Homework for SF authors: NASA’s glory years
It still surprises me just how many would-be science fiction authors know so little about the period between 1945 and 1985. Oh, they know about the moon landings, sure. The names of Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin come readily to mind. But can they tell you which pilot was the first to Mach 2? Or which plane he did it in? Which test aircraft could beat Mach 5, and needed a reaction control system to help it fly beyond the atmosphere? Can they state with surety what Operation Paperclip was? Without rushing to Google the details on their cell phones? Can they recognize the voices of astronauts like John Young or Bob Crippen, just from hearing a few seconds of CAPCOM tape recorded the morning of April 12, 1981?
These might seem like superfluous details. In the era of the International Space Station, astronaut derring-do has become entirely too ho-hum. Many people take the space program for granted.
But I happen to think that every science fiction writer worth her salt owes it to herself — and her readers — to take a wayback machine voyage to those crucial four decades, during which humanity did something it had literally never done before.
NOVA: “To The Moon” — Produced in 1999, this excellent two-hour NOVA special does a brilliant job portraying the drama of the Mercury, Apollo, and Gemini programs, during which the United States kicked the race (with the USSR, for the Moon) into high gear. Not only does this special cover the vast technical challenge faced by the engineers and scientists tasked with building the rockets and spacecraft which would go the distance, it also contains priceless interview outtakes from various astronauts who offer their candid opinions about their missions, the political capital invested in those missions, and the danger they each faced every time they climbed through the hatch for yet another launch. Attention is also given to the Russian side of the race, with fresh details (then) on the ambitious Russian N-1 super-booster — a Saturn 5 equivalent which sadly (for the Russians) never overcame its technical faults.
SPACEFLIGHT (narrated by Martin Sheen) — A four-part 1980s series that not only covers Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, but also the years leading up to manned spaceflight, as well as the post-moon phases of Skylab, and the Shuttle Transportation System. Like the NOVA documentary above, this series includes a great deal of interview footage, some of it quite rare.
Episode 1: “Thunder in the Skies” covers the genesis of organized rocketry, how these civilian efforts got rolled into the military, and the post-WW2 years when the pursuit of ballistic missile technology dovetailed with the famous Right Stuff years of Edwards AFB, where the various x-planes made and broke an endless number of records.
Episode 2: “The Wings of Mercury” covers the President Kennedy era, during which manned spaceflight became a central pivot of the Cold War between the United States, and Soviet Russia. Including the frustrations and problems experienced by the politicians and administrators charged with getting a young NASA rolling. Interviews with both Mercury and Gemini astronauts are numerous.
Episode 3: “One Giant Leap” covers Apollo’s roots in President Kennedy’s famous challenge to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, and how that pressure ultimately resulted in the deaths of Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee. Rising from its ashes, Apollo would ultimately put 12 human beings on the Moon. Also included are details on the fascinating Skylab flights, as well as many more astronaut interview clips.
Episode 4: “The Territory Ahead” covers the shuttle program, with special emphasis on the (then, at the time of production) recent Challenger disaster. The second half of the hour spends its time discussing the (then) plans for military use of space, against the backdrop of nuclear war. There is also speculation regarding the projects which would eventually become the Hubble Telescope, and the International Space Station.
I should also point you to these many official NASA films, detailing the Apollo series. If you can get past the mildly dated production values (narration, as well as music) they’re marvelous windows into the Apollo program. Featuring spectacular footage of flights, flight prep, launches, animations regarding experiments and mission profiles, and so forth. Hard to believe this was all half a century ago!
Link for Apollo 4 is here.
Link for Apollo 5 is here.
Link for Apollo 7 is here.
Link for Apollo 8 is here.
Link for Apollo 9 is here.
Link for Apollo 10 is here.
Link for Apollo 11 is here.
Link for Apollo 12 is here.
Link for Apollo 13 is here.
Link for Apollo 14 is here.
Link for Apollo 15 is here.
Link for Apollo 16 is here.
Link for Apollo 17 is here.
Link for Apollo-Skylab 2 is here.
Link for Apollo-Skylab 3 is here.
Link for Apollo-Soyuz is here.
Beyond history lessons, there’s also a lot to be learned from play-by-play of the missions themselves.
An enterprising soul, using the alias lunarmodule5, has been uploading some brilliantly-edited videos to YouTube. Using both authentic audio and video, as well as still imagery — interlaced with skillful CGI — these videos are about as close as most of us can get to actually sitting in the cockpit of a space shuttle, or riding atop a Saturn 5 rocket. These are not documentaries, as much as they are highlight reels. Of particular note is the reel for the Apollo 12 flight, including full command module commentary prior to, during, and directly following the lightning strikes which almost caused a mission abort. Also of note is the segmented full-mission upload covering STS-1, the original launch of the shuttle Columbia. We hear a tremendous amount of pre-launch chatter between the crew and mission control, as well as get a front-row seat for STS-1’s two days in orbit.
