Wednesday’s Book Review: “A Clever Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John Ward Montgomery”

A Clever Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John Ward Montgomery. By Bryan Di Salvatore. New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.

Between 1878 and 1894 John Ward Montgomery amazed major league baseball fans on the field and exasperated owners off of it. As a pitcher for the then major league team in Providence, Rhode Island, he won 87 games in the two seasons of 1879 and 1880. He also pitched only the second perfect game in National League history. He later moved to shortstop and led the New York Giants to pennants in 1888-1889.

His natural leadership skills also ensured he had a future as team captain and manager. But Ward infuriated the owners by bucking their system of control over the players. The National League had established a “reserve clause” binding a player to his team for life by “reserving” his services for the next season even without a signed contract. This clause was dreamed up by coal baron William A. Hulbert, whose intent was to ensure that the power in MLB resided with the owners rather than the players. The “reserve clause”  stated that the club had the right to renew a player’s contract following each season—effectively making the player’s contract the property of the team that first acquired him for the rest of the player’s career.

While the contract and hence the player could be traded, a player could not unilaterally choose to play for another team. The manner in which owners erected this legal means of controlling players amounts to some of the most interesting sections of this book. It was not until the 1970s that the players finally overturned the “reserve clause” and entered the current age of “free agency.”

The owners hired players, in essence treating them like other labor groups in the United States. Like other workingmen, the players sought to maximize their salaries and benefits, and confrontation resulted. In virtually all instances, these disputes ended with the owners gaining greater authority over their employees, and the players gained resentment at these developments.

The “reserve clause” infuriated Ward, who was also a lawyer. He believed players should be allowed to ply their trade wherever someone was willing to pay them. Accordingly, he organized the Brotherhood of National League Players in 1885 as a fraternal order not unlike the Grange and other secret societies of the Gilded Age. In effect, this was the first union of professional baseball players.

When Ward learned in 1889 that the owners had established a fixed scale of salaries, setting the upper limit at $2,500 for each season, he led a walkout and established the Player’s League controlled by ballplayers. It was a good idea but it failed after only a year because the competition ensured a financial disaster for both leagues.

Bryan Di Salvatore’s fine book is largely the story of Ward’s efforts to overcome the “plantation-style” rule of baseball owners. He was never able to do so, and he finally retired at age 34 after a 17 year career to undertake a lucrative law practice. This is very much a “life and times” biography and one will learn much about the milieu of the latter nineteenth century as well as about Ward and his baseball career. Di Salvatore’s broadening of the story helps significantly in understanding the development of the business of baseball. It places in context the larger owner/labor dynamics that have shaped Major League Baseball to the present.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Bad Call: Technology’s Attack on Referees and Umpires and How to Fix It”

Bad Call: Technology’s Attack on Referees and Umpires and How to Fix It. By Harry Collins, Robert Evans, and Christopher Higgins. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016.

There is no question but that technology has changed the way in which fan consume sports. Sometimes the intervention is modest and at other times it is profound. Always it is present. This book deals largely with team sports in Europe; a disproportionate amount of attention is given to soccer.

A critical component of this book is that it focuses on the use of technology to second guess umpires and referees. We have all seen them, a video replay in slow-motion from many different angles immediately after the completion of a play. Always we see them if we are watching the sporting event on television. Sometimes we see them in the stadium on a big scoreboard. Never do the referees or umpires have access to them before they make a call; they do it in real time and then are second guessed by everyone if they are in error. The instant replay that I have seen throughout my life, has been replaced by many newer technologies even more impressive. The authors spend time discussing the Hawk-Eye system used in tennis and cricket, and the goal-line and other precise technologies used in football, soccer, and a host of other fast moving sports.

Authors Harry Collins, Robert Evans, and Christopher Higgins make the case in Bad Call that these technologies, designed to help the quality of the games have become over burdensome, calling into question the quality of the work of the referees and umpires, to the extent that they have undermined the integrity of the actions on the field. We can all point to episodes of ineptitude in the sports we follow. My personal favorite is the Royals/Cardinals game six of the 1985 World Series in which first base umpire Don Denkinger blew a call that everyone saw on replay by calling Royal Jorge Orta safe at first. An argument ensued, but the umpires stood their ground. It so rattled the Cardinals that they lost this game and the Series. Reviewing the call using technology would have allowed the umpires to reverse the decision; this is a positive result of what might result, but the authors state that too much reliance on this technology has reduced the authority of the referees and umpires, compromised the joy of the game, stopped play too often, and generally lessoned the fan experience.

