Fielding New Army Air Forces Fighter Aircraft for World War II

During the 1930s the United States fell behind other nations in the development of fighter aircraft. This was explained in part by the Army Air Corps’ concentration on developing long-range bombers. At the opening of the war the U.S. relied essentially on two fighter aircraft. Both the Bell P-39 “Aircobra” and Curtiss P-40 “Warhawk,” designed in the mid-1930s, were single-engine fighters.  Each weighed about 4,000 pounds and had from four to six machine guns depending on the model. Between 1940 and 1944, when production ceased, a total of 9,558 P-39s and 13,738 P-40s had been accepted for service in the Army Air Forces. Only the P-40, which was employed with good success by Clair Chennault’s “Flying Tigers” in China during 1940-1942, received notoriety during the war.

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning had far greater range than its early contemporaries.

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning had far greater range than its early contemporaries.

The Army Air Forces developed three additional fighters that found service in the war.  The Lockheed P-38 “Lightning,” with its unique forked-tail was designed in 1937 for high-altitude interception. A superior aircraft in terms of performance and firepower, comparing favorably with the British “Spitfire” and German ME-109, by Pearl Harbor the service had an inventory of only 69 P-38s. In all 9,536 P-38s were accepted for use in the Air Forces during the war and it found service in all theaters.

The Republic P-47 “Thunderbolt” was one of the most significant fighters of the war. By January 1944 approximately 40 percent of U.S. fighter groups serving overseas were equipped with it. Designed in 1940, the P-47 mounted six to eight 50-caliber machine guns and six 5-inch rockets. An excellent escort plane for bombers, it was also a superior ground attack aircraft. By May 1945 5,595 P-47s were in active service with the Army Air Forces in all theaters.

"The Bottisham Four," a famous photo showing four U.S. Army Air Force North American P-51 Mustang fighters from the 375th Fighter Squadron, 361st Fighter Group, from RAF Bottisham, Cambridgeshire (UK), in flight on July 26, 1944.

“The Bottisham Four,” a famous photo showing four U.S. Army Air Force North American P-51 Mustang fighters from the 375th Fighter Squadron, 361st Fighter Group, from RAF Bottisham, Cambridgeshire (UK), in flight on July 26, 1944.

The last U.S. fighter that saw heavy service in World War II was the North American P-51 “Mustang,” the so-called “Cadillac of the skies.” Prior to the war many bomber enthusiasts had believed that their armadas would be invincible to attack from enemy fighters, a theory that was quickly dispelled during the strategic bombing campaign in Europe. Accordingly, fighters were employed as escorts for the bombers, but none had sufficient range to stay with the bomb groups over Germany. The P-51 was the direct result. It was designed initially for the British in 1940, with the Army Air Forces taking little interest until 1942.  The first American group was equipped with P-51s in November 1943. It proved so successful in merging performance, range, and armament that by the end of the war 5,541 P-51 were in the Army Air Forces inventory. Along with the P-38 and P-47, the P-51 carried the brunt of the fighter mission for the Army Air Forces in all but the opening days of the war.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Edge of Physics”

Edge of physicsThe Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth’s Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe. By Anil Ananthaswamy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

The author of The Edge of Physics claims that the study of physics is in crisis, in large part because after two centuries of breakneck advances in the last few decades little has been added to the body of knowledge in this scientific discipline. This led journalist Anil Ananthaswamy to survey the landscape seeking cutting edge physics research. Much of that was in extreme environments, consequently he visited research stations at the poles and observatories at the top of the world’s highest mountains.

The result is something of a travelogue of his experiences journeying around the globe; and this is very much a first person narrative of Ananthaswamy’s movements. How satisfying this book will be for any reader is dependent on how much first person narrative one wants to read. For me, it was not a particularly successful book. I am less interested in the travels and travails of Anil Ananthaswamy than I am the pursuit of scientific understanding. Others will, no doubt, feel differently about it.

What this book does well is offer a basic introduction in an easily understood manner the complex subjects of dark energy, dark matter, inflation after the Big Bang, string theory, and multiverses.

This work is very much a “once-over-lightly” account that is as much a travelogue as it is a book on the scientific pursuit. Mostly it is a valid, easy to read introduction to some of the fascinating research underway in Einsteinian physics, especially the General Theory of Relativity, and about a few of the exotic locations where scientists are undertaking this research. While it might not truly be about taking the reader to “the edge of physics,” it is certainly about taking readers to “the edge of the Earth.”

