Wednesday’s Book Review: “Dizzy and the Gashouse Gang”


Dizzy and the Gashouse Gang: The 1934 St. Louis Cardinals and Depression-Era Baseball. By Doug Feldman. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2000.

The so-called “Gashouse Gang” was one of the most engaging major league baseball teams of the first half of the twentieth century and this book is an enjoyable recitation of its 1934 championship year. The St. Louis Cardinals had emerged in the mid-1920s as the best team in the National League but had declined somewhat since. A decade later, however, they roared out of the Midwest to claim the 1934 World Series.

They were an attractive group with a colorful “country bumpkin” leader in Jerome (sometimes called Jay) “Dizzy” Dean, a young, handsome, tall-tale teller with even more self-confidence than his considerable skills allowed. “Ol’ Diz’s” younger brother Paul, christened “Daffy” by sportswriters, soon also found his way to the Cardinals. Behind them a talented supporting cast of Frankie Frisch, Leo Durocher, Pepper Martin, Burleigh Grimes, Joe Medwick, and Rip Collins, among others, filled out the team. These players brought results as they fought with other teams and each other to take the league pennant.

During the 1934 Cardinals spring training camp, Dizzy Dean told a journalist that if the Cards let them start, that “me ‘n’ Paul will win 45 to 50 games.” When asked how many of the 50 Dizzy would win, he replied that he would win those that Paul didn’t. The Cards did win, and the brothers Dean did as well, Dizzy going 30 and 7 and Paul notching 19 wins and 11 losses. They pitched the team to the pennant, supported by a stellar cast of roughnecks, accounting for more than half of the team’s 94 wins. It was tight race for most of the year, and the Cards had to win 13 of their final 15 games to pass the front-running New York Giants in the final week of the season. Of the team’s final nine wins, Dizzy and Paul accounted for seven.

Writers labeled the 1934 Cardinals the “Gashouse Gang” for their rowdy and daring play. In addition to team veterans Frisch and Martin (who had been shifted from the outfield to third base), the gang included shortstop Leo Durocher, leftfielder Joe “Ducky” Medwick, and the team’s leading hitter and slugger, first baseman Rip Collins, who in a career-best season led the league in slugging average and tied for first in home runs. In a seven game World Series, the Cardinals prevailed, and the Dean boys won them all, each getting a pair in the Cards’ triumph over Detroit.

Doug Feldman’s entertaining story of this team focuses in four sections on (1) the depression era and baseball, (2) the team and how General Manager Branch Rickey built it, (3) the 1934 season and the place of the Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers in the two leagues, and (4) the World Series they played. Although Feldman wanders a bit as he seeks to discuss these major themes and inserts extraneous anecdotes, and there are a few errors of fact.

Most troubling is that this is one of those journalistic accounts with neither notes nor bibliography, despite the fact that Feldman is himself an academic and fully aware of the conventions of scholarly apparatus. It does include an index, something indispensable in a work of non-fiction but still rare in too many sports books.

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Women Computers at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory

With the attention Hidden Figures has received in the media of late, the story of African American women computers working for NASA during the Moon race is finally starting to be told. While the film takes many liberties with the story of Katherine Johnson and her coworkers, to say nothing of the history of Project Mercury, let me congratulate both the author of the book on which the film is based, Margot Lee Shetterly, and the producers of this movie for bringing out this important story.

As shown in this film, the story of the African American computers working for NASA Langley Research Center in the early 1960s is a story of triumph, of course, something I think Americans need now more than ever. That may be one of the reasons it has resonated the way it has at this moment in time. I can say with certainty that the film overemphasizes the role of the women computers. Neil Armstrong always made a point, when people gushed over his accomplishments as the Apollo 11 mission commander, that he was just one of more than 500,000 people who made it possible to set foot on the Moon. This was an important point. No one person or small group of people made it happen, it was a group effort. That does not mean the contributions of the computers was not significant, they were.

The Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1920.

The Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1920.

The full story, of course, goes back to before World War II. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) began to employ women to undertake calculations necessary to complete the research reports so prized by the NACA’s aeronautical clients. The term “computer” had been in long usage, and was in essence a job title identifying people who performed mathematical calculations by hand. Although there were already “human computers” at the NACA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, prior to 1935 all of them were male, so the hiring of the first women to perform these tasks proved radical for the time. These women found themselves in the midst of a “men’s club,” the only women at the laboratory up to that point had been working in secretarial and custodial positions.

