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 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 .