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NASA Aeronautics Research Goes Digital

During the latter 1960s and into the 1970s NASA pursued digital computational capabilities and achieved several significant results. One of the great successes in this arena has been the development of Digital Fly-By-Wire (DFBW) technology. The DFBW program originated at NASA’s Flight Research Center—now Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC)—in the late 1960s as a means of replacing conventional hydraulic and mechanical flight controls on an aircraft with an electronic control system. Flight controls, rather than being directly  linked to the control surfaces of the flight vehicle were converted to electronic signals transmitted by electrical wires—therefore fly-by-wire—between the pilot and the exterior of the plane. In such a system, computers took over much more of the control functions of the aircraft, and could through automatic signals fully control the vehicle.

F-8 Digital Fly-by-Wire (DFBW) aircraft in flight over snow capped mountains. Externally identical to a standard Navy F-8C, this aircraft had its control system replaced initially by a primary system using an Apollo digital computer. The backup system used three analog computers. When the pilot moved the airplane's stick and rudder, electronic signals went to the computer, which would generate signals to move the control surfaces. The system was designed so that the digital fly-by-wire aircraft would handle almost identically to a standard F-8C. Later, in Phase 2, the aircraft used three IBM AP-101 computers for its flight control system.

F-8 Digital Fly-by-Wire (DFBW) aircraft in flight over snow capped mountains. Externally identical to a standard Navy F-8C, this aircraft had its control system replaced initially by a primary system using an Apollo digital computer. The backup system used three analog computers. When the pilot moved the airplane’s stick and rudder, electronic signals went to the computer, which would generate signals to move the control surfaces. The system was designed so that the digital fly-by-wire aircraft would handle almost identically to a standard F-8C. Later, in Phase 2, the aircraft used three IBM AP-101 computers for its flight control system. (NASA Photo ECN-3478)

The NASA Flight Research Center led this effort, building on pioneering efforts in fly-by-wire control developed for the lifting body program and the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle of the 1960s. Such NASA engineers as Melvin Burke, Calvin Jarvis, Dwain Deets, and Kenneth Szalai, taking a suggestion from Neil Armstrong who had experience with those earlier efforts, modified an F-8 fighter aircraft to test DBFW conceptions beginning in 1976 and continuing for 9 years. A total of 211 flights on the F-8 were flown. Through this and other research efforts the insertion of computer technology into the flight control systems became the norm. Electrical flight controls thereafter replaced large bundles of mechanical and hydraulic connections on all aircraft everywhere in the world.

As a second example NASA worked during the 1970s and 1980s to develop the most efficient aircraft engine imaginable, the advanced turboprop. This program originated in 1976 at NASA’s Lewis Research Center (now Glenn Research Center) as a means of addressing the need to reduce fuel consumption costs during the height of the energy crisis of the period. NASA undertook six separate projects to improve aircraft fuel efficiency some of them relatively simple and others more complex. The Advanced Turboprop Project promised the greatest payoff, but was also the most technically demanding.

The energy crisis in the early 1970s served as the impetus for a generation of fuel-efficient mechanisms, especially in the field of aeronautics. NASA answered this call by initiating several research programs, one of which was the Advanced Turboprop Project at the then-Lewis Research Center.

The energy crisis in the early 1970s served as the impetus for a generation of fuel-efficient mechanisms, especially in the field of aeronautics. NASA answered this call by initiating several research programs, one of which was the Advanced Turboprop Project at the then-Lewis Research Center. (NASA Photo)

NASA engineer Daniel Mikkelson, working with others, pursued swept propeller blades to reduce noise and increase efficiency, generating a patent. Other aspect of this research led to better fuel management using computing technologies. Collectively, the advanced turboprop project received the Robert J. Collier Trophy for outstanding achievement in aerospace for 1987. While the energy crisis had abated by the time that the program was terminated, some of the knowledge gained from this effort have found their way into later aircraft designs.

Finally, NASA researchers also worked to perfect the so-called “Glass Cockpit” in the 1980s and 1990s. Replacing the longstanding mechanical instruments of the flight deck, the “glass cockpit” featured digital displays of LCD screens to communicate the standard information—altitude, rates of climb or descent, power settings, airspeed, and the like—as an integrated flight management system. The technology greatly simplified aircraft operation and navigation and allowed pilots greater flexibility and ease of understanding about what was taking place on the aircraft. They eliminated complexity, increased efficiency, and reduced costs. Every large aircraft built since the 1980s has employed this technology and increasingly smaller aircraft include it as well.