The first to arrive, Virginia Tucker, reached Hampton, Virginia, just after Labor Day 1935 to join the laboratory’s “Computer Pool.” She found the computers organized into a central office in the Administration Building. They took the readings from research engineers and worked with them to calculate tables illuminating the aeronautical findings. A 1942 report glowed with praise about the work of this group. Many more women would follow; Tucker herself recruiting many of them. Reading, calculating, and plotting data from tests in Langley’s wind tunnels and for other research divisions, they played an integral role in research at the laboratory from the mid-1930s into the 1970s.

World War II dramatically increased the speed of social change at the NACA. As the NACA geared up for World War II it expanded its employee pool of women computers that had first arrived at Langley in 1935. Virginia Tucker had been the first, and she took a lead in expanding the program. She travelled to universities around the nation seeking women educated in mathematics and related fields for work in the NACA laboratories. The engineers came to rely on these computers, remarking that they calculated data “more rapidly and accurately” than the engineers.

During the war employees at Langley expanded dramatically to over 5,000 by 1945. Women computers employed there, like women employed throughout the war effort, proved critical to wartime success. These computers came from everywhere, answering advertisements in trade journals and on pamphlets at colleges and universities as well as being recruited by women already at Langley. Some had friends who told them of the opportunity. Vera Huckel and Helen Willey ended up at Langley by happenstance when they drove friends to the laboratory and heard about the computer jobs while there. They went on to careers that extended into the NASA era.

Women computers working at Langley in 1947.

Women computers working at Langley in 1947.

Officially classed as “subprofessionals,” these were still very good jobs that only a college graduate could aspire to. By 1942 Langley employed 75 female computers. A report noted: “A good number of the computers are former high school teachers. Their ages may average near 21, but there are a surprising number nearer 30 years old. There is no restriction because of marriage; in fact, some of the computers are wives of the engineers of various classification[s] here at NACA.” For example, Rowena Becker had made $550 a year teaching public school in North Carolina. In contrast she earned more than $1,400 a year at Langley.

A computer’s work varied somewhat based on the research project underway, but the computational work involved fundamentally reading raw data, running calculations, and plotting coordinates. They used standard manometers, 10-inch slide rules, Monroe calculators, and other calculating machines to support the organization’s flight research and engineering endeavors

During World War II African American women also found employment as computers at Langley. In 1943 the first six women—Dorothy Vaughan, Miriam Mann, Kathryn Peddrew, Lessie Hunter, Dorothy Hoover, and Kathaleen Land—had entered the NACA as women computers. Langley, located in a part of the Jim Crow South, was segregated and these computers worked in the laboratory’s “West Computing Pool” where they undertook the same work as their white counterparts. Within a short time this team consisted of more than 20 African American women. Despite the restrictions imposed by Virginia’s laws, many of these women worked for years at Langley and eventually integrated into engineering groups focused on flight research, and later, into NASA’s space operations.

The Norfolk news story of these African American computers at Langley in 1943.

The Norfolk news story of African American computers at Langley in 1943.

The women working as computers at the NACA found both opportunities and challenges. It was a way to use their degrees in the hard sciences in professions formerly closed to them. Even so, they still found their careers hamstrung. They proved themselves, however, and many enjoyed long-term careers at the laboratory. A few used the computer position as a stepping-stone for other positions in the NACA and NASA. The NACA computers of World War II were only a few of the thousands of women employed in similar positions in technical organizations in World War II. They played an important role not only at the NACA, but also in the Manhattan Project, various other scientific and technical organizations, and in ciphers and related fields.

The social transformation just getting under in World War II and manifested at the NACA in the story of the women computers—both white and African American—has not yet been completed.

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Some New 2016 Books about Apollo, Only One of Which I might Review

There were several new books published about Apollo in 2016. Here is my list of them. Any additions?

