Call for Papers — 2016 Sacknoff Prize for Space History

Call for Papers — 2016 Sacknoff Prize for Space History

Details on the 2016 prize:

A 2016 Flyer for Posting:

First awarded in 2011, the annual prize is designed to encourage students to perform original research and submit papers with history of spaceflight themes. Open to undergraduate and graduate level students enrolled at an accredited college or university working toward a degree, the winner receives:

  • A $300 cash prize
  • A trophy
  • Publication in the journal, “Quest: The History of Spaceflight”
  • An invitation to present at the annual conference for the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT).

Submissions must be postmarked by 28 November 2016, with the winners announced in December. Manuscripts should not exceed 10,000 words, be written in English, and emphasize in-depth research, with adequate citations of the sources utilized.  Originality of ideas is important. Diagrams, graphs, images, or photographs may be included. The prize committee will  include the editor of “Quest: The History of Spaceflight” and members of the Society for the History of Technology / Aerospace Committee (SHOT/Albatross).

Although works must be historical in character, they can draw on disciplines other than history, eg. cultural studies, literature, communications, economics, engineering, science, etc. Comparative or international studies of the history of spaceflight are encouraged. Possible subjects include, but are not limited to, historical aspects of space companies and their leaders; the social effects of spaceflight; space technology development; the space environment; space systems design, engineering, and safety; and the regulation of the space business, financial, and economic aspects of the space industry.

If you have any questions, please send Scott Sacknoff an email:


Posted in History, Space | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Wednesday’s Book Review: “New Lands, New Men”

New LandsNew Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery. By William H. Goetzmann. New York: Viking Penguin, 1986.

William H. Goetzmann, long of the University of Texas, has been a star in the study of the history of exploration for more than forty years. He first gained broad recognition for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientists in the Winning of the American West (Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), which traced in scintillating prose the expeditions of what he referred to as the period of settlement and investment (1845-1860) and the era of the great surveys (1860-1900).

This work, New Lands, New Men, is in some respects an expansion of that earlier book. He makes the case here that there have been two great ages of exploration. The first originated out of the ideas of the Renaissance, was largely fueled by a quest for greater wealth, and served to incorporate into the European sphere of influence widely dispersed regions of the world. New Lands, New Men takes as its subject a second great age of exploration that began in the seventeenth century and lasted through the nineteenth century. It incorporates much of the understanding offered in Goetzmann’s 1966 work, but broadens the theme to the world as whole rather than focusing on the American West.

This book takes as core components the Lewis and Clark expedition to the west of North America from 1803 to 1806, the efforts of Sir Richard Burton and Stanley and Livingston in Africa, John C. Frémont’s Rocky Mountain expeditions, and travels to the sources of the Amazon River in South America and the Nile River in Africa. It also included the efforts of seafarers to map islands and the poles; and involved such international scientific endeavors as the International Polar Year of 1882-1883, which cooperatively sought to obtain scientific and ethnographic data about the Arctic..

This second age of exploration effectively closed with the conclusion of the last great expeditions into the interiors of the continents in the later nineteenth century and the activities of individuals like John Wesley Powell and efforts by such organizations as the U.S. Geological Survey. It, too, led to a massive accumulation of data about these lands new to European civilization and transformed the world with the gathering of much new information.

Goetzmann makes the case that this second great age of exploration, contrasting what had gone before, emphasized the advance of science and human progress. He argues that it effectively opened with Charles Marie de La Condamine’s 1735-1749 expedition to South America to test Newton’s hypothesis that the Earth is an oblate spheroid. That expedition employed an astronomer, a mathematician, a botanist, a surveyor, and engineers and equipped them with the latest instruments to maximize their data collection.

Through this effort, and others of a similar nature, Goetzmann believes that “science and art came together to change the thought of Europe” (p. 39). The result, he concludes, is that western civilization made a “quantum leap” in knowledge about the natural world that humans live in (p. 269). Goetzmann offers here an enthralling account of this effort; it is an accessible and thought-provoking narrative of “the good old days of the explorer-adventurer among the winds and currents of storm-tossed seas at the very ends of the earth” (p. 362). It is a superb reading experience for even those casually interested in the subject. Enjoy.

Posted in History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Surveyor Landers on the Moon

Surveyor III was the third lander of the American Surveyor program sent to the surface of the Moon. Launched on April 17, 1967, Surveyor III landed on April 20, 1967, at the Mare Cognitum portion of the Oceanus Procellarum. Here Apollo 12 Astronaut Alan Bean inspects the lander in fall 1969.

