 2003:

As the world readies to celebrate the 42nd anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight 10 days from now, the future of the U.S. human space flight program is in question. Apart from the broad questions of whether the U.S. human space flight program should continue, a more specific focus may be the cost of returning the shuttle to flight status and how long it will take. Those answers will not be known until the cause of the Columbia accident is determined, and remedies identified. If the costs are high, difficult decisions may be needed on whether to use the funds for the shuttle, for other space initiatives, or for other national priorities such as paying for the Iraqi war and homeland security. While many expect that the United States will once again rally behind NASA, only time will tell if the past is prologue.

By mid-2003 nothing about the future of the Space Shuttle and the U.S. human spaceflight program had been resolved. Questions abounded, as did opinions, but it would take until 2004 before a set of decisions were taken to end the Space Shuttle program, complete the International Space Station, use it for some period of time, and then move on to other human spaceflight efforts.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Print The Legend”


Print the LegendPrint the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford. By Scott Eyman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

With Print the Legend I have now read five different biographies of John Ford, the auteur director best known for his Westerns between the 1930s and the 1960s. This is by far the best of those biographies so far. John Ford was one of the greatest directors ever to work in Hollywood, and his career spanned the golden age of cinema in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. He made films about American history—especially Westerns and war movies—and he worked with some of greatest stars in film. John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Shirley Temple, Maureen O’Hara, Ward Bond, and Lee Marvin all acceded to his will, and those collaborations made the resulting films all the better.

Some of his more than 140 feature films include some of the greatest ever: The Searchers, The Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach, the so-called cavalry trilogy, The Quiet Man, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Mister Roberts, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Informer, and many others. His work with the Navy in World War II on a series of propaganda films in the “Why We Fight” series are examples of his power to use film to move audiences.

Scott Eyman’s Ford is an eccentric, witty, sentimental, domineering, stubborn, contradictory, and obnoxious genius who could be equally insufferable and lovable. This hid a deeply conflicted individual, fearful he would be discovered as a fraud, a drunkard, and a depressive personality. This lengthy book, 656 pages altogether, tells his biography in stark detail. Based on extensive research in personal papers, government records, and through oral histories, Eyman reconstructs a gifted/tragic figure who powerfully shaped American culture for more than half a century.

Eyman shows how Ford masterfully employed a new medium to create art every bit as powerful as more traditional two- and three-dimensional art. For better or worse Ford shaped his culture and changed American perspectives of its past through those efforts. Eyman explores in depth how he worked with actors and crew to realize his vision of a particular film. As often as not he was tyrannical, certainly not an actor’s director, but he got the best from his cast. Over time, he came to trust those he had been successful with previously, and used them repeatedly; hence the longstanding collaborations with John Wayne, Ward Bond, and others. When he felt wronged by any of them, however, he could exile them from his presence for years, such as what he did with Henry Fonda. This book does a fine job of relating both Ford’s life and his career—the two really were inseparable despite the fact that most previous books on Ford have been unable to balance these twin elements—and this is the reason this book is superior to all other works I have read on Ford.

Finally, the main title comes from one of the Ford’s classic Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. At its end, Jimmy Stewart tells the story about how his rise to be a senator was based on the falsehood that he had killed the notable highwayman, Liberty Valance, in a gunfight. Instead Stewart tells how Tom Doniphan, played by John Wayne in the film, killed him in cold blood from a shadows that fateful night many years earlier. The newspaper editor to whom Stewart tells this story replies, “When the legend become fact, print the legend.” Ford never wavered in his belief that legends are necessary to live by; they might be more important than actual events. He spent his career creating them. Perhaps America is better for his having done so; but that is a discussion for another time.

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What Happened to the Space Shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003?


The Launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981.

The Launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981.

NASA personnel and leaders had a celebration planned on February 1, 2003, for the return of Columbia and its crew after the successful completion of STS-107. STS-107 had been launched from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A on January 16 on a science mission that was dedicated to research in physical, life, and space sciences. It held the SPACEHAB Research Double Module and involved the execution of approximately 80 separate experiments, comprised of hundreds of samples and test points. The seven astronauts aboard had worked 24 hours a day, in two alternating shifts, to complete these experiments.