The authors make the case, repeatedly and with declining wit as the book progresses, that there are errors in the system regardless of whether humans or machines referee the games. Doing anything in real-time compounds the issue. Replays can help, but only when humans provide the interpretation. OK, that’s fine as far as it goes, but tell me something I didn’t know. They seek to do just that by analyzing in detail several seasons of English Premier League Football (soccer). They found that the use of technology did not significantly reduce the number of errors in calling the matches.

Of course, I’m not much interested in major league soccer, so these discussions were of less relevance to me than other examples. My passion, baseball, made it into the discussion as ancillary examples in only a few short sections. Most especially, the authors discuss the blown call by first-base umpire Jim Joyce in the top of the ninth inning with two outs that ended a perfect game pitched by Detroit Tiger Armando Galarraga in 2010. Both men recognized the error—Joyce immediately apologized and Galarraga accepted it with dignity—but there was nothing that could be down about since Major League Baseball had no provision at the time for review of controversial plays. That changed afterward, and there are often challenges on the field reviewed by staff and changed as appropriate. It has been a positive development, but one that has extended the times of games.

Finally, the authors are less interested in history than in what they contend is the erosion of the authority of referees and umpires by the technology. The technology certainly points out the flaws in calling games in real-time, and the authors insist that its use has not really made a difference in the quality of the outcomes. What the human eye sees is the critical component, per Collins, Evans, and Higgins.

When I started reading this book, I had hoped that this would offer a history of technology’s use in improving the play of various sports. There is an excellent book yet to be written on that subject, but Bad Call is not it. I would challenge anyone to research and write a history of how technology has changed the fan’s perceptions of sporting events. This would include the descriptions of radio announcers, television broadcasts moving from one to several camera angles, and the use of special effects, slow motion, stop action, etc., in analyzing the games. Anyway, it is a fruitful field for any historian of technology.

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Washington Nationals Home Opener Game Results

The opening ceremonies of the Washington Nationals and the Miami Marlins in 2013.

Today is the home opener for the Washington Nationals. After a long winter, and a deeply disturbing political season, I’m ready to get back to something a bit more uplifting. The Nationals are well positioned to win the National League East Division again in 2017, and I hope they will go deep into the playoffs. Perhaps they will even take the World Series. There’s long way to go yet before that becomes a possibility, but at this time of year most fans have visions of a flag flying over their stadium announcing a championship. I’m no different.

Every team has to play 162 regular season games, make the playoffs, and then win a minimum of three series to claim the victory. It’s a grueling effort. And while it is not a given that the home opener is a measure of the success, or failure, that will follow, here is the list of results for opening day for the Nationals since they came to Washington 2005, along with their record for the year. Not a stellar opening day performance for the Nats, but I’m hoping for better things in 2017.

Date of Opener Visiting Team Score Won/Lost Season Final Record Division Finish
4/14/2005 vs Arizona Diamondbacks 3-5 W 81-81 5th
4/11/2006 vs New York Mets 1-7 L 71-91 5th
4/2/2007 vs Florida Marlins 2-9 L 73-89 4th
3/30/2008 vs Atlanta Braves 3-2 W 59-102 5th
4/13/2009 vs Philadelphia Phillies 8-9 L 59-103 5th
4/5/2010 vs Philadelphia Phillies 1-11 L 69-93 5th
3/31/2011 vs Atlanta Braves 0-2 L 80-81 3rd
4/12/2012 vs Cincinnati Reds 3-2 W 98-64 1st (Lost NLDS to Cardinals 2-3)
4/1/2013 vs Miami Marlins 2-0 W 86-76 2nd
4/4/2014 vs Atlanta Braves 1-2 L 96-66 1st (Lost NLDS to Giants 1-3)
4/6/2015 vs New York Mets 1-3 L 83-79 2nd
4/7/2016 vs Miami Marlins 4-6 L 95-67 1st (Lost NLDS to Dodgers 2-3)
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Mormon Militancy and the Conflict in 1840s Nauvoo?

This lithograph depicts Joseph Smith as the head of the Nauvoo Legion. The Nauvoo Temple is in the background.