NASA 737 Glass Cockpit

The aft flight deck of the NASA 737 in 1987. An upgrade in 1986 replaced four original 5×7 monochrome displays with eight 8×8 color monitors. (NASA Photo L-87-03645)

NASA’s role in the development of this technology took several forms. First, researchers sought to reduce the number of instruments on a flight deck—some larger aircraft had more than 100—and digital technologies on a screen allowed the multi-tasking of individual components. NASA’s research on displays led to the creation of an integrated, easily mastered flight profile, what has come to be known as aircraft “situational awareness.” NASA then used a Boeing 737 test bed at the Langley Research Center to undertake a series of flights to prove the concept. It was successful beyond all expectations, although it took some time to convince aircraft manufacturers to adopt it because of the costs of transition. Since before 2000, however, all have acknowledged the great benefits of this new technology and it is now ubiquitous in the industry.

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NASA Aeronautics in an Age of Spaceflight: Transformations

NACA LogoWhen the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) became NASA in 1958 the organizations that were still charged with aeronautical research underwent a transformation every bit as striking as the reorganization that made the great successes in spaceflight of the 1960s possible. First, the NASA budget grew rapidly but aeronautics received an ever smaller percentage of the total agency allocation. This meant, by extension, that NASA leaders paid a shrinking amount of attention to aeronautical research as time passed. Even so, because of the overall growth in the NASA budget greater opportunities existed than ever before. Those had to be seized by aerodynamics, materials, propulsion, electronics, and other types of engineers.

Second, as the years passed policy makers came to believe that aeronautics had matured sufficiently that it no longer required federal investment in to assure cutting edge capabilities. For example, in 1982 a multi-agency review of national aeronautical policy considered two key questions:

  1. Was aeronautics a mature technology, and was continued investment justified by potential benefits?
  2. What were the proper government roles in aeronautical research and technology, and did the present institutional framework satisfy these roles or should it be changed?

In answer to these questions, the report noted that while the aerospace industry was no longer a backwater as it had been when the NACA was created, it still required efforts to advance the technology and that no major alteration to the then current structure of the system was required. That investment, some concluded, could be reduced over time and perhaps eventually phased out.

The X-15 research aircraft attached to the B-52 mothership during one of its 199 missions.

The X-15 research aircraft attached to the B-52 mothership during one of its 199 missions.

At the same time that this was taking place, NASA’s aeronautics program achieved a measure of success through the continuation of many of the same types of activities that the NACA has pioneered in the immediate post-war period. For example, it developed to a high degree large cooperative R&D projects reminiscent of the early X-plane series of projects. Always these had multiple partners and often achieved astounding results. The X-15 program of the latter 1950s and 1960s, the lifting body research program of the 1960s and 1970s, and the later National Aerospace Plane and X-33 technology demonstrator exemplify this type of work.

In addition to those efforts, NASA’s efforts to achieve efficient and safer aircraft led to several truly interesting efforts. For example, NASA’s digital fly-by-wire program, its advanced turboprop effort, its “glass cockpit” of advanced avionics, its wind shear research, and a host of other projects achieved marked success. Collectively, these efforts transformed aviation by the turn of the twenty-first century.

Finally, NASA engineers developed new infrastructure supporting a range of aviation activities. Two potential areas abounded. First, the investment in computing power made possible radical new capabilities in aircraft design. Computational fluid dynamics served to make possible the transition of R&D from the longstanding reliance on wind tunnels to computer simulations for verifying performance. This had the added advantage of allowing NASA to close several of its wind tunnels since they were no longer necessary and to transition workload and investment costs to other arenas. While some engineers, especially those affectionately known as “tunnel rats,” lamented this change, it meant that the agency could accomplish more than in the past for lesser costs. Similarly, such innovations at NASA as the Massively Parallel Processor (MPP) advanced computer technologies for all manner of purposes and this found expression in the aeronautics research program as well as in myriad other areas.

Second, efforts to enhance the capabilities of the airways and air traffic control systems of the United States greater altered for the better the manner in which flight took was accomplished. Redesign of navigational, communication, and other systems tightened the system so that greater numbers of aircraft could be managed at any given time. Traffic management and overall airways structure changed in relation to these new capabilities.

Tower controllers test out NASA new surface automation tools in a simulation at NASA’s Future Flight Central air traffic control tower simulator.

Tower controllers test out NASA new surface automation tools in a simulation at NASA’s Future Flight Central air traffic control tower simulator.

