Monday, 15 October 2018

First Man: Dark Drama Recreates the Life of Neil Armstrong

Apollo 11 crew members reunited with their wives through the window of their quarantine trailer following their flight. NASA image.
The long awaited biopic of Neil Armstrong, "First Man," is finally in theatres, and it is memorable in  ways that set it apart from previous movies about the space program, especially the ensemble epic "The Right Stuff," the historical cliffhanger "Apollo 13," and the uplift of "Hidden Figures."

The New York Times hit the nail on the head by calling the film “sweeping and intimate,”  referring to "First Man’s" unwavering focus on Armstrong and his family that excludes almost everyone else he worked with to make it to the Moon on Apollo 11

The film takes Armstrong from his days flying the X-15 in the early days of the 1960s through to a recreation of his reunion with his wife Jan in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory shortly after Apollo 11. In between Armstrong is permanently scarred emotionally by the death of his young daughter Karen before he joins the astronaut corps, where he survives brushes with death on Gemini 8 and a crash of the balky Lunar Landing Training Vehicle, and deals with the loss of his astronaut friends Elliott See in a jet crash and Ed White in the Apollo 1 fire before Apollo 11 launches to the Moon.

As befits a film based on a biography written by the great aerospace historian James R. Hansen, "First Man" contains many uncannily accurate recreations of Armstrong’s world. Some inaccuracies are introduced in the interests of moving the plot along. As well, the lunar surface in the final moments of the Eagle’s descent is shown to be much more rugged than it really was, only to give way to a more accurate surface once the astronauts walk on it. And the filmmakers couldn’t resist the temptation to substitute the television shot of Buzz Aldrin’s descent of the LM ladder in place of the poorer quality view of Armstrong’s first step. These are minor quibbles.

The most striking aspects of "First Man" are its unrelenting darkness and the grittiness of its space scenes. Much of the action takes place in curtained rooms or at night. When the sun makes a rare appearance, one is tempted to squint in discomfort. And the launch of Apollo 11, which in reality took place on a brilliantly sunny July morning, is depicted as taking place on a dark, cloudy day that reminds one of the stormy launch of Apollo 12, complete with rain stains left on the spacecraft windows throughout the flight. The spacecraft interiors have the look of surplus aircraft from World War II. 

Armstrong was often criticized for his bland demeanor. Director Damien Chazelle has transformed this aspect of Armstrong into gloom and emotional isolation caused by the tragedies he encountered on his way to the Sea of Tranquility. The film's dark tone also reflects filmmaking fashions of today's harsh and polarized world.

"First Man's" tight focus on Armstrong's struggles means that filmgoers will learn very little about the background of Apollo, aside from John F. Kennedy's summons to reach the Moon before the Soviet Union. And a short protest sequence is arguably the only time that the film acknowledges that the action is set in the 1960s.

Instead of "The Right Stuff" or "Apollo 13," "First Man's" gritty style reminds me more of two recent Russian films on its own space program, "Spacewalk" and "Salyut 7."

Having said all that, the harsh realities and the thrills of space exploration are depicted in memorable fashion in its flight sequences. "First Man" is essential viewing for anyone interested in the central event of the 1960s Space Race. 

Thursday, 4 October 2018

My new Book: The Bomb and America's Missile Age



My fifth book, The Bomb and America’s Missile Age, which has just been published by Johns Hopkins University Press, deals with the creation of the intercontinental ballistic missile or ICBM in the 1950s. Although the birth of the ICBM is an important event in both the history of nuclear weapons and of space exploration, the facts behind this event have been hidden or misunderstood for decades.

The Soviet Union’s first ICBM, the R-7, shot into the headlines on October 4, 1957, when it was used to launch the first artificial satellite of the Earth, Sputnik. The surprise and consternation Sputnik caused around the world and especially in the United States led to major misunderstandings over the history of ICBMs that persist to the present day.

The R-7 was developed in secret, and later its story was distorted as part of larger Soviet propaganda narratives. The openness that followed the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s allowed the real history of the R-7 to be told.