The non-Mormons of Hancock County, Illinois, in the early 1840s probably disliked the Mormons from the first, in the same way that most Americans have generally disliked what they have viewed as religious fanaticism, but they were initially disposed toward toleration because they sympathized with its members as refugees from oppression in Missouri. That view, however, soon began to change. Some of the Mormons, embittered against “Gentiles” (non-Mormons) because of their recent experience and impoverished because of their forced abandonment of homes in Missouri, stole food, livestock, and other things from farms in the Nauvoo area. And non-Mormons soon learned that trips to Nauvoo in search of stolen goods, or to seek payment for items sold to the Mormons, were fruitless—and even frightening.

The highly unified, separatist community did not cooperate with outsiders, and some of the Saints resorted to intimidation. For example the “whistling and whittling brigade” of young ruffians made unwelcome visitors fear for their lives as they encircled them during their visits to the Mormon stronghold. Nauvoo quickly developed a reputation among western Illinois residents as a place where lawbreakers friendly to the church were shielded from arrest.

Historic rendering of Nauvoo Temple from the 1840s.

The amount of Mormon theft is impossible to determine, since some stealing by others was undoubtedly blamed on the Saints, nor can Joseph Smith’s involvement be established with any certainty, despite what some memoirs fron older residents imply. Certain Mormon raiders may have felt they had Smith’s approval when in fact they did not. In any case, the evidence of Mormon theft is substantial, and that activity caused some non-Mormons in townships near Nauvoo to oppose the Saints.

But of far greater importance to the development of non-Mormon animosity and to the eventual eruption of mobocratic violence was the perceived threat to democratic government posed by Smith and his theocratic community. That view was expressed as far away as Macomb, Quincy, Alton, and other Illinois communities, but it was centered in Hancock County, where the Mormons dominated local politics by 1842.

Warsaw, a town of about 500 people in the early 1840s, spearheaded the opposition to Smith and political Mormonism. Founded in 1834 as a place for shipping and commerce, Warsaw was something of a microcosm of pluralistic America, an open, ambitious, progressive community where residents did not hold the religious preconceptions that made Nauvoo’s theocracy possible. Instead, local residents firmly subscribed to republicanism, the ill-defined civil religion of the Jacksonian era. Common democratic ideals lashed the people together, and the rituals of self-government affirmed the community’s ideological bond.

To the people of Warsaw, the nation had transcendent value, and republicanism was the operative faith of their town. So, it is not surprising that residents there objected to Smith’s theocratic domination of government at Nauvoo, his encouragement of bloc voting for candidates he supported, his use of the Nauvoo Charter to avoid prosecution, and, eventually, his violation of the civil rights of his critics.

The last address of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo.

That Joseph Smith also headed a huge militia, the Nauvoo Legion, made the threat of despotism seem all the more real. When a united political effort, the Anti-Mormon Party of 1841-1842, failed to curb Smith’s secular power, non-Mormons became increasingly frustrated, and there was talk of mobocratic measures to stop the threat of political Mormonism.

At the same time, after two arrest attempts by Missouri officials, the Mormon prophet became increasingly fearful of the authorities in that state, whom he regarded as thoroughly evil. He drew his supporters more closely around him by depicting the Saints as innocent chosen people and himself as their champion fighting the enemies of God. Critics and opponents in Illinois were associated with those enemies, and thus fear and intolerance increased among the Mormons and governmental authority at Nauvoo became centered in Smith. Apparently unaware of the contradiction between real democratic government and his theocratic control of Nauvoo, the prophet placed the church on a collision course with the non-Mormons in Hancock County—and, ultimately, with America.

No question, the conflict between the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo and the residents surrounding Nauvoo, Illinois, in the 1840s is one of the most important aspects of early Mormon history. Controversies between the Mormon and non-Mormon population began almost immediately when the Latter -day Saints arrived in Illinois in 1839 and grew in intensity and violence by the middle-1840s. The assassination of Joseph Smith Jr. in 1844 and a Mormon war that only ended with the members’ removal from Illinois 1846 are only the two most visible aspects of this struggle.

By taking violent action the citizens of Hancock County reasserted fundamental direction over local government whether for good or ill. Political scientist Jurgen Habermas has suggested that when the “instrumental rationality” of the bureaucratic state intrudes too precipitously into the “lifeworld” of its citizenry, they rise up in some form to correct its course or to cast it off altogether. The “lifeworld” is evident in the ways in which language creates the contexts of interpretations of everyday circumstances, decisions, and actions. He argued that the “lifeworld” is “represented by a culturally transmitted and linguistically organized stock of interpretive patterns.”