As NASA matured in the 1960s, most of the aeronautics R&D programs continued in a way not dissimilar to that of the NACA. The NACA primary centers—Ames Research Center in the Bay area of California, Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio—carried out the majority of all aeronautical work. In every case they got involved in spaceflight to a greater or lesser extent but remained focused on aeronautics. The flight research Center at Muroc Dry Lake in California continued its focus research and test but added space test operations to its portfolio as well.

For over five decades NASA aeronautics leaders pursued cutting edge aeronautics research, but in the 1970s it shifted somewhat from the earlier higher, faster, farther approach to one that was smarter. It has included ultra-green flying, attempts to lessen the boom in supersonic flight, developing ever more capable robotic aircraft, and harnessing advances in computers, electronics, and robotics to invent ever more capable aircraft. For example, during the early 1970s NASA established the Aircraft Energy Efficiency Program to build more fuel-efficient aircraft. With the saturation of the airways, NASA worked on both short take-off and landing aircraft and air traffic control systems. At the same time, the rise of digital computing allowed NASA the opportunity to enhance control systems beyond anything ever seen previously. Among other initiatives the digital fly-by-wire technology proved critical for several unusual, and remarkably successful aircraft designs.

Into the 1990s NASA’s aeronautics research program involved not only what had immediately presaged it but also expanded to large programs reminiscent of spaceflight projects such as the Advanced Subsonic Technology (AST) Program and the High Speed Research (HSR) Program. These efforts were enabled by an end of the Cold War dividend that allowed the NASA aeronautics budget to rise to $957 million in 1994, although it has dropped continuously thereafter. By the end of the century both AST and HSR as line items in the budget had disappeared and other research efforts were stagnating.

Later on, especially in the period since 2000, NASA has had a difficult time sustaining funding levels that would lead to a robust aeronautics research and development program. By 2004 NASA’s aeronautics budget was just over $1 billion in FY 2004; it declined to $884 million in 2007 and to $724 million in 2008. That represented a funding reduction of 32 percent over three years. This has continued to the present. The NASA aeronautics R&D budget in 2014 stood at $566 million out of a $17.7 billion dollar budget.

11664-0309101581-covers450In such an environment sustaining a useful approach to advancing key aeronautics technologies has proven a task not without difficulties. At the same time, a “brain drain” has taken place as some of the best engineers departed NASA through retirements and opportunities in other fields. To help ensure future stability the aviation community sponsored the first ever “Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics: Foundation for the Future” in 2006 as a means of identifying and prioritizing critical research questions and working to obtain funding to support the most pressing issues.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Discovery of Global Warming”

WeartThe Discovery of Global Warming. By Spencer Weart. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004, rev. ed. 2008.

A centrally important study in the vital center of debate about studies of global warming is Spencer Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming, first published in 2004 but updated in 2008. This masterful synthesis seeks to understand the manner in which scientists came to a consensus on global warming theory, and relates the internal conflicts plaguing the research community and the role government entities such as NASA and NOAA have played in fostering research and analysis.

Weart finds this a messy process, as all science is, in which researchers undertake investigations that lead in unproductive directions, insist on theories that prove incorrect, argue among themselves over points small and great, and allow egos and identities to intrude into the scientific process.

Notwithstanding such difficulties, the process moved forward and the result was a resulting portrait of vast, chaotic weather systems that over time yielded an understanding of climate chance on Earth. He author insists that through concerted efforts over more than 150 years scientists came to a consensus that a number of human interventions, including the burning of carbon fuels and the use of aerosols, have created the current situation and some among them have been clamoring for a public policy response since the 1980s.

This only came about because of a long process of incremental research rather than through dramatic discovery. Weart quotes one climate scientist involved in this process as characterizing climate science as a “capricious beast” and “we were poking it with a sharp stick” (p. 141). It was much harder to understand and more wily than they first realized. He also pursues the standard historian objecting of seeking “to help the reader understand our predicament by explaining how we got here,” rather than seeking to mobilize readers to a specific position (p. viii).

While not seeking to enter the political process, Weart reflected in his work the consensus of the scientific community seeking to understand this phenomenon. This is a superb study of the history of scientific inquiry and understanding written by an outstanding historian in a highly engaging style.

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Announcing the Space Policy and History Forum #15

For those in the Washington, D.C., area on March 30, 2015, we will be holding our next Space Policy and History Forum where we will feature Teasel Muir-Harmony of the American Institute of Physics presenting “Astronaut Ambassadors: The Apollo 11 Diplomatic Tour and the Role of Spaceflight in Public Diplomacy.” The event will be held at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. Details are below. We hope to see you there.