The creation of America’s first ICBM, the Atlas, has also been surrounded in myth.  The Bomb and America’s Missile Age, deals with those myths as it tells how marrying long range ballistic missiles to nuclear weapons went from an idea at the end of World War II to a high priority national program in the spring of 1954.

Both Atlas and the R-7 were liquid fueled rockets that were better suited to be space launch vehicles than ICBMs. Atlas first went on station as an ICBM in 1959 and was used for that purpose until 1965, when it was replaced by more suitable Titan and Minuteman ICBMs. The R-7 served as an ICBM over roughly the same time span.

Because the R-7 was built much larger than it needed to be for military purposes, it was able to launch large payloads into space, including Sputnik, many other satellites, the first Soviet probes of the moon and neighboring planets, and virtually all of Russia’s human spacecraft up to the present time.

The U.S. government chose to use smaller rockets than Atlas to launch its very first satellites, which is one reason why the history of Atlas has not been adequately studied until recently. But Atlas served as one of the primary launch vehicles used in the U.S. space program from 1958 until the end of the 20th century, launching America’s first astronauts into orbit, along with many important satellites and space probes that explored much of the solar system.

Many works analyzing the roots of America’s missile and space programs were based on assumptions made in the wake of Sputnik, and they missed the realities of the decade that followed World War II, when America’s military was struggling with many technological, organizational and financial challenges that have since been forgotten.

ICBMs were built by military forces and were designed for military purposes, but the military factors that dictated the development of Atlas were often ignored in earlier accounts of its history. In writing The Bomb and America’s Missile Age, I researched how the U.S. Air Force and other services really saw missile programs in the postwar era.

While it is well known that while the German ballistic missile known as the V-2 advanced rocket technology in World War II, its many deficiencies limited military interest in larger ballistic missiles in the years that followed the war. In the 1950s, technical advances for missiles and new military needs created by the hydrogen bomb converted skeptical scientists, engineers and military officials into advocates for ICBMs.

Many of the German rocket experts who built the V-2, most famously Wernher von Braun, went on to work for the U.S. Army and then NASA after the war, and their part in the U.S. space program has been exaggrated due to von Braun’s prominence as an advocate for space travel in 1950s and 1960s America. This book helps set their contributions to space programs into their proper context.

Without ICBMs, humanity’s initial reach into space might have been much slower than it was. I believe that The Bomb and America’s Missile Age provides a fresh and more accurate account of this episode in the history of nuclear arms and the events that preceded humanity’s first steps into space.

My work on this book began more than a decade ago as I did research for my Ph.D. thesis. In the years since I completed the thesis, I rewrote it into a narrative form for general readers. This book is now available from http://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/bomb-and-americas-missile-age and from booksellers.

An Atlas rocket launches astronaut John H. Glenn into orbit in 1962. NASA Image.



Monday, 1 October 2018

Full Circle Under the Northern Lights


Rayed Aurorae seen from Kathleen Lake, Kluane National Park. Chris Gainor Photos

Recently I got one of the best speaking invitations I’ve ever received, from the Northern Nights annual Dark Sky Festival at Kluane National Park and Reserve in Yukon.

Kluane is home to glaciers, lakes, streams and the Saint Elias Mountains, including Canada’s tallest mountain, Mount Logan. I spent the weekend of September 21 in the park at Kathleen Lake near Haines Junction with stargazers from around Yukon and beyond as the guest of the Yukon Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC). The amazing scenery there, which rivals any other National Park in Canada, was enhanced by the fall colours.

The first evening of the festival was blessed with excellent weather for stargazing, but an even bigger treat was in store: a gigantic display of Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis that lit up the skies of Canada’s north in the early hours of September 22. Starting before midnight and going until sunrise, this display included many different forms of Aurorae, including arcs, rays, flames and spots, in green with hints of red and purple. 

Enjoying this display in a sense took me full circle in my life as an astronomer. When I first became interested in astronomy as an adolescent, I lived in Edmonton and enjoyed a summer cottage further north in central Alberta. When I joined the RASC at that time, I met Dr. Earl Milton (1935-1999) of the University of Lethbridge, who enrolled me as an observer in his ongoing study of Auroral displays from the Edmonton area.

Dr. Milton had begun his work in the 1950s, a time when Canadian scientists were intensifying their studies of the ionosphere in the upper portions of Earth’s atmosphere, the area where Aurorae are generated. Most memorably, Canada’s first satellites, Alouette and ISIS, were dedicated to studies of the ionosphere.

This photo and the photo below show larger displays near Haines Junction, Yukon.

The newsletter of the Edmonton Centre of the RASC, Stardust, includes my reports in its 1968 and 1969 issues on the Auroral studies, and exhortations to observers to fill in their observation forms.

After I completed high school, I moved away to areas that rarely enjoy displays of the Northern Lights. As well, the growing problem of light pollution makes Aurorae harder to see in places like Edmonton. I’ve only seen them on rare occasions in recent years, although I’ve noted with great interest the photos of Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis taken by astronauts flying on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, and images of Aurorae on planets such as Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Aurorae are created by the interaction of the solar wind with magnetic fields around the Earth and other planets. Even though the Sun is relatively quiet right now, there is still plenty of Auroral activity in our ionosphere.

The arrival of digital photography has simplified the task of obtaining good images of Aurorae, and astrophotographers such as my friend Alan Dyer have obtained many incredible images of the Northern Lights.

In recent years, interest in the Northern Lights has grown amongst the public, and now many tourism operators offer trips to Canada’s North and other northern locations to see the Aurora Borealis. In anticipation of a display in Yukon, I packed my camera and a tripod in hopes of bagging some Aurorae.

My first night in Yukon was clear without a display of Northern Lights, but the next night fulfilled my hopes for Aurorae and then some. Here are a few of my images of the Aurorae, the first I have ever obtained. And if these whet your appetite for Northern Lights, there are far better images available at sites such as amazingsky.net .


Thursday, 12 July 2018

Becoming President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

Astrophotographer Alan Dyer,  Canada Post Stamp Advisory Committee member David K. Foot, incoming RASC President Chris Gainor and outgoing RASC President Colin Haig unveil two new Canadian stamps honouring astronomy and the RASC. Alan's image of the Aurora Borealis was used for one of the stamps.

Canada Day this year was a very special day in my life because that’s when I became President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

I took this national office at the end of the RASC’s annual General Assembly in Calgary after having served for six years on the national executive of the RASC and five years on its board of directors.

For my friends who don’t know what the RASC is about, I thought that it would be a good idea to use my blog to explain.

Today the RASC is Canada’s premier organization for amateur astronomers. We have around 5,200 members across Canada, most of them affiliated with one of our 28 clubs (we call them Centres) from coast to coast and as far north as Yukon. Each Centre holds meetings, observing sessions and other activities for its members and the general public. The National Society supports the centres and publishes the annual Observer’s Handbook, Skynews Magazine, the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the Observer’s Calendar, and various special publications. It promotes observing through certificate programs, and it works for dark skies with our Deep Sky Preserves.

This year we are celebrating 150 years since the RASC was founded. Just a year after Confederation, a group of astronomers in Toronto formed a club that grew into today’s RASC. We are celebrating this milestone with many activities. Shortly before our General Assembly this year, the Royal Canadian Mint issued a most unusual $20.00 coin honouring the RASC - unusual because it includes a small fragment of a meteorite. At the General Assembly I helped my predecessor as president, Colin Haig, launch two new stamps from Canada Post that mark our anniversary with beautiful views of Canadian skies.

I joined the RASC back in 1966 when I was finishing off elementary school. I was an active member of the Edmonton Centre, and I attended my first General Assembly in 1968 in Calgary. Little did I know that my life in RASC would take me to another General Assembly in Calgary and the presidency 50 years later. 

I left the RASC temporarily when I finished high school and moved on to university and other interests. But I rejoined at the Vancouver Centre in the early 1990s and shifted to the Victoria Centre in 1996 when I moved across the Salish Sea. I eventually became President of the Victoria Centre and then I moved on to the national level of RASC.
In the 1960s the RASC was a different organization. Professional astronomers formed a big part of the Society back then, but when the growth of professional astronomy in Canada caused the professionals to create their own organization, the Canadian Astronomical Society/Société Canadienne d’Astronomie or CASCA, RASC became the voice of amateur astronomers. I’m glad to say that we still have strong associations with Canada’s professional astronomers. Many professionals still belong to RASC, and I was among the many RASC members who took part in this year’s CASCA meeting in Victoria. I’m delighted that the President of CASCA, Dr. Rob Thacker, sits on the board of the RASC.

The RASC has long been run by volunteers, and although volunteers remain at the heart of our activities, in recent years we have hired staff to help us deal with the growing challenges of our larger membership. The capable staff in our National Office in Toronto is headed by our executive director, Randy Attwood, who before taking that job was already known around Canada through his many media appearances promoting astronomy.

As president, I head a board of directors that faces the challenges of balancing our budget, providing services to our members and centres, and advancing astronomy in Canada. Until recent changes to governance legislation in Canada compelled us to establish a board elected by the members, the RASC was a federation governed by a council where all centres were represented. We are still establishing a new role for our National Council that ensures that our 28 centres keep a powerful voice in the running of the Society. We must strengthen our bonds with amateur astronomers in Québec. Our society needs to better attract women and members of our multicultural population to the hobby, and I was gratified that all the featured scientific speakers at our recent General Assembly were women, one of them of Iranian origin. 

I am the first national president of the RASC from the Victoria Centre since Dr. Alan Batten held the job 40 years ago. I was pleased that Dr. Batten was at our General Assembly this year, sharing his knowledge of the history of astronomy gained during his distinguished career in science. I am the first professional historian to be president.

There is no pay for being president, but my involvement in RASC has given me friends and associations in every part of Canada and even some beyond our borders. Through our General Assemblies, which take place in different parts of Canada each year, I have gotten to know our country better. The knowledge I have gained about the universe through my friends in the RASC have played no small part in whatever success I’ve enjoyed as a historian. 

I’m already looking forward to many astronomical activities in the coming year under clear skies, and to the 2019 General Assembly in Toronto in June.

The 1968 RASC General Assembly in Calgary that I attended was a more buttoned down affair than RASC meetings are today.





Tuesday, 19 June 2018

History Suggests Proposed U.S. Space Force May Not Fly

Many U.S. military space and cyberspace assets are part of the U.S. Air Force Space Command

This week President Donald Trump announced that he is ordering the creation of a new U.S. Space Force as a separate branch of the U.S. military.

If history is any guide, the president will have a very difficult time getting his wish. A Space Force separate from the the U.S. Air Force (USAF), U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and the Marine Corps (which is officially part of the navy), can only be created with the formal consent of Congress and the acquiescence of unhappy branches of the military, particularly the USAF, that would lose out with this change.

I have extensively studied and written about the history of U.S. military missile programs in the decade following World War II. Those events were shaped by the conflicts that preceded and followed the creation of the USAF on September 18, 1947. Prior to that time, the air force had been part of the U.S. Army, and both the army and navy fought hard to prevent the creation of the air force as a separate service, knowing that it would break with tradition and fearing correctly that such a new service would reduce their funding and their powers.

A major arena of this conflict was Congress, where many members of the House and Senate had longstanding relationships with the army and navy due to their own past service, the presence of major bases or plants in their districts, or relationships with military figures. Congress had blocked several attempts to reorganize the U.S. armed forces before President Harry S. Truman tried again in December 1945 with a plan to reorganize the military under a single Department of Defense. 

Congress passed the National Security Act reorganizing the military in 1947, but only after what one knowledgeable reporter called "the worst feud among the armed forces that the United States has ever known.” The bill was greatly watered down from Truman’s proposal, and required major changes later on to create a coherent Department of Defense. The newly created USAF spent its first decade battling with the army and navy for control of missile programs. 

The navy took extraordinary and successful measures to prevent its aviation assets from going to the USAF. All navy air assets have always been fully integrated into navy operations, and there has never been a naval air arm that could be easily broken away. In the name of defending naval aviation, top navy officers fought air force efforts to get control of nuclear weapons in the late 1940s and into the 1950s.

Soon after it was created, the USAF began promoting the concept of "aerospace" to defend its own jurisdiction in space, and this word still forms the core of its view of space operations.

For more than 30 years there has been talk of a Space Corps under USAF control or even an autonomous Space Force, and President Trump has raised this idea several times since taking office last year. All this talk, including Trump’s Space Force announcement this week, has been met with criticism from leading military and congressional figures.

Such a space force would presumably include America’s strategic missile force, much of which is controlled by the air force. An important part of the strategic missile force is submarine launched ballistic missiles controlled by the navy. And both the air force and navy possess other important space assets, including the global positioning system and other military satellite systems. The army has strong links to anti-ballistic missile systems and other defensive missiles. Since the 1980s, U.S. spending on military space has exceeded civilian space spending, so there is a great deal at stake.

Donald Trump stands out from all of his predecessors in that he came to his office without any previous military or governmental service. The issue of a Space Force is not of special interest to his political base, so the president may be in for a rude shock when he tries to breathe life into his idea of a U.S. Space Force. Many people in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill support the military space status quo, and history suggests that they will fight to defend it.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Canada's Space Program: Not Even on WFIRST Base

Artist's Conception of the proposed CASTOR space telescope


More than two years have passed since I have written about the state of Canada’s space program. That’s because I have been busy with other activities, especially my historical writing. 

But truth to tell, there has been very little meaningful action relating to Canada’s space program during that time. Most of the space news in Canada has been bad, caused by neglect from the federal government.

In January 2016, I wrote about the newly installed Liberal government of Justin Trudeau doing nothing while a major Canadian space contractor, Com Dev International of Cambridge, Ontario, was absorbed into an American firm, Honeywell. Since then, Canada’s largest space contractor, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, has turned itself into an American firm now known as Maxar Technologies.

In both cases, the contractors suffered from a lack of meaningful orders from the federal government. Canada has had no coherent plan for space activities for years. The downhill slide of the Canadian Space Agency began years ago under Stephen Harper’s conservatives but has continued without even a pause under Justin Trudeau. 

The continued decline of the CSA flies in the face of the hopes that many had for the Liberals before they were elected in October 2015. Several leading space scientists backed the Liberals, and one of the most important figures in the Trudeau government is the Minister of Transport, former CSA president and astronaut Marc Garneau. 

Expressions of concern from the space sector have become louder of late, including an article in March by the Globe and Mail’s respected science writer Ivan Semeniuk proclaiming Canada’s space program as “Lost in space.”

On Friday, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, who is responsible for the CSA, announced $26.7 million in space spending that will benefit 33 Canadian companies and involve nearly 400 jobs. The minister, who appeared at a plant where the long-awaited Radarsat Constellation satellites are being prepared for launch later this year, also promised that a long promised and long delayed Canadian space strategy will be released “in the coming months.”

These rare morsels of good news on the space front followed yet another piece of bad news for Canada’s space program. Canada will not take part in the Wide Field Infrared Survey Satellite or WFIRST, which is America’s major space telescope after the Hubble Space Telescope, now nearing the end of its operational life, and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is slated for launch in 2020. Word of Canada’s non-involvement in WFIRST circulated at last week’s annual meeting of the Canadian Astronomical Society in Victoria, but has not yet appeared in the media.

While Canada was not a partner in Hubble, it is taking a prominent role in the Webb telescope, and many Canadian astronomers and contractors hoped that Canada would also participate in WFIRST. Although the Trump administration announced that it would not support WFIRST, Congress responded by continuing funding for WFIRST as American scientists indicated their strong support for this space telescope. 

Fortunately, there is another option for those who want Canada to stay in the forefront of space astronomy in the coming years. Canadian astronomers have been promoting a Canadian-led space telescope known as CASTOR, the Cosmological Advanced Survey Telescope for Optical and ultraviolet Research. 