Artist’s depiction of the assassination of Joseph Smith on June 27, 1844.

For a sizable proportion of the citizens of Hancock County, the activities of the Mormons intruded into their “lifeworld,” as their expressions of discontent demonstrated, and they could obtain no resolution through the “instrumental rationality” residing in the state. Accordingly, they took direct and violent action and justified it without a tinge of conscience for the rest of their lives.

By doing so, they violated the very democratic ideals to which they subscribed and committed the most notorious acts of the Mormon conflict—the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in June 1844 and the expulsion of the remaining Mormons from Nauvoo in September 1846.

With regard to the Mormons, they can be praised for their religious idealism, hard work, and personal sacrifice, but the anti-democratic tendencies of their dogmatic, crusading spirit are equally apparent. Conflict with their neighbors in Illinois was inevitable because their myth of identity made community with other Americans impossible. Their experience at Nauvoo demonstrated the dangers of theocratic government, the danger of demonizing other people, and the deceptions fostered by the illusion of innocence.

A map of Nauvoo, Illinois, at the time of the Latter-day Saints in the early 1840s.

These same three dangers—theocratic government, demonizing other people, and the illusion of innocence—should be persistent issues in studying the history of Mormonism.

They are not largely because the Mormon conflict is viewed as part of the sacred history of the church—a church whose mission was, and remains, to restore erring humanity’s true relationship to God, build the kingdom of God, and bring salvation to the peoples of the Earth. While honest in intent and sound in methodology, historians have seldom explored beyond the safe boundaries of the Latter-day Saint faith story to analyze the Mormon war for what it was, a clash of world views.

From the very earliest history of the Latter Day Saint movement, the sense that Joseph Smith and his followers were being unjustly persecuted by a sinister group conspiring to destroy the gospel was a persistent theme. The vision of a widespread and sinister conspiracy seeking to destroy Joseph Smith personally and the Mormon Church collectively represented a paranoia about the way in which the world worked. This is not a particularly unusual occurrence in history, but the logical conclusion of this mindset was that Mormonism went to war with American society.

Photograph of Nauvoo in the middle 1840s with the Mormon Temple in the background

Photograph of Nauvoo in the middle 1840s with the Mormon Temple in the background

Interpreting the Nauvoo experience in this manner makes impossible a larger exploration, one that I believe would lead historians to appreciate that the conflict was an ideological struggle between two civilizations with differing social, political, and institutional visions.

Conflict of some kind seems inevitable in this context, and when Smith condemned his Mormon critics as enemies of the people and suppressed their civil rights through institutionalized violence, the non-Mormons—politically frustrated and fearing despotism—resorted to mobocratic measures. Other causes, such as lawlessness by some Mormons aimed at the Gentiles economic and social strife, contributed to the outbreak of violence, but in my view this ideological struggle was central.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Road to Madness: How the 1973-1974 Season Transformed College Basketball”

the-road-to-madnessThe Road to Madness: How the 1973-1974 Season Transformed College Basketball. By J. Samuel Walker and Randy Roberts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

If you are even a moderate college basketball fan you cannot go wrong by reading this book. It is a well-researched and well-written history of the 1973-1974 NCAA basketball season and the beginnings of the expansion of the NCAA tournament and its transition into full-blown “March Madness.” It tells the story of legendary coaches and teams, including one in his twilight, John Wooden and his UCLA team that had won ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period (including seven in a row). It discusses the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), which had several great teams—UNC, NC State, Duke, Maryland, and Virginia—but only one of which could participate in the limited NCAA tournament as conference champion.

This was the last year in which that would be the case, and the expansion of the NCAA tournament the next year began the process whereby rivalries and even grudges became common themes of March Madness, as the “Final Four” showdown developed. This is a narrative history, and a very fine one, but also one which asks a significant question, how does a cultural touchstone—in this case the NCAA basketball tournament—emerge from what went before. It pursues the answer with verve and style.

The scholarship is excellent; I especially appreciated the insights offered by the authors’ efforts to blend oral history with scholarly reflection. This is not surprising coming from two very fine historians with a wealth of experience in crafting fine historical narratives. Enjoy.