Surveyor III was the third lander of the American Surveyor program sent to the surface of the Moon. Launched on April 17, 1967, Surveyor III landed on April 20, 1967, at the Mare Cognitum portion of the Oceanus Procellarum. Here Apollo 12 Astronaut Alan Bean inspects the lander in fall 1969.

Like so many other point of intersection, soft landing on the Moon with robotic probes proved a venue for Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. The Soviets won that competition February 3, 1966, by sending Luna 9, which became the first spacecraft to soft land on another planetary body, to the Moon’s Oceanus Procellarum region.

Following closely after the Soviet Union’s success with Luna 9, the U.S. succeeded in becoming the first American probe to make a stabilized soft landing on the Moon on June 2, 1966, four months after the Soviet probe Luna 9 landed successfully. Surveyor 1 photographed and studied the soil of a flat area inside a 100 km crater north of Flamsteed Crater in southwest Oceanus Procellarum. The television system had transmitted a total of 11,240 pictures of the Moon. The spacecraft also acquired data on the radar reflectivity of the lunar surface, bearing strength of the lunar surface, and spacecraft temperatures for use in the analysis of the lunar surface temperatures. NASA terminated Surveyor 1’s mission due to a dramatic drop in battery voltage before the end of June 1966.

After a failure of Surveyor 2 on September 22, 1966, NASA’s Surveyor 3 successfully soft landed on the lunar surface on April 17, 1967, and provided imagery and soil analysis. The lander “bounced” more than once on the surface before coming to rest. Footprints from the initial impact were visible from the final landing site. Besides a camera similar to Surveyor 1, this lander also carried a mechanical scoop that dug several small trenches in the lunar soil. Over the next three weeks the camera returned more than 6,300 images showing the surrounding rocks and the movements of the scoop. Two years after landing Surveyor 3 was visited by the Apollo 12 astronauts. The television camera and other sections were removed and returned to Earth. The camera was later put on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum where it remains to the present.

Surveyor III was the third lander of the American Surveyor program sent to the surface of the Moon. Launched on April 17, 1967, Surveyor III landed on April 20, 1967, at the Mare Cognitum portion of the Oceanus Procellarum. Here Apollo 12 Astronaut Alan Bean inspects the lander in fall 1969.

Surveyor III was the third lander of the American Surveyor program sent to the surface of the Moon. Launched on April 17, 1967, Surveyor III landed on April 20, 1967, at the Mare Cognitum portion of the Oceanus Procellarum. Here Apollo 12 Astronaut Alan Bean inspects the lander in fall 1969.

Although NASA lost contact with Surveyor 4 on July 17, 1967, it followed with Surveyors 5, 6, and 7 over the course of the next few months. While on its trajectory to the Moon, Surveyor 5 experienced serious problems with a helium pressurization system that was necessary for the retrorockets to work. Flight engineers were able to work around the problem and Surveyor 5 successfully landed on September 10, 1967. Thousands of images were returned by the television camera. Surveyor 5 also carried an alpha ray scatterer that measured composion of the lunar soil. Surveyor 6 landed on November 9, 1967. It carried similar instruments as Surveyor 5. On November 17 Surveyor 6 became the first spacecraft to take off from the lunar surface.

Controllers noted enough fuel remained for a brief firing of the retrorockets. Surveyor 6 performed a “hop”, reaching a height of about 10 feet and coming to rest about 8 feet from its first position. Both sets of footprints in the lunar soil were plainly visible in images form the television camera. Surveyor 7 landed on January 10, 1968 north of the crater Tycho. Surveyor 7 carried both a mechanical arm and an alpha scattering instrument. The arm was needed to move the latter device when it was found to be stuck. Over the next three weeks after landing, the alpha scattering sensor was lowered and then moved to test composition of soil from the surface and within trenches.

Five of the seven Surveyor spacecraft completed their missions between May 30, 1966, and January 9, 1968. One of them, Surveyor 3, had a malfunction with its landing jets causing the 650-pound robot to skip twice across the lunar surface before stopping near a small crater rim.