  • French, Francis. Editor. Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele. University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Eisele served on Apollo 7 in 1968, and after his NASA years wrote an unpublished memoir. It is this document that Francis French prepared for publication after his death.
  • Reichl, Eugen, Project Apollo: The Early Years, 1961–1967. Schiffer, 2016 [America in Space Series]. An unoriginal history that tries to relate early years of Apollo.
  • Spudis, Paul D. The Value of the Moon: How to Explore, Live, and Prosper in Space Using the Moon’s Resources. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2016. The blurb reads: “In The Value of the Moon, lunar scientist Paul Spudis argues that the U.S. can and should return to the Moon in order to remain a world leader in space utilization and development and a participant in and beneficiary of a new lunar economy.”
  • Woods, David. NASA Saturn V—1967–1973 (Apollo 4 to Apollo 17 & Skylab). Haynes Publishing UK, 2016 [Owner’s Workshop Manual]. David Woods does solid work on the history of spaceflight. This is an example of that, collecting information about the Saturn V launcher developed for the Moon program.
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Wednesday’s Book Review: “No Dig, No Fly, No Go”

no-dig-pngNo Dig, No Fly, No Go: How Maps Restrict and Control. By Mark Monmonier. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Mark Monmonier of Syracuse University is well known as a geographer with the ability to present difficult issues to a broad audience. No Dig, No Fly, No Go: How Maps Restrict and Control is an enlightening and entertaining study of the manner in which maps are used to demark restrictions and force limitations on human actions. Monmonier makes the case that while we routinely use maps to find our way to anyplace we want to go, there is a broad range of specialized maps that define boundaries, confine activities, and sustain authority in ways both obvious and sublime.

Monmonier’s central point is that bureaucracies, power hierarchies, and legal entities use many different types of maps to exercise power over citizenry and others. They may be wielded to promote or suppress racism, sexism, and imperialism either explicitly or not; and when used effectively they have the power to alter the landscape and the human condition for the better. Examples of all types of maps abound, and Monmonier is at his best in drawing useful examples from a wealth of experience. Many of these are quite personal; mostly they are from the United States and as often as not they are drawn from his experience in New York State.

Chapters deal with a range of maps. Zoning maps, voting districts, international borders, utility and property boundaries, waterways, city management, roads and right-of-ways, maps of locations of sex offenders, vice areas, and the like all find their point of discussion in No Dig, No Fly, No Go. This is a fine work, but after absorbing his central thesis–that maps are used to restrict and control activities by a populace and have both positive or negative ramifications–I was somewhat less enamored with it. When considering the subject of No Dig, No Fly, No Go I realized maps are a bit like Mel Kranzberg’s First Law of Technology–it “is neither good nor bad—nor is it neutral.” Monmonier says much the same thing about these types of maps and their establishment in authority.

A couple of specific criticisms also deserve comment. First, this is very much a work written for a general audience. There are no scholarly references, although it has a bibliography subdivided by chapter, and the writing is personal and anecdotal. While I applaud its accessibility, I am an inveterate fact checker and the more specificity I can find in any study the better. Second, and I recognize that while I approach everything from an historical perspective not everyone does, I was still a bit surprised to see that very few of Monmonier’s examples had any historical tint to them.

For instance, in his discussion of territorial rights and how far they extend out to sea I was astonished to see no mention whatsoever of the shooting down of the Korean Airliner KAL 007 by the Soviet Union in 1983 because it violated Soviet airspace. Such a well-known event would have been an outstanding example illustrating the points he was trying to make concerning territoriality. I could give many other examples, and I believe invoking at least some of them would have extended and amplified his argument.

Overall, however, No Dig, No Fly, No Go is a fine book worthy of serious consideration. I look forward to reading other books on the broad uses of maps–some might consider them a social commentary on the use of maps in society–that Monmonier has written.

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Chronology of Key Space Anniversaries for 2017

The International Space Station in 2012.

The International Space Station in 2012.

1942—75 Years Ago

3 October—Germany launched its V-2 rocket and is the first spacecraft to cross the Kármán line (100 km).

1947—70 Years Ago

20 February—The United States sent fruit flies into space.

1952—65 Years Ago

1 April—The U.S. Army missile staff headed by Wernher von Braun was moved from White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico to Army Ordnance’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.

17 April–The Bell Aircraft Company offered a proposal to the Wright Air Development Center for a piloted bomber-missile, known as Bomi.

18 June—Researchers established that heat during ­re-­entry from Earth orbit would be survivable by a craft of blunt shape, which would absorb only ­one-­half of 1 percent of the heat gen­er­ated by ­re-­entry into the atmo­sphere.

1957—60 Years Ago

7 August—An ­Army-­JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) Jupiter C rocket fired a ­scale-­model nosecone 1,200 miles down range into the Atlantic Ocean with a summit altitude of 600 miles.