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NACA and Documenting of Progress in Aerodynamics

NACA LogoThe aeronautical research that the NACA between 1915 and 1958 undertook found dissemination in a complex set of technical publications that the agency made available to all on an equal basis. Most NACA research was accomplished “in-house” by scientists or engineers on the federal payroll. Work conducted under research authorizations might be of short-duration or could be years in the accomplishment. Short-duration work was often aimed at resolving a specific technical problem, many being tied to the development of a military aircraft prototype. One example of this approach was the effort to improve the aerodynamic efficiency of aircraft, an especially important activity in World War II as the NACA performed worked on drag cleanup for 23 different military aircraft.

Especially when the research was of long duration the NACA issued “Technical Notes” partway through containing interim results and “Technical Reports” with major research conclusions at the end of the effort. No one and no political issue, old NACA hands recollected, infringed upon the presentation of their findings in the most evenhanded manner possible. Thus they believed that partly for this reason the organization became the premier aeronautical research institution in the world during the 1920s and 1930s.

Many of the longer research projects took years to complete and were redefined and given additional monies repeatedly to pursue technological questions. A good example of a longer-term effort was Research Authorization 201, “Investigation of Various Methods of Improving Wing Characteristics by Control of the Boundary Layer,” signed on January 21, 1927. It provided for broad-based research at NACA on methods for either blowing or sucking the boundary layer along the upper surface of the wings, thus maintaining laminar flow and preventing airflow separation. Research took place between 1927 and 1944, taking a variety of twists and turns. Those efforts were channeled at first toward immediate practical objectives that could be used by industry and other clients. Later the NACA staff pursued other avenues of exploration, and the result was that the NACA was able to greatly advance boundary layer control through modification of airfoil shape, demonstrating the serendipitous nature of research. The boundary layer research by NACA engineers is still being used as the foundation for current research efforts.

As research was being conducted the NACA printed its findings, and this proved to be the most significant output from the agency’s activities. Beginning in the 1920s the NACA issued several types of reports describing research findings:

  • Technical Reports (TR): the most prestigious, most polished, most important, and most widely distributed report, TRs described the final results of a research effort and made “lasting contributions to the body of aeronautical knowledge.”
  • Technical Notes (TN): TNs reported on work in progress, offered interim findings, or served as final reports for less significant research activities.
  • Research Memorandum (RM): introduced in 1946, RMs reported on research undertaken as classified work for the military.
  • Advanced Confidential Reports (ACR): also introduced after World War II, ACRs reported on sensitive military aeronautical subjects such as jet engines, low-drag wings, or investigations of specific military aircraft types.
  • Bulletins: were short progress reports on limited phases of larger research projects.
  • Memorandum Reports (MR): reported on pieces of aeronautical research of interest to a very small group of clients, generally on a specific type of aircraft or engine design.
  • Technical Memoranda (TM): reported on aeronautical research conducted somewhere other than at NACA, often these were translations of technical articles published in a foreign language.

During the existence of NACA, it printed more than 16,000 research reports of one type or another. TRs were publicly available, readily accessible to anyone with a need to know the information. They were distributed to a huge mailing list that included laboratories, libraries, factories, and military installations around the world. They became famous for their thoroughness and accuracy, and became the rock upon which NACA built its reputation as one of the best aeronautical research institutions in the world. Other reports were less widely distributed, but unless classified for security purposes, were available to anyone with an interest.


Pearl I. Young

The architect of the technical reporting was Pearl I. Young (1895-1968), who came to work at the NACA’s Langley Laboratory in 1922 after graduating with a physics degree from the University of North Dakota. After working in the instrumentation division for a few years she suggested that Langley required someone to oversee the technical reports system, which at that time was in disarray. Young took on that responsibility and led the effort until World War II. She created the multitude of documents issued by the NACA, enforced the NACA style of presentation on authors, ensured technical verisimilitude, and handled document distribution far and wide.

Young preached that knowledge is the end product of a research laboratory, and that accordingly the preparation of the research report must receive special emphasis. He insisted that these documents present their data “tactfully, strategically, and with telling force.” She ensured that all publications were accurate, well organized, and effectively structured. Not to give appropriate attention to the presentation of research would ensure that the report would be neither read nor used. She enforced a harsh clarity on the technical reports process at the NACA, one that quickly paid dividends as the results of the agency’s researchers gained stature around the globe for both their path-breaking results and their effective communication.