Astronaut Ambassadors: The Apollo 11 Diplomatic Tour and the Role of Spaceflight in Public Diplomacy

Space Policy and History Forum #15

by Teasel Muir-Harmony

Center for History of Physics

American Institute of Physics


Beginning in the mid-1960s, at the request of President Lyndon Johnson, astronauts traveled the world to enhance the prestige of American science and technology, foster political alliances, and garner support for U.S. foreign policies. After the first lunar landing in the summer of 1969, President Richard Nixon asked the Apollo 11 crew to serve as his personal representatives on a thirty-eight day tour that took the astronauts to cities in South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who oversaw the tour, argued that the “visit of our astronauts abroad constitutes one of the effective policy vehicles available to us.” This presentation examines the Apollo 11 diplomatic tour in detail to assess the role that spaceflight played in American foreign relations and national image making in the Cold War contest for geopolitical influence.


Teasel Muir-Harmony is an associate historian in the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics. She received a PhD in the History of Science and Technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MA in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Notre Dame. Her research focuses on the history of science, technology and U.S. foreign relations, with an emphasis on the use of the American space program in public diplomacy during the Cold War.

Date and Time

March 30, 2015  (Monday), 4:00-5:00 P.M.

 Location, Parking, and Access

The forum will be held at the National Air and Space Museum, 600 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C., 4:00-5:00 p.m. Space is limited to 50 attendees, so please RSVP to Roger Launius,, or Nathan Bridges, to get your name on the list. This will be for for access to the 3rd floor of the Museum, where we will be meeting in the Director’s Conference Room. You may check in and obtain a badge for access to the building at the guard desk just to the right as you enter the Independence Ave. doors. If you have any questions regarding access, please contact Roger Launius. Parking is not available in NASM, and is limited elsewhere; we recommend using the Metro system for travel to the National Air and Space Museum—the Smithsonian and L’Enfant Plaza stops are close by.

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Announcing a National Academies Presentation: “Our Place in the Universe, As Seen Through Past, Present, and Future Telescopes”

SSW social media

Our Place in the Universe, As Seen Through Past, Present, and Future Telescopes

“What is our place in Universe?” Throughout human history, astronomy has repeatedly overthrown our understanding of this question and new telescopes and astronomers continue to do so. Join Jason Kalirai of the Space Telescope Science Institute as he explores 6,000 years of human astronomy, showcases the biggest discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope, including some of his own work , and ponders current mysteries of the Universe that may be unlocked by NASA’s next flagship telescopes.

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015 @ 6:30 p.m.
National Academy of Sciences Building, 2101 Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, DC
This talk is open to the public and accessible to all ages.

To register for this free talk, please visit

The talk is part of NRC Space Science Week 2015—a three-day gathering of the standing committees of the Space Studies Board, the Board on Physics and Astronomy, and the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, to discuss issues and advances in their fields. Inquiries may be directed to

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Myth, Memory, and the Making of the American Landscape”

ShackelMyth, Memory, and the Making of the American Landscape. Edited by Paul A. Shackel. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.

This is an interesting collection of essays on various aspects of public memory. The editor, University of Maryland professor Paul A. Shackel, focuses on three major areas in this collection. The first is the obvious idea that when a specific historic site, museum, plaque, presentation, etc., focuses on a specific story that there are other stories related in some way to the site, etc., are lost. This privileging of something over something else ultimately means that certain aspects of the past, and sometimes those are important aspects, are lost to all but the most serious investigators. The cases discussed in this section relate to stories in the South, the women’s movement memorial, the battles for Manassas, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II, and the events at Wounded Knee. The essays focus on the control of memory and how to ensure that the multitude of stories are reflected in some way. Of course, not everyone will be happy with the negotiations and compromises that must take place.

A second section relates to explicit efforts to build a patriotic past. Indeed, most sites operated by the National Park Service explicitly serve this need. Just visit the Independence Hall in Philadelphia as an example. The essays in this section relate to the Antietam National Battlefield, the Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Memorial, and the Arlington National Cemetery. In the last section the essays emphasize the idea of nostalgia in the presentation of the past. Of course, tell me something I did not know. The essays on carriage roads in Acadia National Park, the George Washington Birthplace, Camden Yards in Baltimore, and Lincoln’s log cabin birthplace are predictable. All evoke a feel-good perspective while masking a deeper and less reverent complexity.

All of these have some value. I especially found the essays on Antietam and Camden Yards the most interesting. I also tended to know the most about those stories. Many of the others have value, but are also at times trite. I kept looking for an overarching theme and great truth. Unfortunately, I did not find one. Accepting that, these are interesting essays.

