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September 24, 2009  |  Rocket Men  |  9028 hit(s)

As we know, I like reading about the history of technology, and as we also might know, I am a fan of aviation. One of my favorite books is Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, which is a history of the Mercury space program.

Recently I've been reading Rocket Men by Craig Nelson. This is a history of the Apollo 11 moon shot, with side trips into the history of rocketry, the Cold War, and related topics. Where The Right Stuff is a kind of cultural history (of test pilots and of the unexpected sainthood of the Original Seven), Rocket Men is more about the engineering that went into the Apollo program. Although it is for a general audience, it goes into quite a bit of (interesting-to-me) technical detail about the Apollo program and the moon mission in particular.

For those inclined in that direction, there are many astounding facts and stories. A small example: when the LEM and the CM decoupled in preparation for the LEM descending to the moon, the airlock between them was not 100% evacuated. As a consequence, when the LEM disengaged, it was accelerated by the small remaining air pressure (a small puff of air, basically) and ended up going 20 feet/second faster than planned. The ultimate result was that they couldn't land where they had planned, and Armstrong basically had to hunt around for a suitable landing spot. He put down with virtually no fuel to spare.

Ok, so, as I like to do, I copied out a few of the cites that I was marking as I read. If you're with me so far, maybe you'll find these interesting also. Cites are slightly edited for length.
Before the 1990s' Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with their Red Bulls, boxed pizza, and Cheetos, there were the short-sleeved-white-shirted denizens of Houston's NASA with pocket protectors, Mexican takeout, evaporating hot-plate coffee, and ashtrays choked with smoldering cigarette butts, and before them were New York and New Mexico's Manhattan Project brain trust of alpha engineers in their fedoras and soft, floppy jackets.

In so many ways, the race to the Moon would turn out to be a sequel to its predecessor's race for atomic mastery. Both were enormous projects that only a great nation, on a federal level, could afford to attempt, and achieve. Both began with Third Reich émigrés, and a shared geography. [i.e., New Mexico--ed.] And, if the first lunar landing marked the end of the Space Race and one of the beginnings of the end of the Cold War, the Manhattan Project marked both the end of World War II and the Cold War's birth.
Nelson thinks that NASA and the space program get short shrift in our current thinking about our capabilities as a nation:
Why is it so difficult to honor the engineering greatness of NASA? It should be seen as part of a string of American accomplishments reaching from the inventions of Bell, Carver, Morse, and Edison, to the triumphs of the Erie Canal, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Transcontinental Railway System, the Rural Electrification Administration, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Hoover Dam, telecommunications satellites, the Internet, and the Global Positioning System. Such dazzling achievements, whose dynamism is a key force in American identity, are today more often than not undervalued, or just ignored by civilians. Our civilization (especially the continent-wide, U.S. variety) could not exist without the big pipes, the vast roads, the power grids, the dams, and the people-and-cargo-carrying vehicles of heroic engineering and big science.
This story makes me laugh every time:
The storyline [of Wernher von Braun's life] was eventually developed by Columbia Pictures into a 1960 biopic, I Aim at the Stars, which in turn inspired a famous line by the Kennedy speechwriter Mort Sahl, who quipped that during World War II, von Braun "aimed at the stars, but often hit London."
Something we don't normally think about ... Nelson notes that the Command Module had about as much room as the front seat of a car.
If astronauts and cosmonauts are considered particularly brave, it is not just because they were the first to travel into outer space, but also because they willingly endured what could only be described as the world’s worst camping trip—perhaps the reason why so many NASA moonwalkers were onetime Boy Scouts. To begin with, while space food technology was considered thrillingly modern in 1969, that was a view held only by those who didn’t have to eat it.
... which was followed by an unappetizing description of the mush that they ate, and then how certain ... other ... functions were accomplished. I think it was Aldrin who observed that the bravest man in the space program was the Navy frogman who had to open the hatch of the recovered capsule after three guys had been shoehorned into it for a week.

I found the following oddly chilling, trying to imagine what it might have felt like if, as was absolutely possible, Armstrong and Aldrin had been stranded on the moon[1]:
Armstrong dropped from the rung to the Eagle's footpad, and then jerked himself back onto the ladder, to make sure that after their EVA [extra-vehicular activity], he and Aldrin would be able to climb back aboard their ship. He then warned Aldrin about what "a long one ... a three-footer" the small step actually was. Aldrin, meanwhile, had to remember not to lock the cabin door after exiting Eagle, since the designers had neglected including a handle on the outside.
Armstrong was practically a caricature of the laconic (if not tongue-tied) pilot-hero. He was remote even by the standards of his profession. But in addition to his famous quote ("small step for [a] man ..."), he occasionally did have some observations, even if they were a little odd:
Armstrong: "The horizon seems quite close to you because the curvature is so much more pronounced than here on earth. It’s an interesting place to be. I recommend it."
As I say, the book is a more technical peek at the space program, and at 350 pages (+ notes), isn't necessarily a casual read. But I found it consistently interesting, to the point that I insisted, over Sarah's pretty strenuous objections, on reading out bits of it to her. :-)

[1] William Safire, who was a speechwriter for Nixon, had the job of coming up with a speech that Nixon would have delivered had the worst come to pass. When Safire died recently, a number of sites posted that speech. Here's one.