Unfortunately, STS-107 never made it home; both the vehicle and crew were lost during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. NASA lost communication with Columbia a little before 9:00 a.m. E.S.T. on February 1, and when the shuttle failed to land at its appointed time of 9:16 a.m. at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe knew something was wrong. He said:

I immediately advised the President and the Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, at the point after landing was due to have occurred at 9:16 a.m., and spoke to them very briefly to advise them that we had lost contact with the Shuttle orbiter, Columbia, and STS-107 crew. They offered, the President specifically offered, full and immediate support to determine the appropriate steps to be taken.

We then spent the next hour and a half working through the details and information of what we have received [concerning]…operational and technical issues.

We met with the family members of the astronauts who were here at the Kennedy Space Center and are soon to be departing back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The President has called and spoken to the family members to express our deepest national regrets. We have assured them that we will begin the process immediately to recover their loved ones and understand the cause of this tragedy.5

Columbia was the first orbiter built and flown in space, having undertaken 28 successful missions and with an anticipated service life of 100 flights. In February 2001, Columbia had received a major overhaul and update of its systems but it was still an aging vehicle. The STS-107 mission where it was lost was Columbia’s second flight following its overhaul, with the first one a successful servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in March 2002.

The STS-107 crew includes, from the left, Mission Specialist David Brown, Commander Rick Husband, Mission Specialists Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla and Michael Anderson, Pilot William McCool and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon. (NASA photo)

The STS-107 crew includes, from the left, Mission Specialist David Brown, Commander Rick Husband, Mission Specialists Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla and Michael Anderson, Pilot William McCool and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon. (NASA photo)

The process of initiating a Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) began almost immediately. By 10:30 a.m. E.S.T. on Saturday, February 1, NASA convened “Space Shuttle Mishap Interagency Investigation Board. This seven-member board consisted of four top military aviation and safety officials, two civilians from the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation, and a NASA employee.

This board’s chair, U.S. Navy Admiral Harold W. Gehman Jr., had earlier co-chaired the commission that investigated the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Aden, Yemen, on October 12,  2000, and once served as the commander-in-chief of U.S. Joint Forces Command. Because of congressional concerns about the independence of this accident investigation board, NASA on February 18, 2003, appointed new members, including former astronaut Sally Ride, and added flexibility in acquiring support staff and expertise outside from of NASA.

Reconstruction of debris from Columbia.

Reconstruction of debris from Columbia.

At the same time, with debris scattered over Texas, Louisiana, and other parts of the south-central United States, teams of investigators scoured the countryside for as much of Columbia as they could find. Within twenty-four hours of the accident, a large group was on the ground and working with local officials in Texas and Louisiana. The State of Texas activated 800 members of the Texas National Guard to assist with the retrieval of debris. By 4 February, more than 2,000 people from Federal Emergency Management Agency, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Defense, Department of Transportation, U.S. Forest Service, Texas National Guard, and state and local authorities were working to locate, document, and collect debris.

A high priority involved recovery of the remains of the seven member crew: Mission Commander Rick Husband; Pilot William “Willie” McCool; Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, and Laurel Clark; Payload Commander Michael Anderson; and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon. Two memorial services—one at the Johnson Space Center in Houston where President George W. Bush spoke and a second at Washington, D.C.’s, National Cathedral—served as a catharsis for a nation in mourning over the tragic loss. Spontaneous memorials also sprang up at NASA centers and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

Among a lot of other Columbia debris, search teams found a 3-foot-wide steel ball that crushed part of the runway of the Nacogdoches, Louisiana, airport. Another part of Columbia tore through the roof of a local dentist’s office, which might have been filled with people if it were not Saturday morning. And a 3-by-4-foot metal slab crashed into a bank parking lot near a drive-up ATM. In all, about 80,000 pounds of Columbia debris rained down on mostly rural east Texas on February 1. Fortunately, nobody on the ground was killed or maimed.

NASA sent all of the debris discovered to a 40,000-square-foot hangar at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, the same place that Challenger debris had been analyzed, where technicians marked three outlines of the shuttle Columbia‘s wings to lay down wreckage from the bottom, the middle, and the top. At the time that most search operations were concluded in early May 2003, the investigators had found more than 50,000 pieces, representing approximately 40 percent of Columbia, unfortunately, hardly anything from the left wing—identified early on as the location where the failure first occurred—was found. “I think the hardware is telling us something,” said Michael D. Leimbach, the engineer in charge of the reconstruction. He noted that a lot more heat entered the left side than the right side of the vehicle, burning away the aluminum structure before it reached Earth. Among other useful discoveries, the investigators recovered intact a data recorder box that stored critical information until seconds before the shuttle disintegrated.