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Are There No Great Movies about the American Revolution?

I have been watching the AMC series, “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” of late. This series is based on a fine book, Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (2006), which is both informative and exciting to read. This AMC series is not the most exciting television ever created, but it has been sufficiently engaging to keep me coming back to view the first ten episodes in season one. And I will be watching when season two begins in April.

The series led me to ask a question, however, why are there no great movies, and I could also add television series, about the American Revolution? Of course, perhaps not all will accept that there are no great movies on this subject, but let me here assess some of the movie depictions of this formative event of the American nation. Please note I have stayed away from commenting here about series such as John Adams (HBO, 2008), and The Adams Chronicles (PBS, 1976),  Swamp Fox (Disney, 1959-1961), and Johnny Tremain (Disney, 1957). Perhaps I will blog about those at another time.

So here is a discussion of movies about the American Revolution. I am taking these in chronological order for ease of commentary.

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939): Directed by John Ford, and starring Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert, this story is about American settlers on the New York frontier during the American Revolution. Mostly it is a story of the frontier and Indian wars, however, something that John Ford specialized in throughout a long career. The settlers endure British and Indian attacks on their farm during the so-called Mohawk War. In the film the settles take shelter in Fort Herkimer, but it is poorly defended and running low on both food and ammunition. To save the fort, the Henry Fonda character makes an epic dash for relief to Fort Dayton where the Continental Army was located. In an epic conclusion, just as the settlers are about to be overwhelmed, troops arrive to save them and to note that the American Revolution has ended and the last scene is the raising of a United States flag. It is pure nostalgia, of course, but it played well to the movie-going public in 1939. As Frank S. Nugent wrote about the film in his review in the New York Times on November 4, 1939: “It is romantic enough for any adventure-story lover. It has its humor, its sentiment, its full complement of blood and thunder…a first-rate historical film, as rich atmospherically as it is in action.” Exciting, perhaps; entertaining, absolutely. But the film’s relationship to historical authenticity is purely by accident. And this may be the best of the films about the American Revolution.

The Scarlet Coat (1955): Cornel Wilde depicts Maj. John Boulton of the Continental Army who goes undercover to break up a spy ring in 1780. This leads him to the the best-known traitor in American history, Benedict Arnold. He uncovers the plot for turn West Point over to the British. Of course, Arnold did just that, while his British contact, Maj. John André, was captured by Washington and executed. This is not a particularly good movie. It was a big budget production with B-movie adventure, quite a lot of trite dialogue, and not much in the way of memorable moments. Ann Francis as the love interest is just too much.

The Devil’s Disciple (1959): With a stellar cast that includes Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, and Laurence Olivier, you might think this would be an excellent film. Although based on a play by George Bernard Shaw, the film does not come off well. It proves, once again, that great actors cannot rise above mundane dialogue and sets. During the American War of Independence a resident in a New York town is arrested by the British. Despite a case of mistaken identity, when brought before British commander Gen. John Burgoyne he refuses to cooperate and displays a willingness to die for his principles. At the last minute he gets away from the British and takes up leadership in the patriot cause. The full film is below.

1776 (1972): It’s a little silly, and somewhat comical, but the Broadway musical turned into a film is an enjoyable romp about the writing of the Declaration of Independence. William Daniels as John Adams and Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin steal the show. Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson seems overmatched. The songs are catchy, the overall mood respectful and patriotic. The film attempts to explain the divisive issue of slavery in the colonies, and the broad complicity in this abomination, as well as the challenge of getting everyone to agree that independence was the appropriate step.

Revolution (1985): In this film Al Pacino’s character, a trapper named Tom Dobb, searches for his son who was pressed into service in the American Revolution. Over time, he becomes convinced that Independence is necessary for the American colonies and becomes a patriot. The battle sequences are broad and well-produced. Otherwise, this movie was a disaster, receiving nominations for four Golden Raspberry Awards. Fortunately it lost in every category.

Sweet Liberty (1986): I’m not at all sure that this is a film about the American Revolution as it is about the depiction of historical events on film. Alan Alda plays a college professor who has written a book based on the diary of a Revolutionary War woman (played by Michelle Pfieffer) that is being made into a film. Alda is a technical advisor on the film and constantly clashes with the director over depictions of the story. Michael Caine as the over-the-top star of the film is hilarious. So is the final battle sequence.