Young’s oversight of the technical report program was always exacting, sometimes to the consternation both of NACA engineers who wanted to see their work disseminated promptly and viewed Young’s efforts as bogging down the process, and to industry or military clients who wanted prompt answers to aeronautical problems. She argued that the quality of the final product was more important than the speed with which it appeared; Young had all documents extensively vetted by a panel of engineering peers but as a means of speeding the process she also allowed preliminary reports to circulate to key users. Before a report was final, however, authors made revisions, sometimes extensive revisions, before editorial work was completed on the publication. Young insisted that all reports be “checked and rechecked for consistency, logical analysis, and absolute accuracy.”

Pearl Young went on to other responsibilities during World War II at the NACA’s Cleveland, Ohio, Aircraft Engine Research Center. She eventually moved to Pennsylvania State University to teach engineering physics but returned to NASA in 1958 before retiring in 1961. She commented on many occasions about the noble effort they were engaged in—separating the real from the imagined in flight—adding that “There are just as many aeronautical research problems for you to solve by the application of brains and hard work as there were on the day Orville Wright piloted the first airplane at Kitty Hawk in 1903.”

Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh, and Howard Hughes were among the attendees at Langley's 1934 Aircraft Manufacturers' Conference. Conference guests assembled underneath a Boeing P-26A Peashooter in the Full-Scale Tunnel for this photo. (NASA Phtoto L-9850)

Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh, and Howard Hughes were among the attendees at Langley’s 1934 Aircraft Manufacturers’ Conference. Conference guests assembled underneath a Boeing P-26A Peashooter in the Full-Scale Tunnel for this photo. (NASA Phtoto L-9850)

The research reported in these technical publications was never presented quickly enough to satisfy clients, although Young always defended the deliberate process she followed to ensure the best possible product. This, however, was nothing compared to the more difficult challenge of remaining an honest broker on research projects. Industry forever wanted to use the NACA as its private R&D facility. Accordingly, the agency had to establish a policy of not working on a specific type of aircraft design, because it smacked of catering to one particular company. Instead, it agreed to work on problems common to all aspects of flight, such as the engine cowling problem for which it received its first Collier Trophy in 1929. It also published research results and distributed reports on an equal basis to all. The NACA often violated these policies when dealing with its principal client, the military services.

Beginning in the 1930s, because of pressure to cut the federal budget, the NACA also established a table of fees for charging private companies, usually those involved in the aeronautical industry, when it pursued research problems they suggested. In this scenario the requestor paid all costs of research. In return, the NACA agreed to give the requestor the results of the research, but also retained the right to release findings it deemed in the national interest. This approach had two negative effects: (1) it allowed larger aircraft firms with money to spend on these problems an opportunity to squeeze out weaker firms who could not compete with cutting edge technology; and (2) it dissuaded some industry leaders from asking the NACA to work on pressing aeronautical problems because of both lack of money and a fear that their investment in the research would be lost when the findings were distributed to the world.

naca-pulsejet-22-tests-coverDuring the course of the NACA’s history between 1915 and 1958 it did very little “project” work of its own, at least as this term has come to be known at NASA. The NACA’s emphasis was on research for the use of outside entities. The principal means of transferring this research knowledge was through a series of reports which could be used as the clients saw fit. An important secondary means of transferring this information was through the annual conferences sponsored by NACA after 1926.

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Announcing “Ad Astra” Play Reading, April 3, 2017

I think a lot of those in the space community will enjoy this opportunity to see a reading of a new play about Wernher von Braun.

Featuring a special post-show conversation with Michael J. Neufeld, Senior Curator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and author of Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War.

About the play

Epic Theatre Ensemble presents a special reading of James Wallert’s new play Ad Astra.

What are we willing to sacrifice to take one giant leap for mankind?

A new play based on the true story of Wernher von Braun, Chief Rocket Engineer of the Third Reich and one of the fathers of the U.S. Space program.

Directed by Ron Russell with Melissa Friedman, Devin E. Haqq, Sanjit De Silva, and Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.

Registering for the play

The event is free and open to the public but registration is required. You may do so by clicking here.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Gravity Well: America’s Next, Greatest Mission”

The Gravity Well: America’s Next, Greatest Mission. By Stephen Sandford with Jay Heinrichs. Pacific Grove, CA: Gavia Books, 2016. Appendices, acknowledgments, index. 304 pages. ISBN: 978-0-9962422-9-5. Hardcover with dustjacket $24.95 USD.

