18 April 2015
Doing Spaceflight History the Hard Way
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.