This image from LRO shows the spacecraft's first look at the Apollo 12 landing site. The Intrepid lunar module descent stage, experiment package (ALSEP) and Surveyor 3 spacecraft are all visible. Astronaut footpaths are marked with unlabeled arrows. This image is 824 meters (about 900 yards) wide. The top of the image faces North. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University Read more at:

This image from LRO shows the spacecraft’s first look at the Apollo 12 landing site. The Intrepid lunar module descent stage, experiment package (ALSEP) and Surveyor 3 spacecraft are all visible. Astronaut footpaths are marked with unlabeled arrows. This image is 824 meters (about 900 yards) wide. The top of the image faces North. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University
Read more at:

An interesting story from the Apollo program. One of the Surveyor spacecraft now owned by the National Air and Space Museum consists of an authentic structure with simulated wood instrumentation. It closely resembled the Surveyor 3 spacecraft, visited by the Apollo 12 astronauts on the Moon. NASA loaned this Surveyor 3 mockup to CBS News in New York during the Apollo 12 mission to aid in communicating with the viewing audience about what was taking place on the Moon. This became especially important when television broadcasts from the Moon during Apollo 12 ended suddenly when astronaut Alan Bean accidentally burned out the TV camera when he inadvertently pointed it into the sun. Since voice communication was still available CBS placed two actors in space suits next to this lander to simulate in real time activities on the lunar surface.

Posted in Apollo, Cold War Competition, History, Lunar Exploration, Science, Space | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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



Posted in Music | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wednesday’s Book Review: “Never Just a Game”

Just a GameNever Just a Game: Players, Owners, and American Baseball to 1920. By Robert Fredrick Burk. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

This work is the first volume of a two-part study on labor relations in Major League Baseball (MLB). It deals with the nineteenth century experience, as well as the early years of the twentieth century through the “Black Sox” scandal and the appointment of Kennesaw Mountain Landis as the first MLB Commissioner. Burk notes in his preface how he decided upon a title: “for those who operate professional franchises, and for those employed by them in the sport, baseball has never been ‘just a game’.” Its history has been marked by “bitter off-field struggles between players and management over prestige, power, and profits.” It also included fights “over who would have access to its opportunities, how its profits would be divided, and…who would control its operations” (p. xi).

Mining several primary sources, many at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Burk fashions a narrative of divergent wills. He draws the familiar story of how companies formed in the 1860s and 1870s to field baseball teams, played each other, and eventually established leagues. The owners hired players, 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.

Burk also relates the already well-known rebellion led by John Montgomery Ward to invigorate the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players and start a league of its own in 1890, as well as the establishment of several rival leagues whose competition served to raise the income of the players. Most of these efforts ended in failure, and the one instance when it did not, with the rise of the American League, the owners of both leagues combined to create a stable business climate.

Burk also spends considerable effort on the creation of the owners’ ingenious “reserve clause.” Arising in the “Gilded Age” of the latter 1870s, this became a seemingly inviolate section of all players’ contracts that allowed the team the right to reserve the services of their players 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 even if he did not have a current signed contract. 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.”

What resulted from these labor disputes was a stable business in which MLB owners made considerable profits and could exploit players without much fear of anything. For example, Burk discusses the manipulation of MLB rules to depress individual players’ statistics, thereby reducing their bargaining positions at contract negotiation time. In the process of presenting this narrative, Burk unpacks the economics of MLB in its first half century.

While there is much to praise in this book, I recommend caution when considering parts of it. First, Burk is working from sketchy economic records and his tables of salaries, club costs, etc., do not betray the fact that much of his analysis is based on educated guesses rather than on “hard data.”

Second, Burk is biased toward the players in these disputes and his narrative paints the owners as evil conspirators. While I also support the side of the players during this period of MLB history, one must be aware that the owners were probably neither as evil as sometimes contended nor were they necessarily well-organized enough to carry off massive collusion. That is not to argue that they were benevolent patricians, rather it suggests that the truth resides somewhere between the negative conceptions of the owners that the players promulgated and the saintly image that the owners tried to project.

Finally, the issue of a conspiracy of owners to beat down and control the players is certainly present, especially when reviewing the history of the “reserve clause” and the prohibition of African American players, but it is important to question the level of collusion that might have existed among the MLB owners. The premise that the owners acted in total agreement—in lock step so to speak—as a cartel to maximize their profits belies the inherent competition between them, both on and off the field. Rather, they often disagreed and fought each other fully as much as they fought the players. We have seen this in the period since 1920 as well, and it is an important point to consider when reading this very fine book.