April Morning (1988): Howard Fast has written several terrific historical novels, and this film is based on one. In it Tommy Lee Jones stars in the story of the battle at Lexington on April 19, 1775.  It depicts the march of the British army from Boston and the “Shot Heard Round the World” on the Lexington Green. This is a very cerebral movie, with debates between several protagonists over why the they should take up arms against the British Crown. It is a better than average movie, perhaps the best on the Revolution ever made, and something well worth watching.

Mary Silliman’s War (1994): This small story of the American Revolution revolves around the abduction of Mary Silliman’s husband by Tories and her efforts to cope with his absence. The story takes place in Fairfield, Connecticut, from about May 1779 to May 1780. It speaks to the impacts the war had on families and communities, and focuses on the opportunities (for personal advancement) as well as disruptions and liabilities connected with the war. It also offers a good representation of how the war affect breaks down the old social order and democratizes society. Firmly rooted in the historical record, unlike many of these other movies, it is based on the biography of Mary Fish Silliman, The Way of Duty: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America (1984) by Joy and Richard Buel, and upon family correspondence, her journal, and her reminiscences written after the war.

The Patriot (2000): Oh my, what a mess of a movie. A personal project for ultra conservative, and embarrassingly improper, Mel Gibson, this is the poorly disguised story of Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, in South Carolina. It takes all manner of liberties with the history, and nothing recounted in it may be accepted at face value. Its depiction of African Americans as free and working for Gibson’s character is one of the most dishonest aspects of this notoriously dishonest film. The battle scenes might be powerful, but otherwise this is a waste of time.

The Crossing (2003): Not a bad movie at all, Jeff Daniels brings the appropriate gravitas to George Washington and Howard Fast’s novel about the crossing of the Delaware and the attack on the Hessians at Trenton provides a good foundation for the drama. I remain amazed by the abilities of Daniels to play a range of characters. In addition to Washington he did a fine job portraying Joshua Chamberlain in Gettysburg, but also the co-lead in Dumb and Dumber. The full movie is available free on-line. Check it out.

All For Liberty (2009).  Set in South Carolina in 1775, this small independent film depicts the American Revolution as a struggle between Tories and Patriots. The central character, played by Clarence Felder, is a Swiss-German colonist who puts up with dishonest colonial leaders and arrogant aristocrats. He takes up the patriot cause. With neighbor against neighbor was don’t see large battles, but there are many skirmishes, ambushes, and farm burnings.  It has a good look and feel and tells a compelling story that eschews major historical figures.

None of these films are in the category of great. Some are downright awful, but several are quite good. I would rank Mary Silliman’s War, Sweet Liberty, All for Liberty, and The Crossing in the quite good category, largely because they tell us something useful (often several somethings) about the Revolution. I will use clips from these films in history classes in the future.

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The Space Shuttle and the Costly Nature of Space Access

Two Space Shuttles on the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center in 2008.

Two Space Shuttles on the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center in 2008.

Why is space flight so expensive? Lowering the cost of space access has long been a major goal of rocketeers. Thus far they have largely been unsuccessful in doing so. Space travel started out and remains an exceptionally costly enterprise. The best expendable launch vehicles (ELV) still cost about $10,000 per pound from Earth to orbit. The result is that space flight remains an enormously costly business. No wonder that it has been the province of the government, a few high-end communications satellite companies, and other unique users.

Even the most modest space launchers, placing relatively small satellites of less than 4,000 pounds into orbit, still average some $25-$50 million per flight, or about $10,000-$40,000 per pound depending on the launch system. The mighty Saturn V Moon rocket, the most powerful launch system ever developed, had a thrust at launch of 7.5 million pounds of thrust. It could place into orbit a massive payload of 262,000 pounds, but to do so cost an enormous $113.1 million per launch ($465 million in 2015 dollars). And those are just basic launch costs to orbit; they do not include the cost of satellite development, indemnification, boost to optimum orbit, ground support and transportation, operations, and the like.

In 1972 NASA promoted to President Richard M. Nixon and the American people the idea of a reusable Space Shuttle as a means of reducing the cost to orbit from $10,000 per pound to $1,000 per pound. To conduct an aggressive space exploration effort, NASA officials declared in 1972, “efficient transportation to and from the earth is required.” This could be best provided, they believed, with reusable launch systems. Some NASA officials even compared the older method of using expendable launch vehicles like the Saturn V, Atlas, Delta, and Titan rockets to operating a railroad and throwing away the locomotive and box cars with every trip. The shuttle, they claimed, would provide the United States with low-cost, routine access to space.