I have been reading books such as The Gravity Well for well over 25 years. All of them seek to enthuse readers with the desire to pursue an aggressive spaceflight program, both human and robotic, and to realize what the authors envision as spaceflight’s primary objective in colonizing other worlds. And author Stephen Sandford, working with Jay Heinrichs, has done a creditable job of making this case. They will not convince anyone not already leaning toward support but they provide ample evidence and effective argument on why this objective is both worthwhile and attainable. They are to be applauded for that accomplishment. So many other books of this type utterly fail to demonstrate the significance of spaceflight even for those of us already predisposed to accept the argument.

Sandford and Heinrichs begin with a simple assertion: the problem of gravity forces humans to live at the bottom of an ocean of air and shedding that environment is no less difficult than that of the first sea creatures crawling onto the shore and entering the next stage of evolution. They insist that conquering that “gravity well” offers the fundamental promise of human survival. Not to succeed in this task means the human race will become extinct. The best case scenario is that several billion years in the future the Sun will become a red giant and consume the whole of the solar system, but there are also more immediate threats. There is every reason to believe that an Earth-striking asteroid or comet could destroy most of the life on Earth at some point in the  future. The K-T event is generally viewed as an impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, leading SF writer Larry Niven to quip: “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!”

In eleven succinct chapters Sandford and Heinrichs discuss where humanity is today when it comes to space exploration—and when I say humanity I mean Americans since that is the concentration of the authors—and what might the future hold. They focus on what it takes to overcome the “gravity well” and to become a multiplanetary species. They are enamored with the rise of new firms such as SpaceX and Blue Origins and Bigelow Aerospace. They emphasize the rise of a “space economy,” which is a meme that has resonance in NASA and among others in the aerospace community but nowhere else.

They celebrate the tackling of impressive technological feats, such as the landing of a reusable first stage after undertaking a supply mission to the International Space Station. They insist that space is the centerpiece of a bright future for the United States. The economy will flourish, the people of the nation and the world will be inspired, and it will—to use catch phrase coined for a different purpose—help “make America great again.” This sentiment, if not the actual words, is to be found everywhere in The Gravity Well.

Some of the arguments made by the authors are well laid out and quite effective. Sandford and Heinrichs eloquently restate the problem of not enough Americans entering professions focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). No question, there are innumerable studies about the dearth of engineers, etc., being produced by American universities. That is the case despite the fact that the U.S. government funnels $4.3 billion every year into STEM education and related initiatives. Might space exploration help in this arena? Yes, at least to some degree. School children may become jazzed by what they see happening and pursue careers that further space activities. There is evidence of this in the past; there will continue to be evidence of it in the future. But the critical determinant for whether or not a student pursues a scientific or technical degree in college is whether or not they were successful before college in learning algebra, calculus, geometry, and trigonometry. Inspiration is one part of the equation; but teaching these capabilities more effectively is critical as we move forward.

The authors, to their credit, poke holes in the sophomoric “spinoff” argument used by NASA to justify investment in spaceflight. There are, of course, commercial products that emerge from NASA research and development. It is virtually impossible, however, to draw a straight line between an investment made by NASA in something used in spaceflight and some commercial product. I think the authors would agree that this argument is not effective as presently made by most in the space agency. The problem is that no amount of cost-benefit analysis, which the spinoff argument essentially makes, can sustain NASA’s historic level of funding.

More useful, I would assert, is a counterfactual question. How would life today be different if there were no space program? There can be no fully satisfactory answer to that question. But perhaps we can begin with the elimination of a great many of the space-based capabilities that have changed our lives. Both Sandford and Heinrichs note that to accomplish the larger space program there had to be a push of technological development in certain paths that might have not been followed otherwise. This has made a difference in modern society.

The authors are on less firm ground when they make some other arguments. For example, they suggest that the American economy grew faster in the 1960s than either in the 1950s or the 1970s. They assign the reason for this to the expansive space program of the Apollo era. This is a superficial assertion at best. First, for all three decades U.S. GDP was relatively stable with annual growth between 2.5 and 5 percent. There were ups and downs, certainly, but there does not seem to be a lot different between the decades. Second, were any changes really the result of investment in spaceflight? Perhaps some but not too much, it was simply too small a percentage of the total economy to make much of a difference.

Overall, this is a useful book, especially for those convinced of the value of spaceflight who wish to hone their skills in persuading others with cogent analysis and presentation. For those involved in spaceflight, what is presented in The Gravity Well will probably not seem very original. We have all heard these arguments many times. Many of those times, however, the arguments have not been as well made as here.