Although I do not agree with everything in Never Just a Game, it is really quite a fine work and I recommend it as an important benchmark in the non-buff study of baseball history. It should find a place on the bookshelves of all those who take MLB history seriously.

Posted in Baseball, History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Place of Theater Re-Creations in Museums

NMAH Greensboro lunchcounter experience.

NMAH Greensboro lunchcounter experience.

On the second day of the Greensboro sit-in, Joseph A. McNeil and Franklin E. McCain are joined by William Smith and Clarence Henderson at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.

On the second day of the Greensboro sit-in, Joseph A. McNeil and Franklin E. McCain are joined by William Smith and Clarence Henderson at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.

I would like to call your attention to an article by Susan Evans, “Personal Beliefs and National Stories: Theater in Museums as a Tool for Exploring Historical Memory.” Just published paper in April 2013 issue of Curator: The Museum Journal. This is the written form of a presentation given in December 2011 at Aarhus University in Aarhus, Denmark, as part of the Danish Network for Memory Studies conference. The full article is located here.

This article documents the work and creative thought that went into a program offered at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History entitled, “The Time Trial of John Brown.” The article abstract states in part: “Using the Time Trial approach as a case study, this article reveals that interactive theater in museums can provide a platform from which audiences assert their own historical understanding while learning firsthand about their role in creating a shared knowledge of American history. As the role of museums evolves in the twenty-first century, new attention must be paid to this personal process of examining and creating history and memory through performance. It is through performance and participation that history and memory are both examined and created by the audience.”

This type of programming is really a powerful educational methodology. I’d very much like to see this duplicated in other places, especially at the National Air and Space Museum where I work. These programs are definitely leading the field and deserve replication elsewhere.

Posted in History, Personal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gerard K. O’Neill and the Great Disappointment

Gerard OneillDisappointments must not be forgotten. One of the great disappointments of those interested in the use and development of human space capabilities has been the inability to colonize the solar system. Emerging from the Apollo program of the latter 1960s and early 1970s, space advocates were jazzed by the prospects of a space station in orbit, and trips to both the Moon and Mars. It was not to be.

Some grew disheartened and bitter. Others formed into political interest groups. Still others declared a pox on all whom they felt had betrayed the grand dream of an expansive agenda in space and set out on their own. Many of the most visionary pioneers saw space as a safety valve for an overcrowded, resource depleted planet.

In 1974 Gerard K. O’Neill, a Princeton University physics professor, began to publish detailed plans for the construction of space colonies. O’Neill proposed the building of colonies in very large, rotating spacecraft placed at gravitationally stable points throughout the solar system. Colonists would live in clean, climate-controlled environments, with trees and lakes and blue skies spotted with clouds along each colony’s inner rim. Animals and plants endangered on the Earth would thrive on these cosmic arks; insect pests would be left behind. Solar power directed into each colony by huge mirrors would provide a constant source of non-polluting energy.

O’Neill believed that the first colony could be completed by about 2005. Each fully developed colony would provide room for ten million humans, plus desirable plants and animals. Emigration to newly-constructed colonies, O’Neill estimated, would reverse the rise of population on the Earth by 2050.

Otherwise sensible people flocked to O’Neill’s ideas. O’Neill’s vision of this experiment in space also found an audience in many quarters of NASA. He received funding from NASA’s Advanced Programs Office—but only $25,000—to develop his ideas more fully. Senior NASA officials such as Administra­tor James C. Fletcher and Ames Research Center Director Hans Mark encouraged his efforts.

Figure 33-Colonies in Space-Bernal_Sphere

Artist’s conception of a space colony. During the 1970s, physicist Gerard O’Neill proposed the establishment of very large colonies in the emptiness of space as a means of relieving population pressure on Earth. The concept, which attracted many followers, is not a feasible solution in the near term.

In the summer of 1975, NASA officials took O’Neill’s ideas seriously enough to convene a study group of scientists, engineers, economists, and sociologists at the Ames Research Center, near San Francisco, to review the idea of space colonization, and followed it up with another study the next summer. Surprisingly they found enough in the plan to recommend it.

Although budget estimates of $100 billion accompanied any colonization project, the authors of this study concluded, “in contrast to Apollo, it appears that space colonization may be a paying proposition.” For them, it offered “a way out from the sense of closure and of limits which is now oppressive to many people on Earth.” The study recommended an international project led by the United States that would result in the establishment of a space colony. Supporters founded the L-5 Society, named for one of the points to which colonist would migrate, “to arouse public enthusiasm for space colonization.” 