21 August—The Soviet Union launched the R-7 Semyorka/SS-6 Sapwood, the first intercontinental ballistic missile.

4 October—Sputnik 1 reached orbit to become the first artificial satellite, and sent the first signals from space.

3 November—The Soviet Union launched Sputnik 2 and its passenger, Laika (a dog), who died during the flight.

1962—55 Years Ago

20 February—John Glenn became the first American to be launched into Earth orbit, making three orbits in the Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft.

7 March—The United States launched OSO-1, the first orbital solar observatory.

7 June—Mariner 4 (US) sent back first close-up photos of Mars.

14 December—Mariner 2 got within 35,000 km of Venus.

11-15 August—The Soviet ­Union completed the first ­long-­duration space flight. Cosmonaut Andrian Nicolayev spent four days in space aboard Vostok 3.

12 August—In the first double flight (occurring at the same time as Vostok 3 with cosmonaut Nicolayev), the Soviet ­Union launched Vostok 4, with cosmonaut Papel Popo­vich.

3 October—Astronaut Walter M. “Wally” Schirra Jr. flew six orbits in the Mercury spacecraft Sigma 7.

1967—50 Years Ago

27 January—At 6:31 p.m., during a simulation aboard Apollo-Saturn (AS) 204 on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, after sev­eral hours of work, a flash fire broke out in the pure oxy­gen atmo­sphere of the capsule. Flames engulfed the capsule, and the three astronauts ­aboard—Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Edward ­White—died of asphyxiation.

24 April—During the return of Soyuz 1, Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died when the capsule returned to Earth in a spin.

25 April—NASA conducted first XB-70A flight, studying delta-wing flying at supersonic speeds

3 October—The X-15 experimental rocket plane set a speed record for piloted vehicles when it reached 4,534 mps (mach 6.72).

30 October—Cosmos 186 and Cosmos 188 (both USSR) performed the first automated docking.

9 November—During the flight of Apollo 4, an unpi­loted test of the launcher and spacecraft, NASA proved that the combination could safely reach the Moon.

1972—45 Years Ago

5 January—NASA administrator James Fletcher met with President Richard Nixon, who later decided to proceed with development of the Space Shuttle, which was first flown in space on 12-14 April 1981.

3 March—Pioneer 10 (US) launched toward Jupiter. Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 went to Jupiter and Saturn and, from ­there, outside the solar system.

16–27 April—Apollo 16 was the fifth American landing on the Moon.

25 May—The first Digital Fly-By-Wire program was tested, laying the groundwork for later use by the Space Shuttle.

15 July—Pioneer 10 entered the asteroid belt (leaves the inner solar system).

23 July—Landsat 1 was launched, providing extensive image-mapping photos of Earth. This was the first of a series that would operate through the end of the century, was launched from Kennedy Space Center to carry out an Earth resource mapping mission that provided data on vegetation, insect infestations, crop growth, and associated ­land-­use information.

15 November—SAS 2 (US) became the first orbital gamma ray observatory.

7-19 December—Apollo 17 was the last of the six Apollo landing missions to the Moon, and the only one to include a ­scientist-—astronaut/geologist Harrison ­Schmitt-—as a member of the crew.

1977—40 Years Ago

18 February—The first orbiter, Enterprise (OV-101), was first flown in flight tests atop Boeing 747 ferrying aircraft at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Facility in southern California.

2 May—Dr. Alan M. Lovelace was appointed acting administrator of NASA and served 49 days.

21 June—President Jimmy Carter appointed Dr. Robert Frosch as NASA’s next administrator.

12 August—The Enterprise had its first free flight test at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Facility in the high desert of southern California at Muroc Dry Lake.

20 August 1977-Present—NASA undertook the Voyager program, with two probes, to the outermost giant planets, ­thereby greatly expanding knowledge of the outer solar system.

29 September—The Soviet ­Union launched Salyut 6, a civilian space station that remained operational for three and a half years. The last mission to it was Soyuz ­T-­4, launched on 12 March 1981. During active life, Salyut 6 was home for 16 crews and was occupied for 676 days.

1982—35 Years Ago

1 March—Venera 13 (USSR) provided analysis of Venus soil samples and the first sound recording of another world.

11–16 November—STS-5 launched two commercial communications satellites during its mission.