From this investigation a viable theory concerning the probable cause of the accident emerged. On May 6, 2003, the CAIB released their working scenario for the accident. The Board commented that at approximately 81 seconds after a 10:39 a.m. EST launch on January 16, 2003, post launch photographic analysis determined that foam from the External Tank (ET) left bipod ramp area impacted Columbia in the vicinity of the lower left wing reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) panels 5-9. While on orbit for 16 days, neither the Columbia crew nor controllers on the ground had any indication of damage based on orbiter telemetry, crew downlinked video, still photography, or crew reports.

space_shuttle_columbia_foam_debrisEven so, post-flight evaluation by Air Force Space Command of radar tracking data indicated an object on flight day two, presumably a piece off the orbiter’s left lower wing, flying near Columbia before reentering the atmosphere two and a half days later. This was probably a piece of an RCC T-seal or RCC panel with a rib, both critical components of the wing. When the vehicle began reentry this damaged section of the wing, especially RCC panel 8/9, said CAIB members, “was subjected to extreme entry heating over a long period of time, leading to RCC rib erosion, severely slumped carrier panel tiles, and substantial metallic slag deposition on the RCC panels nearest the damaged area.” Between 8:49 and 8:56 a.m. EST virtually all sensors failed in the left wing, with most measurements failing within the first two minutes of the breach. The Board concluded:

A significant change in the vehicle aerodynamics was observed at 8:54:20 EST, indicating a change in the damage to the left wing. At the same time several very bright debris events were seen in ground-based videos. Soon after the hot gas entered the left wing multiple debris events were captured on video by observers on the ground. These video images begin at 8:53:46 EST (20 seconds after California coastal crossing) and end with Columbia’s final break-up. The exact source of the debris may never be fully understood. However, upper wing skin and Thermal Protection System (TPS) are possible candidates. Damage to the internal aluminum wing structure was most probable during this timeframe as well. These debris events appeared to affect orbiter communication. There were 13 unexplained communication dropouts in this timeframe.

By 8:56:16 EST hot gas had penetrated the wheel well wall as indicated by an off-nominal rise in hydraulic line temperatures. Another significant change in Columbia’s aerodynamics occurred at 8:58:09 EST, accompanied by several more debris events. The vehicle responded to this event with a sharp change in its aileron trim. Additionally, by 8:58:56 EST all left main gear tire pressure and temperature measurements were lost, indicating a rapid progression of damage inside the wheel well. A continual progression of left wing damage caused another abrupt change in the vehicle’s aerodynamics at 8:59:29 EST. Columbia attempted to compensate by firing all four right yaw jets. By 8:59:32 EST the Mission Control Center had lost all telemetry data. MADS recorder data was lost at 9:00:14 EST. Based on video imagery, main vehicle aerodynamic break-up occurred at 9:00:23 EST.

 

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Recalling the Challenger Accident Thirty Years Ago


challenger-disaster-myths-explosion_31734_600x450Thirty years ago on January 28, 1986, NASA and the nation suffered loss of the space shuttle Challenger during launch from the Kennedy Space Center. Many Americans had been excited about this mission, even more than those that had gone before, because a member of the crew was a teacher who would be conducting a class from orbit. The Teacher in Space program, with the young and energetic Christa McAuliffe as its centerpiece, had been years in the making and was touted as a major step forward in education for young people. But the mission ended abruptly and tragically 73 seconds into the flight: a leak in one of two solid rocket boosters ignited the main liquid fuel tank, and Challenger exploded in a blazing fireball.

The accident, the worst in the history of the American space program, proved all the more devastating not only because of McAuliffe’s and her crewmembers’ deaths but also because of the close connections that other members of the crew had to groups in the United States. The seven crewmembers of the Challenger represented a richly diverse ­cross-­section of the American population in terms of race, gender, geography, background, and reli­gion. The explosion became one of the most significant events of the 1980s, as millions around the world saw the accident on tele­vi­sion and mourned the crewmembers killed.