O’Neill publicized these findings exhaustively, but with political will for an aggressive space effort at low tide in the latter 1970s nothing came of it. Both O’Neill and his supporters criticized NASA for not turning the dreams of a visionary future in space into reality. A further wedge between the pro-space advocates and the government agency charged with space exploration resulted.

Yet, many of O’Neill’s ideas were strikingly naive and certainly politically unsupportable. His vision of constructing space colonies, while enormously attractive for some people, has never been viable. He thought that space colonies would ease the pressures of overpopulation on Earth, yet one must ask if the Earth is truly overpopulated. Through more effective husbanding of resources here, there should be enough for all. And it is more likely that through greater energy generation and communication technologies, humans will learn to live in places heretofore viewed as uninhabitable—such as polar regions and under the oceans.

Fantastic schemes such as O’Neill’s promised little for the solutions required to sustain this planet. They constituted a form of denial in that they directed public attention to solutions that were perhaps technically feasible but politically unattainable. Humans had best learn to take care of their own planet before abandoning their home for starry evacuation schemes, and spaceflight technologies may significantly help with that undertaking. No wonder they failed. It was a great disappointment for many, and some have yet to overcome it.

Posted in History, Space | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Wednesday’s Book Review: “Past Imperfect”

Past ImperfectPast Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin. By Peter Charles Hoffer. New York: Public Affairs, 2004.

In many ways this is a fascinating work. Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin emphasizes a longtime attachment to consensus history, its challenge by the “new social historians” that first asserted themselves in the 1960s, and the recent culture wars and the place of history in them. In the end, distinguished historian Peter Charles Hoffer believes that the controversies over historians Stephen Ambrose (plagiarism), Michael Bellesiles (falsification of documentary evidence), Joseph Ellis (falsification of a personal past), and Doris Kearns Goodwin (plagiarism) that have taken place in the last few years rests on a failure of the historical profession’s commitment to honesty and integrity. More about that below; Hoffer sets up a dialectic to show this trajectory.

Hoffer asserts, and there is every reason to accept this statement, that American history has long been dominated by an interpretation of the nation as exceptionalistic and triumphant. The Romantic historians of the nineteenth century, epitomized by Francis Parkman and George Bancroft, celebrated the creation of the United States of America and its place in the world; it was an homogenized, consensus approach. Such historians as Charles Beard and Carl Becker in the first part of the twentieth century emphasized more conflict, in which “the people” battled against “the interests” but the result was over time a more equitable, just society. During the earliest years of struggle with the Soviet Union historians increasingly emphasized a consensus interpretation of the American past. This interpretation celebrated the long tradition of shared American ideals and values while de-emphasizing conflict.

This dominant strain of American history came under concerted attack through the rise of the new social history of the 1960s. As Hoffer commented: “Outraged by the Viet Nam War and inspired by the civil rights movement, this new generation of professional historians set themselves the task of dismantling consensus history. Some of them were political radicals, and they gave renewed life to the progressive critique of consensus. Others were more concerned with black history and women’s history and were determined to move the story of threes groups to center stage” (p. 63). By the 1980s the consensus, exceptionalistic perspective on the American past had crumbled throughout academia, but it had not done so among the broader public where there is a largely comforting emphasis on history as exemplifying one people, one nation.

This shift of academic history from an emphasis on unity to a multicultural, in some cases divisive, perspective on the past deeply troubled many observers. They viewed history as a means of instilling in the nation’s citizenry a sense of awe and reverence for the nation-state and its system of governance. They questioned the necessity of considering other ways of seeing the past, the reexamination of traditional interpretations, and the more multicultural, relativistic, and conflict-oriented approach to delving into history. It was during this era that “revisionist history” first entered the lexicon as a term of derision, as if understanding of the past could never be altered in any way. Numerous castings of aspersions on the academic approach to history, the fruits of professors’ historical research, and the professional historians themselves emerged from the 1980s on and accelerated as a the century came to a close.

As Hoffer notes, this debate represented a battle for control of the national memory. Would it be one that is unified—one people, one nation—or one that was fragmented and personal? Having lost this battle in higher education, or perhaps not even fully joining it, the forces of consensus and continuity struggled to control the far more significant and broader reach of history outside the colleges and universities. The effort became something of a crusade, but not one orchestrated from the top down via some master plan.