Now, you might think CAPCOM tapes are an extremely pedestrian way to learn about spaceflight. But I happen to think that the CAPCOM tapes are the most revelatory, because they provide a candid picture of how a modern space mission is conducted. From the moment the crew sit down to breakfast before the launch, right through touchdown at the end of the trip. Including all the minutae that must be monitored by the staff on the ground — checks and guidance without which no modern space mission could ever succeed. It takes thousands of people to put a spacecraft into low earth orbit. Imagine the staffing needed for a truly ambitious voyage to Mars, or beyond.
Essential facts, data, and — best of all — food for thought, for any science fiction author.
Even if you’re not particularly “hard” in your approach to your stories. It never hurts to have these kinds of details rumbling around in the back of your brain, while you conjure up stupendous stories of interplanetary, interstellar, or intergalactic adventure.
Because the truth is that space is very possibly the most challenging environment humanity will ever face. Of all the planets we know about, the only one guaranteed to be friendly — with relatively safe temperatures, water to drink, and air to breath — is the Earth.
When we go anywhere else, we’re going to be taking it all with us. Our food. Our oxygen. What we drink. The clothes on our backs. The tools we use, including space suits — which are essentially self-contained miniature spacecraft. And if we’re not taking it with us, we’re hoping to find the raw resources (on the other side) capable of sustaining us in artificial habitats, once we’re there. To include ores and other things we will need to manufacture new artificial habitats.
After almost 60 years of putting people into space, we’ve gotten pretty good at it. Enough so that fatalities are extremely rare, and your average astronaut being sent to the International Space Station can pretty much guarantee (s)he’s coming back down without incident. Again, thanks to the effort of thousands upon thousands of engineers, scientists, and support and administrative staff.
But just because we’ve gotten good at a thing, does not mean it’s not hazardous. Or expensive. Two huge factors when you (as author) create space-worthy civilizations of the future. It takes a hell of a lot of “oomph” to put people into space. In terms of logistics. In terms of intestinal fortitude. And in terms of the technological and human-specific hurdles which must be overcome.
Such as: how well do you think you would adapt to spending 14 days trapped in the front seat of a compact car? You have to wear the same clothes the entire time. There is no privacy. Nowhere to use the toilet. You get your food and drink from tubes and small packages. You cannot take a shower or a bath. Sleeping is hard. And you must be constantly prepared to do technical, challenging tasks involving equipment which may or may not be working the way you expect it to work. While trying to tamp down potential worry that your compact car might not get you back through the atmosphere in one piece, when the mission is over. And you’re doing this all right next to your side-seat co-driver, who is in the exact same predicament.
That was the job of Gemini 7. One of the most unglamorous — yet vital — pre-Apollo flights. Which proved human beings could function in space long enough for a full-fledged moon mission.
What will a Mars mission entail? A mission to Jupiter? Neptune? The Oort Cloud? The nearest stars? Or stars much father away?
Understanding the nitty gritty of the NASA glory years, can give a science fiction author proper grounding in all the problems that will be faced by such (as yet) imaginary ventures.
It really is not as simple as Star Trek or Star Wars make it seem.
Case in point: the space shuttle was never a souped-up airliner. Because a Boeing 737 doesn’t have to be able to fly in an environment where the wings and tail don’t work. Nor does a 737 have engines powerful enough to boost it to orbit, using super-cooled fuel in such large quantities that the fuel outweighs the plane itself many times over. Nor does a 737 have to be able to survive three-thousand-degree (F) heat while deceleration from a speed of 18,000 miles per hour.
The shuttle — even though it did not take us anywhere we had not been before — was the world’s first reusable spacecraft. In this regard, it was several orders of magnitude more complex and expensive than a 737. Both in terms of designing the thing, and in terms of operating it. How much more expensive and difficult to operate would the shuttle have been, if it had been armored and armed for warfare in space? Like the spacecraft in a science fiction movie? How much bigger would it have to be, to voyage to the Moon? Or beyond? What kind of engines would it need? What sort of fuel would those engines burn?
These are the kinds of mundane (but necessary) questions that a science fiction author begins to ask herself, once she retraces the steps taken from 1945 to 1985. They are the kinds of questions which will enrich your stories immeasurably, and give your SF tales the sort of gripping authenticity that will make the challenge of space flight — space exploration, space warfare, and so much else — become real for your readers.
Lastly, familiarity with space history also humbles us. Because space history is a reminder of what real death-defying heroism looks like.
How such heroism walks, talks, and gets the job done.
I suspect we desperately need these reminders. As writers, and as a culture too.