Following the Challenger accident, sev­eral investigations took place to understand the causes of the tragedy and to ascertain what changes should be made to the program to ensure shuttle safety and reliability. The most important investigation was the presidentially-mandated blue ribbon commission chaired by former secretary of state William P. Rogers. The commission grappled with the technologically difficult issues associated with the Challenger accident, firmly linking it to a poor engineering decision made years earlier to use ­O-­rings to seal joints in the SRBs. These, ­they found, ­were susceptible to failure at low temperatures.

Space Transportation System Number 6, Orbiter Challenger, lifts off from Pad 39A carrying astronauts Paul J. Weitz, Koral J. Bobko, Donald H. Peterson and Dr. Story Musgrave in 1983.

Space Transportation System Number 6, Orbiter Challenger, lifts off from Pad 39A carrying astronauts Paul J. Weitz, Koral J. Bobko, Donald H. Peterson and
Dr. Story Musgrave in 1983.

The Rogers Commission also criticized the communication system inside NASA, finding that concerns about irregularities in the ­O-­rings had been voiced well before 1986, but that because of poor internal communication these concerns had not been raised to the appropriate level. In the words of one Rogers Commission member, NASA was “playing Russian roulette” because as long as the shuttle returned safely, the irregularities did not seem to affect successful operations. Only in hindsight did the ­O-­ring problem appear so daunting that it required the cancellation of a launch.

On June 6, 1986, the Rogers Commission submitted its formal report to President Ronald Reagan. The report included nine recommendations for restructuring the shuttle program and safely returning to flight. Most important, the SRBs ­were extensively redesigned following the accident. This involved recertifying the boosters through a series of test firings at Morton Thiokol’s SRB facility in Brigham City, Utah. The redesign added an extra ­O-­ring to the joints between the booster segments and greatly strengthened the physical connection between the segments. Heaters ­were added to the joints to prevent low temperatures from affecting the sealing capability of the ­O-­rings.

In addition, NASA made extensive landing safety improvements. This included upgrades of the orbiter fleet’s tires, brakes, and ­nose-­wheel steering mechanism; and adding a drag chute system. NASA engineers also made other safety improvements, including the installation of a crew escape system that allowed astronauts to parachute from the orbiter under certain conditions. More­over, the space shuttle program was completely reor­gan­ized to ensure that all necessary information would be available to managers at all levels, including a means of raising problems anonymously from any level of the program staff.

Also in line with the Rogers Commission findings, experienced astronauts ­were placed in senior management positions within the program. Finally, through a series of open reviews, all significant issues ­were to be elevated to a Flight Readiness Review Board chaired by the NASA Associate Administrators for Space Flight and Safety. Through this pro­cess, NASA leaders hoped to foster full and open discussions of potential safety and operational issues.

The Challenger crew during the walk-out to the van taking them to Challenger at Launch Complex 39.

The Challenger crew during the walk-out to the van taking them to Challenger at Launch Complex 39.

Finally, President Ronald Reagan made two fundamental policy decision affecting the Space Shuttle program. First, he directed that NASA would no longer have a monopoly on the launch of satellites on the Space Shuttle. In so doing, the Department of Defense and other organizations could launch their applications satellites on any rocket they chose. This had profound implications for such things as reconnaissance satellites, which would thereafter be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, aboard expendable launch vehicles. Second, Reagan took NASA out of the commercial launch business, thereby opening that market to private sector launch services.

When the space shuttle retumed to flight operations with the launch of Discovery on September 29, 1988, it was a much safer program than it had been before the January 1986 accident. Despite the removal of commercial and Defense Department payloads, the shuttle had a surprisingly busy launch schedule after returning to flight. Through January 2003 ­there have been 86 shuttle missions since the Challenger accident. Counting all shuttle missions, including the Challenger, ­there have been 111 flights.