Several professional historians, as well as many talented journalists and writers, entered the popular market of those seeking consensus historical narratives. Steven Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin were two of the most celebrated, and both succumbed to the market’s pressure to produce, became sloppy in their sourcing, and also insisted in a different standard of integrity than what was accepted in academia. What, they ask, constitutes “plagiarism?” Should their popular works meet the standards of an academic work? There are only so many ways to state a specific fact, some argued. Ambrose died in 2002 just as charges were leveled against him. Goodwin settled court cases against her, curtailed her public activities for a time, and has come back to continue her career. Hoffer tells their stories well.

As Hoffer shows, Michael Bellesiles’s work on the emergence of the gun culture in America is a different situation from Ambrose and Goodwin. Bellesiles viewed his position that gun ownership in early America was much less than earlier thought as a counterbalance to the NRA and the insistence on an absolute right to own and bear arms. Opponents of his position charged him with falsifying his historical data, and indeed it appears that they were correct in those charges. Bellesiles’s principal work on this subject, Arming America (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), was withdrawn from publication, his Bancroft Prize for it was rescinded, and he resigned from Emory University in disgrace. But several years after the fact, he has come back and continues to work in the field.

Finally, Joseph Ellis’s books on early America have enjoyed tremendous popularity, but he manufactured a personal past in the classroom that eventually caught up with him and he had to “mea culpa” and accept some time off without pay from Mount Holyoke College. He, too, came back from this embarrassment and continues to teach and write bestsellers.

Hoffer mourns the historical profession’s actions in these cases. He indicts the American Historical Association for failing to act appropriately, and suggests that historians might have effectively used these incidents as “a virtual national classroom in which they could have uses the cases to teach sound historical methods” (p. 237). This is an interesting and important book on recent mischief in the historical discipline. It is an object lesson in professional ethics and practices in modern America.

Posted in History, Personal, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Recalling the Great NACA Fact-Finding Trip to Germany in 1936, and its Results

NACA LogoEighty years ago a great adventure took place.

In the first part of 1936 John J. Ide, the NACA’s European representative since 1921, fired off an alarming report on the state of aeronautical science on that continent. Ide, the sometime technology expert, sometime intelligence analyst, and sometime Charles A. Lindbergh,expatriate, reported on greatly increased aeronautical research activities in Great Britain, France, Italy, and especially Germany. He observed that new and quite modern wind tunnels were being erected to aid in the development of higher performing aircraft and suggested that the NACA review its own instruments and facilities to determine if they met contemporary demands.

Charles A. Lindbergh, an NACA executive committee member living in seclusion in England, confirmed Ide’s report in a May 1936 letter to Committee chairman Dr. Joseph S. Ames. In 1936 Lewis inserted a deft warning to the government in the NACA’s annual report, commenting on the arms race in Europe that followed Hitler’s coming to power in Germany and suggesting that “increased recognition abroad of the value and of the vital necessity of aeronautical research has led to recent tremendous expansion in research programs and to multiplication of research facilities by other progressive nations. Thus has the foundation been laid for a serious challenge to America’s present leadership in the technical development of aircraft.”

Joseph S. Ames at his NACA office.

Joseph S. Ames at his NACA office.

In part because of these developments and in part because of an invitation from the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei, in September-October 1936 George W. Lewis traveled to Europe via the Zeppelin Hindenburg to learn more about aeronautical development. While there he toured with Dr. Adolph Baeumker, the German government’s R&D head, several aeronautical facilities in Nazi Germany and was both impressed and disquieted by their activities.

Lewis learned that Luftwaffe chief and Hitler stalwart Hermann Goering was “intensely interested in research and development.” With Goering’s support Baeumker greatly expanded aeronautical R&D, decentralizing it at three major stations: one for research on new aircraft, one for fundamental research without application to specific aircraft designs, and one for the development of new propulsion systems. It was a powerful combination, especially when Reichmarks were flowing to fund accelerated experimentation. Lewis remarked:

It is apparent in Germany, especially in aviation, that everyone is working under high pressure.  The greatest effort is being made to provide an adequate air fleet.  Every manufacturer is turning out as many airplanes as possible, and the research and development organizations are working on problems that have an immediate bearing on this production program.