11 November—Viking 1’s last transmission reached Earth.

1987—30 Years Ago

December–Cosmonaut Yuri V. Romanenko returned from the space station Mir, having arrived there from Soyuz-TM 2, and sets a (then) space endurance record of 326 days.

1992—25 Years Ago

8 February—Ulysses (joint US/ESA) completed the first polar orbit around the sun.

1 April—Daniel S. Goldin was appointed administrator by President George H. W. Bush.

2 May—First flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavor, which captured and repaired a private satellite.

25 September—The Mars Observer was launched, but failed to respond after 21 August 1993, three days before it was scheduled to enter Mars’ orbit.

6 October—NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin and Russian Space Agency director Yuri Koptev signed two cooperative agreements in Moscow regarding human space flight, including participation in an international consortium to build a space station, with the United States as the senior partner.

1997-20 Years Ago

13 January—NASA announced discovery of three black holes, indicating that nearly all galaxies once had these.

11-21 February—In a record five extravehicular activity (EVA) operations, astronauts from the shuttle Discovery performed the second Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. This mission replaced the ­near-­infrared camera (NICMOS), the ­two-­dimensional spectrograph, and repaired insulation on the telescope.

20 February—Galileo discovered icebergs on Europa, suggesting subsurface oceans.

25 June—During the attempted docking of the Russian resupply vessel, Progress, with the Russian space station Mir the vessel collided with the science module, Spektor, attached to Mir. The module decompressed and its solar arrays ­were knocked out of ser­vice. Although the crew of two Russian cosmonauts and one U.S. astronaut, Michael Foale, are uninjured, the accident crippled the space station and led to a series of crises in space. The Russian Space Agency managed to keep the station operational until it could be resupplied and repaired.

4 July—NASA landed Pathfinder onto the surface of Mars.

11 September—The Global Surveyor space probe reached orbit around Mars and began to provide 3-D maps of the red planet.

25 ­September-­6 October—In this seventh docking mission with the Russian space station Mir, the shuttle Atlantis delivered three Russian air tanks and nine Mir batteries (170 pounds each). ­They also delivered a Spektor module repair kit (500 pounds), which enabled the station crew to begin seriously needed repairs from the Progress collision of June 25. The mission also delivered 1,400 pounds of water, 1,033 pounds of U.S. science items, and 3,000 pounds of Russian supplies. During this mission, Russian cosmonauts Parazynski and Titov conduct an EVA to retrieve four environmental effects space exposure experiments (MEEPS) on Mir’s module. Atlantis also flew around Mir to assess the damage to the station. The astronaut Michael Foale also departed for Earth after a stay of nearly five months and was replaced by astronaut David Wolf.

15 October—The international Cassini space probe mission left Earth bound for Saturn atop an Air Force Titan IV-B/Centaur rocket in a picture-perfect launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida. With the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe and a high-gain antenna provided by the Italian Space Agency, Cassini will arrive at Saturn on 1 July 2004.

2002—15 Years Ago

5 February—NASA launched the High-Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager to study solar flares.

February—The Mars Odyssey 2001 began mapping the surface of Mars in detail.

8–19 April—Atlantis carried with it significant sections to extend the ISS, which it successfully deployed.

5–19 June—Space Shuttle Endeavour, STS-111, delivered Expedition 5 as well as logistics and equipment.

3 July—Comet Nucleus Tour was launched to meet the path of two comets, but apparently broke up shortly after launch.

16 September—The NASA administrator named the first science officer for the International Space Station, Expedition Five crewmember Peggy Whitson. The post of science officer would be a permanent designation for one crewmember aboard ISS, and the person occupying it would have exclusive responsibility for overseeing and enhancing the scientific activities taking place on the station.

7-18 October—STS-112 continued on-orbit construction of the ISS.

23 November–7 December—Expedition 6 was launched on the Space Shuttle Endeavor, STS-113.

2007—10 Years Ago

4 August—Phoenix, a small Mars scout lander, was launched by NASA.

14 September—Japan launched Kaguya (SELENE), a lunar orbiter.

27 September—NASA launched Dawn to study asteroids.

24 October—The PRC launched Chang’e 1, a lunar orbiter

2012—5 Years Ago

22 May—SpaceX launched its Dragon C2+ mission to resupply the International Space Station.

August—Voyager 1 (US) transitioned into interstellar space.