Once flight began again in 1988, the vehicle returned to its former status as a work­horse of space exploration. Perhaps most important, there were seven major scientific payloads that required the unique capabilities of the shuttle. Since 1988 the shuttle has launched the Magellan spacecraft to Venus, the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter, and the Ulysses spacecraft to study the sun. The shuttle also has deployed the Gamma Ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Upper Atmo­sphere Research Satellite, and the Chandra X-Ray Telescope. In addition, the 16 Spacelab and Spacehab missions flown could not have been conducted by anything other than the Space Shuttle. The Spacelab and privately-funded Spacehab modules filled the payload bay and allowed significant scientific work to be accomplished before a Space Station was completed.

Between April 1981 and January 2003 the shuttle carried approximately 3 million pounds of cargo and more than 900 major payloads into orbit for commercial interests, other nations, and educational institutions. Its crews also conducted more than 70 extravehicular activities (spacewalks).

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Antarctic Destinies”


Antarctic DestiniesAntarctic Destinies: Scott, Shackleton, and the Changing Face of Heroism. By Stephanie Barczewski. London, UK: Hambledon Continuum, 2007.

I have been interested in Antarctic exploration for many years and have read a broad range of books. Antarctic Destinies is focused not so much on the expeditions themselves as on the memory of the men who led them. The two protagonists in this work by Clemson University history professor Stephanie Barczewski are the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott and the Anglo-Irishman Ernest Shackleton, and to a much lesser extent Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. All three were motivated by the search for fame, and perhaps fortune, not unlike many other explorers of the nineteenth century. They sought the South Pole, first and foremost, but also overland trips across the continent and exploration of other parts of Antarctica.

Barczewski begins with a general discussion of the heroic era of polar exploration and what heroism consisted of at the time, as well as the manner in which this era has been reinterpreted over the years since that early twentieth century experience. A succession of expeditions to Antarctica make up the first half of the book. The two central expeditions are Scott’s Terra Nova expedition between 1910 and 1912 and Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition of 1914-1916. Roald Amundsen enters the story with his 1911 race to the South Pole, arriving there on December 14, 1911, some five weeks before Scott. Even so, Scott’s reputation gained enormous status through his death—martyrdom?—in seeking the Pole.

That race to the South Pole is well-known. Many books have explored the frenemy/rivalry status of Scott and Shackleton. Amundsen has always been a part of the story, of course, because he successfully reached the Pole first, documented his success beyond any doubt, and conducted important scientific studies during his expedition. Scott has been revered as one who died in the process, a hero to the cause of exploration and the British Empire. Shackleton was for many years seen as an “also ran” who failed to achieve his objective.

Barczewski makes her major contribution by assessing the manner in which the reputations of Scott and Shcakleton have changed in the century since their race to the South Pole. Initially, Scott received the lion’s share of credit for his daring-do, even as he lost his life in the process. Shackleton’s reputation suffered for his failures. That remained pretty much the case until the latter half of the twentieth century. Over time the reputations of Scott and Shackleton have migrated in opposite directions. Scott has been interpreted as a huckster and something of a charlatan, and his memory has been colored by that rising perspective. Shackleton has gained stature with his Endurance expedition because of his commitment to ensure that the men on it made it safely home. In the process his failure has been restructured into a success. I am reminded of the manner in which the Apollo 13 mission, suffering a catastrophic failure in 1970 has been reinterpreted as a NASA success story since it found a way to bring the astronauts home alive. That mission’s stature is now viewed as only slightly less consequential than the original Apollo 11 Moon landing.

Barczewski makes the case that this transformation of the images of Scott and Shackleton have much more to do with significant cultural shifts in the United Kingdom—especially the loss of empire and its current place as one of many strong nations but not the preeminent power in the world—than any intrinsic meaning that might be assigned to the cause of global exploration. Nor do the lives of Scott and Shackleton have much to do with this change in their images. What we know about them has not changed much in the years since their deaths. The author structures this change in the reputations of these two explorers in relation to a set of major events that affected Western Civilization, as well as the nature of public commemoration in memorials, books, and other forms of scholarship and public presentation.

This is a most interesting book for many reasons. Stephanie Barczewski emphasizes the knock-down-drag-out nature of the historiography on the polar quest. She shows the ins-and-outs of the various documentary materials, accounts of participants, and recollections after the fact. In her epilogue she mentions, but does not analyze, recent efforts to rehabilitate Scott’s reputation. Her final suggestion is that in the post-9/11 world of the early twenty-first century it may be that emerging “political conservatism” could have “created a climate more favorable to Scott” (p. 311). There might be other explanations as well. A continuation of this exploration of memory of Polar Region exploration in the more recent past may well be in order for future historians.

