18 April 2015

Doing Spaceflight History the Hard Way

The moon and Command and Service Module Odyssey (right) as viewed from the Lunar Module Aquarius during Apollo 13. The mission was NASA's third lunar landing attempt and the first Apollo mission aimed at a site selected for its likely contribution to the scientific understanding of the moon. Image credit: NASA
For many people, spaceflight history is really space nostalgia. I have believed this to be true for a long time, and the recent anniversary of Apollo 13 seems to me to confirm this view.

Before I go any further, let me say that I like to celebrate spaceflight. I am a fan of Yuri's Night and belong to a group of long-time space geek pals who without fail exchange greetings on "The Day" (the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing). Spaceflight has been a central part of my life since Apollo 8 orbited the moon when I was six years old.

Spaceflight nostalgia is a residue of early spaceflight propaganda. We are used to celebrating our space achievements, not delving into them. Celebrating the first steps in our endless migration through the cosmos is good and proper, but it is not enough. Only by understanding our space achievements - their origins, the influences that shaped them, their impact on spaceflight today - can we truly appreciate them and give them the consideration that is their due.

About 15 years ago I was involved in a NASA-sponsored project to write a scholarly history of the Shuttle-Mir Program akin to the early classic NASA histories. Those meaty tomes chronicled Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab. Without those books and the document collections historians amassed to write them, much of the history of those pioneering programs would have been lost. Because they exist, one can, if one desires, dig deeper and learn what made our early space projects tick.

When it became obvious that the people behind the project really wanted a "celebratory" (to use their term) picture book with as little analysis as possible, and that nothing I could say would change that, I quit. By then I had accumulated 11 cartons of primary source documents. Those I handed over; I have no idea what became of them. I do know that the book eventually published did not use them. It constituted a missed opportunity to carefully record for posterity a significant space project.

I like to say that "I do space history the hard way." That's a tongue-in-cheek way of saying that I approach it like a scholar. I am not content to describe a space project in isolation. I nearly always seek to include plenty of social, economic, political, scientific, and technical context. I want to show the bruises and bumps and scars. These often make the victories all the more impressive, though on rare occasions they point up hidden failings and threaten to knock heroes from their pedestals.

Nor am I content to focus on missions and programs that successfully ran the gauntlet and resulted in something being launched into space. I want to know about the many proposals for space missions and programs that didn't make it and, crucially, try to learn why they did not. In my view, they tell the real story of spaceflight.

Least of all am I content to focus only on missions. Many space writers merely rehash the same old heroic tales, adorned, perhaps, with a recent quote from one of the original participants. That is the laziest way to write spaceflight history. I would argue that it really isn't spaceflight history at all. It is space nostalgia through and through.

When I approach Apollo 13, or any mission or program, I look for something new to write about. I dig in the archives for something that indicates a broader context. For example, I wrote about the little-known backup plan that would have taken effect had the Apollo 13 Lunar Module malfunctioned on the way to the moon. The mission would have entered lunar orbit and performed science and landing site selection photography. If its descent engine still functioned, the Lunar Module might have been used to carry out orbital plane changes, enabling close-up photography of otherwise inaccessible lunar surface targets.

I also wrote about an Apollo 13-inspired study of piloted planetary mission aborts. The study, performed mere weeks after Apollo 13 returned safely to Earth, found that a quick return to Earth after a major planetary mission malfunction was impossible unless the abort took place immediately after the spacecraft departed Earth orbit. Beyond that point, return to Earth would need weeks or, more often, months. Adding enough propellants to meaningfully extend the "quick-return" abort period could easily double the mass of the spacecraft, which meant in turn a near-doubling of the number of costly assembly launches.

This kind of historical writing shines a new light on Apollo 13. It shows that engineers recognized the many opportunities that existed for failure during Apollo missions and that they sought to put in place useful alternate mission plans. It also shows how Apollo 13 led to new planetary mission risk analysis (I think of it as the engineering equivalent of soul-searching).

I could go on about other problems associated with space nostalgia - the devaluation of spaceflight archives and primary source documents, the creation of comfortable myths that hide important lessons, the sometimes tragic failure to give credit where credit is due in favor of promoting established myths, the neglect of crucial stepping-stone missions in favor of dramatic culmination missions (why does no one celebrate Apollo 9?), and the general non-recognition of spaceflight history as a legitimate field of study in academia - but I think that I have made my point. "The hard way" is really the only way if we truly care about spaceflight past, present, and future.


  1. This is an inconvenient obsession, but I read and appreciate the "What If...?" series of books (I think 2 of them anyway).

    But when I read about space disasters and how they impact programs, I accept that space exploration is very hazardous, but obsess over the little engineering changes that could have prevented the disaster. (Of course, countless other disasters have been silently prevented over the years in the reverse analysis).