At that time space observers calculated that a Titan IIIC cost $24 million to procure and launch, while each Saturn IB cost $55 million. Carrying 23,000 pounds to low Earth orbit, the Titan IIIC delivered its payload at a cost per pound of about $10,000. The Saturn IB cost about $15,000 per pound to deliver its 37,000 pound payload. It was these launch costs that NASA officials sought to reduce by a much-heralded factor of ten.

The Space Shuttle, therefore, became an attempt to provide “low-cost access [to space] by reusable chemical and nuclear rocket transportation systems.” George M. Low, NASA’s Deputy Administrator, voiced the NASA position on this objective on January 27, 1970: “I think there is really only one objective for the Space Shuttle program, and that is ‘to provide a low-cost, economical space transportation system.’ To meet this objective, one has to concentrate both on low development costs and on low operational costs.” “Low cost, economical” space transportation became NASA’s criteria for the program, and it was an effort to deal with a real-time problem of public perception about space flight at the time: that it was too expensive.

Launch of the Space Shuttle "Atlantis."

Launch of the Space Shuttle “Atlantis.”

A subtle, but vital, change, occurred during the policy debate over whether or not to build the shuttle in the early 1970s that has affected the cost of space access ever since. As a result of deliberations between NASA and the White House’s Office of Management of Budget, the question of access to space shifted from “what is the least costly design for access to space” to “what design will provide low-cost access to space.” As a result, NASA’s rationale for the shuttle became much narrower and instead of talking about the benefits of the vehicle in toto, it’s rationale became just that it be low-cost. To achieve this, NASA had to raise the projected flight rate to amortize the large development cost which in turn led to policy decisions to place as many payloads as possible on the shuttle, with consequences that were not realized until the loss of Challenger in 1986 and the effective grounding of the American launch capability for more than two years.

NASA had originally intended to achieve cost-effectiveness on the shuttle through economies of scale, as late as 1984 estimating that they could fly as many as 24 missions per year. This proved an unattainable goal; perhaps even an undesirable goal since it would require nearly two launches a month to achieve it. Instead, NASA might have cut operational costs by investing more money in cost-saving technologies at the beginning of the program. Dale D. Myers, who served as NASA Deputy Administrator in the post-Challenger era, suggests that reductions in the cost of flight operations might have been achieved “had the design team concentrated on operations as strongly as they concentrated on development.”

The Space Shuttle flew no commercial payloads after the Challenger accident in 1986 and, consequently, there has been no agreed upon cost determination for flight per pound. Accordingly, observers have produced an enormous range of cost estimates—from $42 million per flight to estimates of more than $1 billion per mission. The range of cost estimates depend, not surprisingly, on policy questions as to how much of the shuttle’s fixed costs are treated and justified by flights. If the United States were to fly one less shuttle mission per year, would it save $42 million of one $1 billion. Those answers never came.

While the goals of “low cost, economical” access to space were appropriate for NASA; they eventually proved an embarrassment to the space program. In spite of high hopes, the shuttle never provided either inexpensive or routine access to space. The Space Shuttle—second to the Saturn V in both capability and cost—launched some 53,000 pounds of payload into orbit at a cost per launch of about $450 million according to NASA. It was a high-end user, and the cost per flight was so astronomical that only the government could afford it. In addition, by January 1986, there had been only twenty-four shuttle flights, although in the 1970s NASA had projected more flights than that for every year. While the system was reusable, its complexity, coupled with the ever-present rigors of flying in an aerospace environment, meant that the turnaround time between flights required several months instead of several days.

The Space Shuttle on the launch pad.

The Space Shuttle on the launch pad.

Since neither the cost per launch nor the flight schedule met expectations, many criticized NASA for failing to meet the promises made in gaining approval of the shuttle program. In some respects, therefore, a consensus emerged in the last decade of the twentieth century that the shuttle has been both a triumph and a tragedy. The program remained an engagingly ambitious program that operated an exceptionally sophisticated vehicle, one that no other nation on Earth could have built. In that context, it was an enormously successful program. At the same time, the shuttle was essentially a continuation of space spectaculars, à la Apollo, and its much-touted capabilities remained unrealized. It made far fewer flights and conducted far fewer scientific experiments than NASA publicly predicted.

What are the most effective ways to lower the cost of space access? Is it re-usability? Is it “big, dumb boosters?” Is it design for efficient operations? Is it something else altogether, or several “something elses?” Is it a combination of these and many other factors of a more sublime nature? Whatever the answer, it is important to take into careful consideration the legacies of these earlier research and development efforts in conceiving of any future launchers.

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