While “the equipment at [NACA’s] Langley Field is equal to or better than the equipment in the German research laboratories,” Lewis concluded, “the personnel of the German research laboratories is [sic] larger in number, and the engineers have had an opportunity of having special training, which has not been afforded to many of our own engineers.” To maintain American primacy in aviation, Lewis advised, the nation should immediately start the N.A.C.A.’s expansion.

An advertisement for the Hindenburg in 1936.

An advertisement for the Hindenburg in 1936.

These epistles of warning brought moderate action by the NACA. It started in 1936 with the construction of another wind tunnel at Langley and the lengthening of a tank used for seaplane research. It obtained additional funding through a special “Deficiency Appropriation Act” to fund the construction of new facilities. It also, and these were both important and peculiarly bureaucratic decisions, created two committees to review the situation. The first was a Special Committee of Aeronautical Research Facilities with Rear Admiral Ernest J. King as chair. They were charged with surveying the research needs of the country. This group quickly responded with a detailed critique of the NACA’s capabilities and recommended rapid expansion. This found tangible expression in a greatly increased budget request for 1938, a request adopted in Congress because of the fear of war in Europe.

The NACA also established a “Special Committee on the Relation of NACA to National Defense in Time of War.” Chaired by the Chief of the Army Air Corps, Major General Oscar Westover, this special committee began operation on December 22, 1936. More than eighteen months passed before it took any action, submitting a report on 19 August 1938 that declared the NACA an essential agency in time of war to support the aviation development needs of the Army and Navy. It also said that the agency’s activities should be expanded and become an adjunct of the Aeronautical Board, while its workforce should remain largely civilian and deferrals from a draft be granted on a case by case basis.

“Such a position,” this report stated, “would [essentially] make the N.A.C.A. part of the Armed Forces.” While the agency would remain independent in a legal sense, this committee allowed that it would be “in a more subordinate position that it now enjoys.”  Most important, the Westover Committee found that aeronautical R&D was being hampered by “the congested bottleneck of Langley Field” and that an additional laboratory was required to meet increasing expansion in response to the perceived foreign threat and to limit the agency’s vulnerability to attack. No doubt partly in response to the renewed emphasis in defense issues acknowledged in the April 1939 Military Appropriations Bill, this report was approved by the President as a mobilization plan for the NACA on July 29, 1939, and set the stage for the actions of the organization throughout the early 1940s.

Meantime, a real fear arose about the possibility that the United States was losing its technical edge or at least parity in military aviation because the major European powers were conducting aeronautical R&D on a wartime footing. Lindbergh again expressed his distress at advances in European aeronautics to the NACA’s Joseph S. Ames in November 1938:

Germany’s aviation progress is as rapid as ever. Her [sic] production facilities are tremendous and new factories are still being built. Germany is ever today as supreme in the air as England is at sea, and I see no sign of any other nation in Europe catching up to her. I believe we should accept the fact that Germany will continue to be the leading country in Europe in aviation. She will be the leading country in the world if we do not increase our own rate of development.  Even now Germany is far ahead of us in military aviation. When she turns her present resources to the field of commercial aviation, we will have a competition such as we have never experienced in the past….the present quality of German military planes indicates what we may look forward to in the future, and necessitates our devoting much more effort to our own aviation development if we are to keep pace. To give some idea of the development which is going on there, I think I need only mention the fact that the German engineers are now thinking of speeds in the vicinity of 800 kilometres per hour at critical altitude for service airplanes. Their latest bombers are now flying at more than 500 kilometres per hour. It is really necessary to visit Germany and to see the development at first hand in order to fully realize its magnitude.

Lindbergh continued to harp on these advances in German aeronautics and to urge the NACA to redouble efforts to recapture the lead in aeronautical research and development, especially in relationship to its need to emphasize aircraft propulsion.

George Lewis explains the Plan for the new engine research laboratory to top NACA staff.

George Lewis explains the Plan for the new engine research laboratory to top NACA staff.

This set the stage for the creation of two additional NACA facilities formed in 1940 and 1941, these became the Ames Research Center near San Francisco, California, and the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

Posted in aeronautics, aviation, History, World War II | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Is There a Spaceplane Revolution in Our Future?

Artist's concept of the X-30 aerospace plane flying through Earth's atmosphere on its way to low-Earth orbit. the experimental concept is part of the National Aero-Space Plane Program. The X-30 is planned to demonstrate the technology for airbreathing space launch and hypersonic cruise vehicles.