    But I think of the normal examples:
    1. Apollo 1, pure oxygen. Today that would be insanity. What was the rationale for allowing this in 1966?
    2. Quality control that led to the oxygen tank explosion in Apollo 13.
    3. Launching Challenger over the engineers' voiced objections.
    4. The known foam covered tank issues that led to Columbia disaster.

    All these appear on the surface as preventable. Were they? Am I in Utopia?


  2. I can say a little about two of these examples. In fact, I just did, but when I hit "publish," my sterling prose went "poof!" Now I have to go retrieve my kiddo from school. I'll give it another shot when I get back.


  3. A brief reply - more later.

    I think there were three WHAT IF? books: two on world (mostly military) history and one on US history. Those are the three I own, anyway. I love alternate history. In another timeline, the Apollo 20 LM and CSM were named Arcturus and Beagle, respectively.

    Pure oxygen - was an engineering decision. In the 1962-63 timeframe there was controversy; not concerning fire, but rather concerning the impact of low-pressure pure oxygen on biomedical studies. Pure oxygen introduced a new variable into the study of medical effects of weightlessness. More on this later.

    The ET foam issue has to be seen in the context of the longevity and low national priority of the Shuttle program. NASA contractors bought materials off the shelf from companies that subsequently went out of business or changed formulas or stopped making certain products. NASA was for most of these companies not a major user of their products. Apollo had a materials acquisition priority on the level of important DOD projects; Shuttle did not. So NASA and its contractors had to adapt. More or this later.



  4. Re: ET Foam - Good grief, that's right. I've seen government contracts and specifications. That would drive any company crazy. If the low revenue stream and high bureaucracy combined to make a company drop a NASA contract, I could see that. More cost (in some cases) is spent on the paperwork than the product. Headcount devoted to the bid and reporting processes versus headcount to engineering and production - it would be a good measure to see governmental versus non governmental.

    I realize you're not a SpaceX fan, but the competition injected by the 3 commercial companies (Space-X, Boeing, Sierra Nevada) is an interesting dynamic. By competition, I think some best practices will further develop and emerge beyond a NASA governmental contract alone. In our US market, I truly believes this stimulates more innovation through competitive behaviors. Some of the recent public marketing behaviors coming from ULA may be an example of this. The redundancy of multiple companies and approaches to access to space should reduce risk and accelerate progress.

    Funny that Shuttle did not weigh similarly on acquisition priority as Apollo (I understand, but still) as shuttle carried (at first) many DOD payloads. Head-scratcher that one. Always enjoy your posts.


  5. DOD had to be dragged kicking and screaming onto Shuttle and contributed only requirements, not cash. NASA nevertheless had to get DOD acceptance before the Nixon White House would move ahead with Shuttle. This is one reason why the Orbiter ended up so big. the 15 x 60 payload bay was a DOD requirement. It's also one reason why the Orbiter ended up delta-winged - DOD wanted a large landing cross-range capability.

    I'm not really talking about government contracts when I talk about the materials issues, except indirectly. Shuttle was around long enough that materials, such as paints and adhesives, went off the market or changed formulas, and this forced a switch to a new material and/or affected their qualities. I read a paper about this problem last year. They gave an example of a spray-on primer; the company changed the formula and the ET contractor only figured it out when the foam being applied didn't behave as it usually did. The change was detected only because an experienced and conscientious employee was doing the foam application. The company refused to change the formula or provide primer with the old formula because the amount the NASA contractor needed wasn't enough to make it profitable. If I recall correctly, the primer was used in the swimming pool industry, and swimming pool industry standards changed, so the primer formula was changed. The swimming pool industry used vastly more of the stuff than NASA ever would, so the manufacturer did exactly as one would expect. There were other reasons, such as an O2 supply common with the CSM fuel-cell supply (again reducing weight).

    Regarding the O2 atmosphere, the engineers liked that because it simplified and reduced the weight of the life support system. It also reduced structure mass because pure O2 meant less pressure pushing against the walls of the cabin. Making pure O2 the standard for the entire system - CSM, LM, PLSS, etc. - enabled astronauts to move from one to the other without prebreathing to avoid the bends. A pure O2 PLSS was not only lighter (no buffer gas tank) but also enabled a lower operating pressure, improving mobility (joints were easier to flex).

    NAA was required to use low-flammability materials. NASA had a rocky relationship with the company; their quality control was lousy and they weren't eager to bend to NASA's wishes, contract or no contract. The Phillips Report, written during 1966, documented some of the problems; Congress got really annoyed when they learned of the secret report because it 1) showed NAA was doing things that could endanger the program and 2) NASA wasn't providing with info Congress needed to exercise oversight. That had a lot to do with why Congress "punished" NASA after The Fire by gutting AAP.

    For comparison, Grumman always seemed willing to do as NASA requested and more. This meant delays in LM development, but made the LM just about perfect. I often wonder why, given this history, Grumman wasn't more prominent in the post-Apollo program and NAR got the Shuttle contract.



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