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The Great Air Mail Fiasco of 1934 in the American West


With the recent blizzard in the mid-Atlantic, I thought it appropriate to discuss an earlier event in aviation history in which bad weather played a key role. One of the most significant events affecting aviation in the American West occurred in 1934 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed the U.S. Army Air Corps to fly the mail. FDR decided that government mail contracts with the commercial airlines, initiated by his Republican predecessor’s Postmaster General, had been arranged through collusion and fraud and therefore warranted immediate cancellation. After reviewing options, on February 9th the President directed Major General Benjamin D. Foulois’ tiny and antiquated Army Air Corps to begin domestic air mail operations effective February 19th until the contract issue could be resolved.

Brig. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois, Maj. Gen. James. E. Fechet, and Brig. Gen. H.C. Pratt.

Brig. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois, Maj. Gen. James. E. Fechet, and Brig. Gen. H.C. Pratt.

Foulois, anxious to demonstrate the effectiveness of his Air Corps, immediately accepted this mission and began organizing for its completion. Foulois and his chief advisors developed a plan that called for Brigadier General Oscar Westover, Assistant Chief of the Air Corps, to oversee the operation from Washington, D.C., with three commanders to manage operations in eastern, central, and western zones. Since Army Air Corps resources were insufficient to continue the extensive air mail service provided by the commercial carriers, the Air Corps planned to operate only 14 of the 26 air routes previously flown by contract carriers and to accept a corresponding degradation in the efficiency of the mail service.

Lieutenant Colonel Henry H. (Hap) Arnold was playing golf with Major Carl A. Spaatz on February 10, 1934, near March Field, California, when he was summoned to his office and learned that he was to command the western sector of the air mail route from a hub of operations in Salt Lake City. Lt. Col. Arnold moved quickly to carry out his orders. On February 12 he dispatched 13 aircraft, some of them transports but most P-26 single seat fighters, to Salt Lake City along with mechanics and a small headquarters contingent. Captain Ira C. Eaker’s Pursuit Group took the Salt Lake City-Los Angeles routes and Major Clarence Tinker, with his 2nd Bombardment Group, handled the Salt Lake City San Francisco runs. In all, fifty seven pilots operated within the western zone, most of them out of Salt Lake City.

Hap Arnold.

Hap Arnold.

Arnold appointed Maj. Charles B. (Barney) Oldfield as Regional Commander and gave him authority to schedule and control the movement of all aircraft on the routes from Salt Lake City to their first control stop. When the pilots landed at their first destination out of Salt Lake City, control then passed to one of four route commanders depending upon the final destination. Oldfield, a fine manager, had matters well in hand by the time Arnold arrived in Salt Lake City from March Field three days later. Arnold formally established his headquarters at the Newhouse Hotel in the city’s central business district. Although Arnold thought his flyers could handle the air mail operation indefinitely, the Air Corps operated out of Salt Lake City only for about four months.

Because of several disastrous accidents, poor efficiency, and bad publicity it was relieved of air mail responsibilities. Lieutenant Colonel Arnold stressed, upon undertaking the air mail operation, that safety was the principal factor governing the mission. When challenged by reporters that the Air Corps’ pilots were inferior to the commercial fliers, he replied that about 90 percent of the civilian airmail pilots had received their training in the Air Corps. In a letter to Lt. Gen. Malin Craig, the Army Assistant Chief of Staff, Arnold identified the safety issue as critical to the operation and predicted that the press expected the Army to fail at the air mail job:

I have stressed upon all the Route Commanders the necessity for doing their utmost to make this thing a success. I have told them that the Army the Air Corps, and they themselves are “on the spot, and that any slip ups would react unfavorably towards the Army at this time. This unfavorable reaction was brought to my attention this date in an interview which I had with the newspapers. I have put them off all week and would not say anything until today when I accorded them an interview. So we cannot afford a slip up as the undertone of their conversation was that the commercial lines were much better than the Army that we would show up unfavorably. I personally am of the opinion that they are waiting like a bunch of hungry dogs to grab up any mistake or misfortune which may overtake us and make the most of it.