Artist’s concept of the X-30 aerospace plane flying through Earth’s atmosphere on its way to low-Earth orbit. The experimental concept was part of the National Aero-Space Plane Program. The X-30 was planned to demonstrate the technology for airbreathing space launch and hypersonic cruise vehicles.

During the Reagan administration of the early 1980s, senior government officials began to discuss the possibility of developing an “Orient Express,” a hybrid air and spaceplane that could carry ordinary people between New York City and Tokyo in about one hour. How would this be possible?

Actually, the concept was quite simple. It would require developing an aerospace plane that could take off like a conventional jetliner from an ordinary runway. Flying supersonic it could then reach an altitude of about 45,000 feet, where the pilot would start scramjet engines, a more efficient, faster jet engine that had the potential to reach hypersonic speeds. This would take the vehicle to the edge of space for a flight to the opposite side of the globe, from whence the process would be reversed and the vehicle could land like a conventional airplane. It would never reach orbit, but it could fly in space and passengers would experience weightlessness. The experience would be similar to orbital flight, except for a much shorter time.

The spaceplane concept has long held enormous promise and perhaps could well become reality within the first half of the twenty-first century. Most important, commercial spaceplanes promise passengers an opportunity to travel around the globe with greater speed and ease than anything available today.

The cost of such flights would be high, without question. Some advocates believe that existing technology would allow the building of passenger spaceplanes and sell tickets for as little as $200,000 per seat. Does a market sufficiently robust exist to support this effort? Market studies suggest that at least 50,000 passengers a year would fly a spaceplane at the price noted here. That could be a multi-billion dollar business! It could grow in size and become less expensive as technology progressed.

The most attractive part of spaceplane travel at first would be its novelty. Like flying on the Concorde between Europe and New York City, it would not sustain itself solely as a practical means of transportation during the first half of this century. Instead, bragging rights for having flown at hypersonic speeds would initially sustain the effort. Floating about the cabin, passengers would be able to peer out of ports and see the blackness of space above them and the blue-green Earth below.

Don't Be Rescued from Outer Space: Interest in a winged reusable spaceplane persisted during the 1960s. This cartoon by Wen Painter, who then worked at NASA’s High Speed Flight Test Center in the Mojave Desert of California captured the essential difference between space capsule “splashdowns” at sea and more elegant runway landings by a spaceplane.

Don’t Be Rescued from Outer Space: Interest in a winged reusable spaceplane persisted during the 1960s. This cartoon by Wen Painter, who then worked at NASA’s High Speed Flight Test Center in the Mojave Desert of California captured the essential difference between space capsule “splashdowns” at sea and more elegant runway landings by a spaceplane.

Passenger service of this sort could offer an exceptional promise for financing space ventures. No longer dependent on government financing, space entrepreneurs might be able to raise funds for human space flight through the private sector. This would be a critical step in opening the space frontier to ordinary (albeit wealthy) people, thus helping to realize the promise that (almost) anyone can fly. Is this on the verge of becoming reality?

For many years I thought so. The development of the X-33/VentureStar through a NASA/Lockheed Martin partnership jazzed me in the latter part of the 1990s. But it ran into the twin problems of technology overstretch and funding constraints.

Through the efforts currently underway might we see a new spaceplane in the early twenty-first century. Perhaps the private sector efforts of SpaceX, Orbital/ATK, Blue Origin, and others will further this challenge. The successes thus far in this direction are positive signs, but I urge caution in trumpeting any current efforts as THE answer to this issue. Although the trajectory is positive, these firms still have a tough road to hoe before achieving an operational system. Likewise, the U.S. Air Force’s recent success with a modified X-37B reusable orbital vehicle suggests that innovation for non-crewed military purposes may also be applicable to spaceplane research and development.

An artist's conception of the X-37B in orbit. Will this military spaceplane become the precursor of a piloted military Earth-orbital vehicle?

An artist’s conception of the X-37B in orbit. Will this military spaceplane become the precursor of a new “Orient Express?”

Interestingly, beyond technology R&D at NASA—which of course may be critical to the next flight systems—the space agency may well have to look beyond its personnel and its various centers for the answer. This is not unprecedented, but it is troubling after more than fifty years of being able to harness its own capabilities to resolve these technological challenges.

To answer the question posed in the title, perhaps but there is no certainty.

Posted in History, Personal, Space | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments