Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Book Review: After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program

President Richard Nixon with the crew of Apollo 16, a mission he nearly cancelled. L to r: Charles Duke, NASA Administrator James Fletcher, Nixon, John Young, and Ken Mattingly. NASA Image via Wikimedia.
After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program
By John M. Logsdon
Palgrave Macmillan

If there’s a president whose name is associated with America’s space program, it is John F. Kennedy, who in 1961 challenged NASA to land an astronaut on the moon and bring him home before the end of the 1960s. NASA famously complied, and in the decades that followed the end of the Apollo program in 1972, many people have lamented the state of America’s space program.

While Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B. Johnson saw to it that Apollo made it to the moon, something that happened six months after he left office, Johnson did nothing to advance the space program beyond that point. The big decisions about the future of the U.S. space program fell on Richard M. Nixon, and the space program from then to the present day has been the product of decisions made by Nixon, who was president from 1969 to 1974.

More than forty years after Nixon left office, there is finally a book that explores Nixon’s relationship with NASA and the decisions he made to proceed with a new human space program to succeed Apollo, the Space Shuttle. The book, After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program, is by John M. Logsdon, the distinguished historian who wrote the best studies of Kennedy’s decision to go to the moon and who headed up George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute for many years.

For anyone who is interested in the history of the U.S. space program, this book is essential reading that contains many truths about the political environment presidents and other politicians face when deciding how much support to give to space exploration.

Nixon took office just as Apollo neared its lunar landing goal, and the pleasant duty of welcoming the astronauts home fell to Nixon. While Nixon admired the astronauts and the values they represented, Apollo was also a legacy of his great rival, Kennedy. After the success of Apollo 11, NASA had plans and equipment for nine more lunar landing attempts, and the story of how the last three missions were cancelled is told here in detail for the first time.

While a souring economy and aggressive budget cutters played their roles, some within NASA were concerned about the dangers the Apollo astronauts faced in their lunar flights. Nixon joined their ranks after the near-loss of the crew of Apollo 13 in 1970, and after three Apollo missions were cancelled, Nixon repeatedly called for the cancellation of the Apollo 16 and 17 missions out of fear of a space disaster in the election year of 1972.

With less than six months to go, Nixon allowed Apollo 16 to proceed because it would happen well after his upcoming trip to China, and Apollo 17 because it would take place after the election. For those many space enthusiasts who still decry the loss of Apollos 18, 19 and 20, this book makes chilling reading.

The fate of Skylab was also up for grabs, along with the shuttle and NASA itself, which was nearly converted to a general-purpose high-technology agency by the Nixon Administration.

The heart of After Apollo? is of course the shuttle, which Nixon announced on January 5, 1972. The story leading up to that decision is a complicated one, involving the attitudes of people at NASA, the Pentagon, and around Nixon. With the exceptional circumstances that led Kennedy to launch Apollo long past, public support for space exploration was low during Nixon’s time in office as Americans felt that Earthbound problems required more attention from their government. But one of those problems was a recession that hit the aerospace industry in California, a state that Nixon needed to win in 1972.

With an eye to NASA as a jobs program, Nixon approved the “full capability” shuttle promoted by the space agency. But to satisfy the goal of budget restraint while the shuttle was being built, the shuttle was not fully reusable, which greatly increased the shuttle’s operating costs long after Nixon left office. The Nixon-era political compromises that shaped the shuttle, including bringing the U.S. Air Force on board the program, also played roles in the loss of two shuttle crews in future years. The resulting program Logsdon termed a "policy mistake,” taking into account its many limitations, not least the shuttle's failure to lower the cost of flying into space.

The shuttle took nearly a decade to develop, and it flew for 30 years. NASA supported the shuttle concept with the idea that it would inevitably lead to construction of a space station in Earth orbit, which duly happened starting in 1998. The last space shuttle mission took place four years ago, and there is still no replacement vehicle for the shuttle. But the International Space Station still forms the heart of the U.S. human space program. This is still Richard Nixon’s space program.

Logsdon began work on this book with some interviews while Nixon was still in office, and his work was enriched with some of the famous tapes from the Nixon White House that illuminate Nixon’s sometimes conflicting attitudes to space exploration. 

After Apollo? is in my opinion the most important work of space exploration history to appear in several years. As the United States begins to transition to the post-Nixon space program, policymakers and those interested in influencing them are well advised to read this book.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Canadian Astronaut Announcement Standard Operating Procedure

Last week to great fanfare the Canadian government announced that it was renewing its commitment to the International Space Station through 2024, joining the United States, Russia, Japan and the European Union in extending its involvement in the ISS beyond 2020.

During that time, Canada’s two remaining active astronauts, Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques, will each get a chance to fly to the ISS, one within four years and the other by 2024. "Selection of the CSA astronaut to fly first will be based on mission requirements, which will be discussed with ISS partners during the coming months,” a government news release said.

Both Saint-Jacques and Hansen joined the Canadian astronaut team in 2009 and underwent the two-year NASA training regimen for new astronauts. Saint-Jacques is a medical doctor and Hansen was a CF-18 pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the decision about who orbits first will probably relate to which skill set is in demand when a slot for a Canadian astronaut opens up.

Two years have gone by since Chris Hadfield returned to Earth from his historic turn as the first Canadian commander of the ISS, and Hansen and Saint-Jacques will have to wait their turns as flight assignments are doled out according to the size of the sponsoring country’s contribution to the ISS. Canada’s contributions to the ISS - the Canadarm2, Dextre robot manipulator and the rest of the Mobile Servicing System - play important roles in the maintenance of the station but only amount to a small fraction of the total cost of the ISS.

The two Canadian astronauts have the unenviable task of following Hadfield as the public faces of the Canadian Astronaut Program without having had the chance to fly themselves, and I have seen them carry out the repetitive public relations duties of astronauts with grace and good humour. That extended to last week’s announcement, when the Canadian Space Agency posted a Meme on its Facebook page making fun of the competition between the two men for the next Canadian flight to the ISS.

One question that the remains unanswered is how the two Canadians will make their journeys into space. Julie Payette was the last Canadian to fly on the shuttle, back in 2009 when she visited the ISS in the  middle of Bob Thirsk’s long-duration stay on the ISS. Thirsk and Hadfield got to the ISS on Russian Soyuz ferries, which continue to be the only way to get to the ISS. 

NASA and many U.S. lawmakers hope to shift the work of flying astronauts to and from the ISS to competing spacecraft built by Boeing and SpaceX under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program. While both spacecraft are scheduled to start flying astronauts in 2017, funding restraints have already pushed that date back from the originally scheduled 2015 start date.

Last week’s announcement by the Canadian government was hardly surprising given our investment in the ISS up to this time and given the fact that a pullout by Canada would be highly embarrassing and highly contentious with Canada’s major trading partners. 

An election is approaching, and for a government known to wring every ounce of political credit out of everything it does, the publicity surrounding last week’s announcement that Canada is staying the course in space is standard operating procedure in Stephen Harper's Ottawa.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Fifty Years of Mission Control in Houston

NASA's new flight directors on the eve of Gemini 4 in 1965: (l to r) Glynn Lunney, Eugene Kranz, John Hodge and Christopher Kraft. NASA Photo.

This week NASA is marking fifty years since the flight of Gemini 4, the second crewed Gemini flight, which has gone down in history for the first spacewalk by a U.S. astronaut. Gemini 4 was a notable milestone for other reasons as well.

When astronauts Jim McDivitt and Ed White began their flight on June 3, 1965, it was the first to be controlled from the brand new control centre at Houston, Texas, built as part of what is today known as the Johnson Space Center. Previous flights, including the pioneering Mercury flights and the three-orbit Gemini 3 mission earlier that year, had been controlled from a control room near the launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida. 

The control centre in Houston incorporated the latest advances in computers, and included monitors that allowed individual controllers to better keep track of what was happening on board the spacecraft. 

The detailed concepts for the new control centre and NASA’s worldwide tracking network were developed with the help of many of the Canadian and British engineers who had come to NASA in 1959 after losing their jobs when the Canadian government cancelled the CF-105 Avro Arrow. 

Members of this group, including John Hodge, Tecwyn Roberts, Dennis Fielder, George Harris and John Shoosmith, helped design the new control center under the supervision of the legendary Christopher Kraft, NASA’s original flight director and later director of JSC. 

Kraft and others gave Roberts a great deal of credit for the design of the new control centre, which included two separate control rooms surrounded by a number of ‘back rooms’ staffed by management and other specialized personnel. Roberts, who was born in Liverpool of Welsh descent, was the original flight dynamics officer in the Mercury Control Center with the responsibilities of keeping track of the spacecraft at all times and of preparing for upcoming maneuvers. 

In the design of the the new Mission Operations Control Rooms, Roberts incorporated a flexible setup that set the stage not only for the Gemini flights of 1965 and 1966, but also the Apollo flights which were due to launch in the near future. Indeed, the original setup of the mission control rooms stayed in place through much of the shuttle program until a major makeover took place in the late 1990s. 

Before Gemini 4, only one American flight had lasted longer than six orbits - the 22-orbit, 34-hour-long flight of Gordon Cooper that closed the Mercury program in 1963. In every flight up to Gemini 4, Kraft had sat at the Flight Director’s console the whole time, except for the overnight shift on Cooper’s flight, when his deputy, former Avro engineer John Hodge, was in charge.

Gemini 4’s four days in space meant that round-the-clock flight operations would become the norm in the new control centre, and so just before launch, Kraft introduced the new team of flight directors that included himself, Hodge, and newcomers Eugene Kranz and Glynn Lunney. 

All would play key roles in the years to come in Gemini and Apollo. Kranz was on console when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, and he became even more famous for his work organizing the rescue of the Apollo 13 mission. Hodge, who had come to Avro Canada from England, was flight director for Gemini 8 when its crew of Neil Armstrong and David Scott faced America’s first crisis in spaceflight when their spacecraft spun out of control due to a short circuit.

But in June of 1965, the first historic event to be controlled from Houston was Ed White’s spacewalk on the third orbit of Gemini 4. White's spacewalk lives in memory thanks to the spectacular photos taken by McDivitt of the event. 

Like the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who had walked in space in March 1965, White encountered problems returning to his spacecraft. But once back inside, he and McDivitt flew on for four days and served notice that the United States would soon overtake the Soviet Union in the 1960s space race.