6 August—NASA’s Curiosity rover successfully landed on Mars.

Posted in Apollo, Applications Satellites, Cold War Competition, Earth Science, History, International Space Station, Lunar Exploration, Science, Space, Space Shuttle | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“That’s Life”: Something Fun for the New Year

“That’s Life” is a terrific song describing the ups and downs everyone experiences. It seems appropriate for this new year. It has been recorded by a panoply of singers over the years, some of those versions have been memorable. Written by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon, the 1966 recording by Frank Sinatra is certainly the most famous. This last year, in the finale of “Smash,” the recently-canceled NBC series depicting the difficulties in producing a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe, it served as an object lesson for those who pursue success on Broadway and perhaps elsewhere as well. Here Megan Hilty and Katherine McPhee, the show’s rivals for the role of Marilyn, sing a stunning rendition of “That’s Life.” It is an exciting performance. Enjoy.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Soviet Robots in the Solar System: Mission Technologies and Discoveries”

soviet-robots-in-the-solar-systemSoviet Robots in the Solar System: Mission Technologies and Discoveries. By Wesley T. Huntress Jr. and Mikhail Ya. Marov. Chichester, UK: Springer Praxis, 2011. Paperback, 467 pp., illustrations, ISBN 978-1-4419-7897-4. $44.95.

It seems hard to believe now, but once there was a robotic space race to the Moon and planets of the solar system between the United States and the Soviet Union just as significant as the human race to the Moon. The two superpowers engaged in head-to-head competition and the results were similar to the human race, after a series of Soviet successes early on the U.S. emerged to dominate the story. But that domination did not take place until the 1970s. Indeed, the capabilities of Soviet planetary science were on broad display and their successes with robotic explorers were impressive.

The first target was the Moon. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s when the United States was undertaking its accelerated efforts to explore the Moon, the Soviet program also had 20 successful robotic missions there and achieved several notable firsts: first probe to impact the Moon, first flyby and image of the lunar far side, first soft landing, first lunar orbiter, and first circumlunar probe to return to Earth. The two successful series of Soviet probes were the Luna (15 missions) and the Zond (5 missions). Lunar flyby missions (Luna 3; Zond 3, 6, 7, and 8) obtained photographs of the lunar surface, particularly the limb (southern) and far side regions. The Zond 6, 7, and 8 missions circled the Moon and returned to Earth, where they were recovered (Zond 6 and 7 in Siberia, and Zond 8 in the Indian Ocean). Three robotic missions (Luna 16, 20, and 24) also soft-landed and returned lunar samples to Earth. Between the end of the Apollo program in December 1972 and the return of Luna 24 in August 1976, the Soviets had the Moon to themselves and flew three more successful missions during this period.

After important early successes the Soviet Union lost its edge in planetary exploration during the 1970s. It never had much success with Mars exploration, for example. It has undertaken 17 missions to Mars since the beginning of the space age, with the first launched in 1960, and of those only one was successful while four were partially successful. The Soviets had more success with Venus: 29 missions undertaken with 13 successes and five partial successes. But in the middle part of the 1970s the rate of activity in sending our planetary probes declined. Efforts since that time have continued, but with less frequency and fully successful missions have been few and far between.

Interestingly, despite these successes over the years—the second most successful robotic exploration of the solar system undertaken anywhere in the world—few understand, and fewer still appreciate the history of Soviet planetary exploration. Soviet Robots in the Solar System: Mission Technologies and Discoveries, by Wesley T. Huntress Jr. and Mikhail Ya. Marov, serves as an excellent catalog of the Soviet Union’s lunar and planetary exploration program. At sum, it is a useful description of a remarkable story that captures considerable data in one place and offers unique photographs of Soviet hardware.

One message comes through in this new book, the Soviet Union did not have anything approaching the funding and support achieved by NASA in the United States, did not have the same level of technical capability, and did not have the scientific base present in other nations. They did, however, have both a remarkable dedication to the effort and an ingenious collection of engineers and scientists and a resolve to continue planetary exploration in the face of great adversity. Huntress and Marov do a commendable job in capturing the essence of this story, offering the telling anecdote and the detailed consideration of how and by what method to undertake individual projects. No question, this is the best overview of the Soviet planetary program published in the West. It is also a compelling account of both triumph and failure—more failure than triumph—and will be permanently useful as a source for understanding this significant aspect of space age rivalries between the U.S. and the USSR.