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Goddard Memorial Symposium Presentations Available

The 55th Robert H. Goddard Memorial Symposium, held on March 7-9, 2017, has come and gone. If you weren’t able to attend this American Astronautical Society symposium but would like to participate vicariously, you may watch the video. All the speakers and sessions were recorded and may be viewed here.

Also, links for most of the PowerPoint and other presentations have been added to the here. My presentation is located here.

This information can also be accessed on the AAS website.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “China’s Evolving Space Capabilities”

chinaChina’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests. By Mark A. Stokes and Dean Cheng. Washington, DC: Project 2049 Institute, April 26, 2012. 85 pages. Available on-line at

I wanted to review this document because of its reflection of deep historical and political knowledge of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its efforts to become a top-rank space power. Authors Stokes and Cheng are China-watchers with strong connections both to the policy community and the scholarly world. They detail in this report the current state of China’s efforts in space, as well as its aspirations for the foreseeable future.

Stokes and Cheng describe how China has engaged in the development of space technologies to further geopolitical, scientific, technological, and economic goals. This has led to decisions to engaged with Russia and other nations in cooperative ventures, as well as go it alone in some purely military arenas. While there is openness to cooperation in space with the United States, the authors find that Chinese leaders are wary of the mistrust present in U.S.-China relations since the Hughes satellite scandal of the 1990s.

The authors note that China’s successes in space have been significant in the twenty-first century. They have developed a human spaceflight capability, achieved success with human-tended space platforms, developed reliable space launch vehicles, and operated a plethora of satellites. China’s investment in these technologies has pushed it to the forefront of high technology economics. At the same time, these capabilities have expanded China’s research in the military realm and made a more significant force to be reckoned with than ever before.

The intentions of China in space remain unclear, according to Stokes and Cheng. Despite three white papers—2000, 2006, and 2011—there are no easy answers to China’s space ambitions. This report discusses the fragmented nature of the leadership of China’s space efforts. There is no clear-cut line of authority for civilian versus military capabilities, and there is not a reasonable way for assuring the appropriate resources are turned toward the most useful endeavors, indeed there is little consensus on what are the most useful endeavors. The authors try to explain what organizations are involved in spaceflight, what prerogatives they hold, and how they cooperate, or not, in their efforts.

For readers of this journal, perhaps the most important question is what China’s Moon ambitions are. Again, the answer is unclear. With the success of the Shenzhou human spaceflight program and the space station, efforts to reach the Moon have been underway for some time. As easly as 1995 China’s senior leadership approved lunar exploration as part of the 863 Program. At least one stated motivation was to explore prospects for mining lunar Helium-3 as a replacement for fossil fuels. Detailed planning did not begin until 1998, however; those early ambitions were reflected in the November 2000 white paper on space activities. In 2004 the Chinese Central Committee formed a Lunar Orbit Exploration Project. This coordinating body pursued a three phased effort:

  1. A demonstration of China’s technological prowess using lunar orbiters Chang’e-1 in 2007 and Chang’e-2 in 2010. Among other mission requirements these spacecraft were to map the Moon in high resolution and search for helium-3.
  2. As yet undemonstrated, in Phase II China plans to undertake docking, controlling, and mapping missions, as well as two remote controlled rovers to conduct lunar surface investigations.
  3. A third phase is intended to involve the launch of Chang’e-5 on a LM-5E heavy launch vehicle for collecting lunar samples.

While much is this is not firm, and a timetable has not been officially announced, China may attempt a human lunar landing sometime after 2025.

In addition, China has been active in national security space development, pursuing survivable satellite architectures, reconnaissance capabilities, and ballistic missile technologies.

In addition, the authors make much of the pursuit of space technology as an important driver for Chinese economic growth. China views technology spin-offs as critical to its future and exports of its space hardware and expertize as a competitive advantages going forward. The authors also note that China’s interaction with other spacefaring nations furthers agenda of greater national respect. Stokes and Cheng conclude, “Space is a significant metric of national power, and the United States remains a world leader within this domain. However, China is emerging as a relative competitor in selected areas of space technology. While collaboration in space may benefit both the United States and China, Beijing’s lack of transparency over military budgets, and potential risks associated with the military applications of space technology, remain major causes for concern” (p. 50).

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