The press was right. Reporters did not have to wait long for disaster to strike. Very few Air Corps airplanes were equipped with either lights or navigational instruments. Only a small number of pilots had night flying experience and even fewer knew anything about instrument flying. These deficiencies, coupled with harsh winter weather conditions created incredible problems in the West. On the very first day of the operation two fatal crashes occurred in the western zone. During the remainder of the operation, through June 1, 1934, the Army Air Corps nation wide suffered 66 crashes and 12 deaths.

The Boeing P-26. Boeing initially designed the P-26 in 1931, designating it first as Model 248.

The Boeing P-26. Boeing initially designed the P-26 in 1931, designating it first as Model 248.

Except for the tragic loss of life, this air mail episode proved advantageous to the Army Air Corps. First, it cost Foulois his job as head of the Army Air Corps. This made way for reorganization and the opportunity for Hap Arnold to lead the organization through World War II.  Second, it brought to the attention of Congress the inadequacies of the American air forces. Its concern prompted a review of the organization by a special committee appointed by Secretary of War George H. Dern during the summer of 1934. Dern instructed the committee, chaired by Newton D. Baker and therefore known as the Baker Board, to carry out “a constructive study and report upon the operations of the Army Air Corps and the adequacy and efficiency of its technical flying equipment and training for the performance of its mission in peace and war.”

An Air Corps Keystone B-6 bomber during the air mail disaster of 1934..

An Air Corps Keystone B-6 bomber during the air mail disaster of 1934..

In a little more than two months the review board compiled 4,283 pages of testimony. Among its many significant recommendations, the Baker Board called for the establishment of an airdrome board to determine requirements, select sites, and establish Army Air Corps bases throughout the United States. These efforts prompted the War Department and the Army Air Corps to think in terms of both airfield expansion and the development of new aircraft with greater capabilities. While it took until the end of the decade of the 1930s to realize much in the way of transition to a modern air force, the impetus for this effort may found in the tragic experience of the great air mail fiasco of 1934.

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Redirect: “The Psychology of David Bowie’s Major Tom”


Source: Raj Persaud

22 Source: Raj Persaud

I was both delighted and enlightened by reading the paper of Raj Persaud, M.D. and Peter Bruggen, M.D., “The Psychology of David Bowie’s Major Tom.” It appears in Physics Today, and appears here. It asks the central question, “Is space flight a new religion?” I certainly think so and the authors quote my recent paper to make their case:  “Escaping Earth: Human Spaceflight as Religion.” Astropolitics: The International Journal of Space Politics & Policy 11:1-2 (2013): 45-64. DOI: 10.1080/14777622.2013.801720. It is available on-line here.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Mosquito Crusades”


Mosquito CrusadesThe Mosquito Crusades: A History of the American Anti-Mosquito Movement from the Reed Commission to the First Earth Day. By Gordon Patterson. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

Today Florida is viewed as a semi-tropical paradise, one in which Crockett and Tubbs patrol the brimming nightlife in Miami, from which orange juice is shipped all over the world, and to which everyone goes to theme parks such as Walt Disney World or Universal Studios or you name it in Orlando. But it was not always so, and my longtime friend and colleague, Gordon Patterson, tells in this fine historical work part of the reason why. Mosquitos, disease spread by them, and swamps go together and in the tropics they combine to create a potentially deadly situation.

Suppressing mosquitoes was long an objective for those in Florida, in the process helping to eradicate malaria, yellow fever, encephalitis, and dengue fever. The Mosquito Crusades tells this story with appropriate attention to balanced, scholarly analysis, style, and a flare for the drama of this core story.

Gordon Patterson, professor of history at the Florida Institute of Technology, has long been interested in efforts improve through science and technology the habitability of Florida and this study helps to illuminate a little-known effort to undertake mosquito control. It begins with the Reed Commission in 1900, an organization that sponsored experimentation in developing countermeasures for yellow fever.

It ends with the first Earth Day in 1970. In between, Patterson’s account ranges from the history of medical entomology to campaigns of pesticide distribution to political efforts to limit the use of pesticides to the give and take of efforts in Florida for advancing pest control and the safety of the public.

This is a very fine book about the history of a virtually unknown story in twentieth century America. It does much to rescue from obscurity an important account to control mosquito populations and the diseases they spread.

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