Both authors are practitioners—scientists intimately engaged in planetary exploration programs—rather than historians, and the book betrays that perspective. Huntress was a leader of the NASA planetary science effort and Marov fulfilled a similar role in the Soviet Union/Russia. Both approach their topic as documentarians, seeking to get between two covers as much technical and scientific detail as possible and to illuminate key decisions. Taking a chronological approach, they describe central actors, spacecraft, missions, and scientific results. There is considerable repetition of information, something that might have been avoided by a more skilled writer. The result is not an easy reading experience, but it can be a worthwhile one. Mostly, however, it is a useful reference work.

Huntress and Marov emphasize how the Soviet planetary program, and this has been continued in the post-Soviet era, built incrementally on their earlier efforts. There has been a lot of commonality over the years of hardware and objectives on the various Moon/Mars/Venus projects. This is strikingly different from the U.S. approach, which tends to design a grand approach to exploring a solar system body and then press into service new technologies aboard one-off spacecraft to yield data in new and different arenas. One can justifiably criticize either approach to planetary exploration. One may also applaud each divergent approach. Each has its strengths and its weaknesses. Overall, the American effort has been more successful. Is that because of the greater amount of funding available or some other set of reasons? What is clear is that the Soviet efforts were never ad hoc and opportunistic, despite what many believed during the Cold War. Their planetary probes had their victories, and their scientists also had their discoveries.

With the recent failure of the Phobos-Grunt probe the Russian planetary exploration program is once again in the news and its leaders are on the hot seat in Russia. Perhaps it would be wise before voicing criticism of this failure to read this history. It will demonstrate that planetary scientists and engineers in the Soviet Union/Russia have been working with minimal resources, poor political support, and less than optimal technologies for many years. Despite that reality, they have enhanced understanding of the solar system in fundamental ways. Phobos-Grunt must be viewed as part of a long train of missions over the years. I hope it is not the last such mission undertaken.

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Roger Launius Article Available On-Line at “Metascience”

I have just published the article, “Advising Presidents on Science when Presidents Rebuff Science Advice,” a discussion of the book, Science Policy Up Close, about the place of John Marburger III as Science Advisor to President George W. Bush. It is available in Metascience here. It is fully accessible to all users at libraries and institutions that have purchased a SpringerLink license. The operative information is here: Launius, R.D. Metascience (2016). doi:10.1007/s11016-016-0146-x.


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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Mormons and their Historians”

2738079Mormons and their Historians. By Davis Bitton and Leonard J. Arrington. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988.

Although this book is rather long in the tooth, and both authors have passed on, it is still a fine short and breezy discussion of the historians who have dominated the writing of Mormon history from the 1840s to the 1980s. It is relatively short and succinct with chapters on Willard Richards, Orson Whitney, Edward Tullidge, Andrew Jenson, Joseph F. Smith, B.H. Roberts, and others.

The purpose of this work was, at least in part, to create legitimacy for the “New Mormon History” that emerged in the 1960s and was championed by the authors in official roles in the Latter-day Saint church. Leonard J. Arrington became LDS church historian in 1972 and served for a decade. He modernized the archives, opened collections, and sponsored soul-searching histories that tackled many difficult historical questions for the faithful. Davis Bitton was his strong associate in this process. Both received censure for some of their activities from self-proclaimed protectors of the faith.

The more open approach was officially attacked by Apostle Boyd K. Packer in 1981 when he invoked an espousal of the progress of the dominant line of Mormonism as a religion as the primary purpose of historical investigation, telling church educators that “Your objective should be that they will see the hand of the Lord in every hour and every moment of the Church from its beginning till now.”

In reality, no LDS historian has ever done this, and Bitton and Arrington make that clear in this work. But they were faithful Mormons nonetheless, seeking to help all understand their past “warts and all.” The so-called “New Mormon Historians” were pretty much like those who went before them, at least in terms of their objectives.

This is an easily read and understood book. Surveying it remains a profitable use of time nearly thirty years after it was first published.

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Re-Direct: “She Don’t Like Firefly”

Great video here. A statement of Mikey Mason’s declaration of Browncoat Loyalty. It is pretty funny. And totally understandable. How can anyone not be a “Firefly” fan. Certainly grounds for breaking up! Enjoy.

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