The CSA is currently conducting a study of CASTOR, which would fill a hole in space astronomy that will be created when Hubble and its ultraviolet capabilities cease operations. The Webb telescope and others on the drawing board are planned to conduct infrared observations, leaving ultraviolet astronomers without an instrument.

If the Liberal government wants to reverse its neglect of Canadian space industry and Canadian space science, going ahead with CASTOR is a good place to start. CASTOR promises new work for Canadian space contractors and prominence for Canadian science.

A new space strategy for Canada needs to address questions like the future of Canadian remote sensing capabilities beyond Radarsat Constellation, and plans for Canadian astronauts beyond David Saint-Jaques' flight to the International Space Station later this year. 

Canada's space program is small compared to those of other advanced nations, and shrinking. The Trudeau government is running out of time in this mandate to reverse the damage to Canada's space program caused by years of neglect, and realize the hopes of those in the space industry who supported the Liberals in 2015. 



Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Book Review: The Canadian Space Program




The Canadian Space Program: From Black Brant to the International Space Station 
By Andrew B. Godefroy 
Springer Praxis Books: 2017
ISBN: 978-3-319-40104-1


This book review originally appeared in Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly, 25:1 (2018). 
          
Until Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield lit up social media during his time as Commander of the International Space Station in 2013, many people and even some Canadians did not know there was such a thing as a Canadian space program.

In reality, Canada’s space activities go back many years and feature many colorful and sometimes controversial events, including leadership in establishing communications satellite technologies and the most serious attempt so far to use cannons as a means of launching satellites.

Andrew Godefroy, a military analyst and historian based at the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston, Ontario, established himself as the leading historian of Canada’s space program with his 2011 book, Defence & Discovery: Canada's Military Space Program, 1945-1974 (UBC Press), which outlined the military roots of Canada’s space activities.

 Now Godefroy has written the most comprehensive history of Canada’s space program, going back as far as the early studies and agencies that began during World War I and expanded in the years that followed. Following World War II, Canadian physicists associated with the Department of National Defence worked to better understand the ionosphere and its impact on radio communications in Canada’s north.

 This scientific work led to Canada’s first satellite, Alouette, which NASA launched in 1962 to add to our knowledge of the ionosphere, and it was followed by a second Alouette satellite and two satellites in the International Satellites for Ionospheric Studies (ISIS) program.

Other defense programs led to the creation of the Black Brant sounding rocket, which was later successfully commercialized, and to the short-lived attempt to turn a cannon into a space launcher.

In the 1960s, the Canadian government’s main interest in space turned to communications satellites, and while Canadian space efforts were fragmented under different departments and agencies, John H. Chapman, a physicist with a background in defense work, assumed leadership of Canada’s evolving space program. Godefroy’s treatment of these early years of Canadian space exploration is the centrepiece of the book.

While the Canadian government turned the development of Canada’s communication satellite infrastructure over to Telesat Canada and the private sector in the 1970s, Godefroy’s account of this time emphasizes the Canadian government’s actions that led to Canada’s participation in the U.S. Space Shuttle Program. Starting with the development of the Space Shuttle Remote Manipulator System or Canadarm.

 The Canadian Space Program then chronicles the events that led to the creation of the Canadian Astronaut Program in 1983, and then the long awaited establishment of the Canadian Space Agency in 1989.

 Starting with Marc Garneau in 1984, eight Canadian astronauts flew into space during the life of the Space Shuttle program, six of them more than once. Godefroy’s book covers these flights through Julie Payette’s second shuttle flight to the International Space Station in 2009, which coincided with Robert Thirsk’s first Canadian long duration mission on the ISS. Canada earned its way into the ISS with its contribution of the Mobile Servicing System, an advanced version of the Canadarm.

This book explains how Canadian government policy directed and sometimes hindered Canada’s many space accomplishments, many of which depended on cooperation with the United States and other spacefaring nations.

Godefroy acknowledges that “there is much to be learned about the history of Canada’s space program,” and he calls this book a first step that he hopes will be followed by others on this topic. As someone who follows Canadian space history, I hope that some of those books will come from Godefroy himself.