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.


  1. I am surprised that the novel “The Right Stuff” wasn’t included in this list. Not the movie, which was fairly close to the book. It was a more indepth look in the personal lives of all these pioneers and their family lives as well. I found it rather illuminating looking at what all the original astronauts and test pilots were doing at the beginning of the Space Race. It’s long but worth it. Just because a story is rayguns and rocketships doesn’t mean you ignore the humanity aspect of the story as well.

  2. Thanks for these links, Brad. They’re awesome. This New Ocean by William Burrows, and Wayne Lee’s To Rise from Earth are also great references, the former for history, the latter for how things work and how to think and talk about orbital mechanics. I relied heavily on Lee’s book for my hard SF novel.

    As a former safety, regulatory person, I would not go so far as to use the word “guarantee” about one’s arrival at the ISS. If you break down the numbers for the Shuttle–two catastrophic losses out of 135 flights–the probability of failure was uncomfortably high. For commercial launches, FAA regulations require that space flight participants (not “passengers”) receive an informed consent briefing on the safety record of the vehicle and others like it, and be told that the government has not certified it as safe and that one could die.

    For expendable launch vehicles, which don’t usually have people on them, the probability of failure is about ten percent. You wouldn’t get on that airplane. Eventually, of course, NASA plans to send crew to the ISS on one of SpaceX’s launch vehicles. I’m not at the FAA anymore, so don’t know how the reusable first stage will factor into the reliability numbers for predicting failure.

  3. [while waiting during countdown]

    Q: “So, what’s it like up there?”

    A: “How would you feel, sitting on a stack of low -bidder parts?”

    – variants attributed to John Glenn, Alan Shepard, and Virgil Grissom

  4. Yeah, I do need to know more about that. Even if I do know what paperclip was off the top of my head.

    John Clark’s Ignition! on rocket fuel chemistry is probably also relevant.

    1. Ignition! is not only relevant, but hilarious. If anyone wants to know the inner workings of the Mad Science mind, that is a good place to start 😀 We really do think like that.

        1. Thanks! Had a bookmark to that site decades ago and lost it. Great resource for anything rocket related.

      1. I always loved this paragraph from Ignition.

        ”It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that’s the least of the problem. It is hypergolic with every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured. It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water-with which it reacts explosively. It can be kept in some of the ordinary structural metals-steel, copper, aluminium, etc.-because of the formation of a thin film of insoluble metal fluoride which protects the bulk of the metal, just as the invisible coat of oxide on aluminium keeps it from burning up in the atmosphere. If, however, this coat is melted or scrubbed off, and has no chance to reform, the operator is confronted with the problem of coping with a metal-fluorine fire. For dealing with this situation, I have always recommended a good pair of running shoes.”

        1. A late reply. It I’m catching up on MGC

          I recognized the quote from Ignition by the second line. chlorine trifluoride is nasty stuff but was at least stable enough for commercial production,there was a 1ton spill of the stuff in the early 1950’s that ate through over a foot of concrete and 3 feet of sand/gravel. They still use it in the semiconductor industry for cleaning wafers.

          But FOOF (Dioxygen Difluoride) has it beat hands down. It detonates things at -180C (that’s -300F) just above it’s melting point.

  5. For those inclined to read…

    “Apollo” by Murray and Cox is the story of the engineers and mission controllers and others behind the scenes. https://www.amazon.com/Apollo-Catherine-Bly-Cox-ebook/dp/B003KN3Z4M

    “A Man on the Moon” is a more conventional approach, in that it concentrates far more on the astronauts. The three-volume Time-Life edition is a work of art, full of beautiful space imagery. https://www.amazon.com/Man-Moon-Volumes-Continues-Explorers/dp/B001JKOBMS

  6. Apparently 2 is the number of links it takes to land your comment in moderation…

  7. Somewhere in the ether there is a video interview of the Apollo 12 crew recounting the prank they tried to pull involving a camera timer (so they could take a picture of all three of them, and make NASA wonder who had taken the picture). Crucial to the prank was securing the timer, and they couldn’t find it –and if the ground crew did, it wouldn’t be a prank, right? So they are all trying frantically to find the thing in the capsule, and of course all their vital signs are broadcasting so ground control knows they have elevated heart rates and respiration. Further, they can’t communicate without being overheard so they are trying to give each other hints about where to look. Years later they were still giggling about it 😀 I loved how it showed the personalities of the astronauts…

    1. I have to say the Apollo 12 Episode of the HBO From the Earth to the Moon series was my favorite. They were all good, but the interplay between the three crewmen on that episode was great.

  8. Note: the list was definitely not intended to be exclusive, and yes, both the book and the film The Right Stuff are highly recommended. In fact, the movie is on my Desert Island list. 🙂

    1. An exhaustive list would’ve consumed several more hours of your time. And shouldn’t you be writing?

    2. I guess with this crowd the comment section is going to be filling up with links or other resources. 😀

      1. One of the many nice things about the place.

        For a bit of a longer historic perspective, of course, it is also instructive to look to the sea. I took a look for something that would contrast the Mayflower to modern ships. While I’m sure there’s something out there, my Bing ability does not seem up to it this morning.

        But consider this – the Allure (currently the biggest cruise liner in the world) is in back – and a ship the same size as the Titanic is in front…

        1. Gives you a whole new perspective on what Ringo put his characters through clearing the liner “Voyage Under Stars” in the Black Tide books, huh.

  9. Some of us lived through all this stuff. I was born a year before Sputnik flew. The Space Race was bigger news than anything in current life. We all followed it. When the Americans launched anything at all, it was on TV and we all watched. Young whippersnappers these days can’t understand the level of avid curiosity the subject had from pretty much everybody. Janitors, judges, housewives, everybody tuned in.

    Speaking of the Space Shuttle not being an airliner, there is a place inside the main engine where a 4″ cryogenic fuel pipe passes within a couple of inches of the hottest part of the engine. Liquid hydrogen/oxygen passing within inches of 2000+ degree combustion chamber. Safely.

    Now -that- is engineering.

    1. I was born between Skylab 4 and Apollo-Soyuz. Watched the original launch of Columbia on television. This was back when they were routinely telling us we’d be back on the moon again before the end of the 1980s, and walking on Mars before the year 2000. Little did my child self suspect that the truest line from The Right Stuff — “No bucks, no Buck Rogers!” — ruled all. Without voter interest, there was no political interest, and without political interest, there was no money. This seems to be true in every nation. So that while we keep planning big, the objectives remain small.

      I keep wondering if, in my lifetime, we will once again put our big plans into action. What kind of political or social shift would it take to get the United States to commit to building super-boosters like the Saturn 5 again? Putting people on the Moon? Equipping several joined upper stages of an SLS with a NERVA motor, and sending the contraption for a flyby and/or landing on Mars?

      1. My answer, strange as this sounds, can be found in the Scooby Doo movie.

        Oh, not the one you may have seen in theaters or on TV (or not at all, if you’re lucky). The one that was never filmed. People who read the script say that it was brilliant: funny, sly, faithful to the source material while offering plenty to new viewers.

        And then a new boss came in at the studio; and as usually happens when a new boss comes in, everything done under the old boss was considered tainted. DOA. The script was shelved, and a whole new script was ordered.

        In the USA, we’re guaranteed to get a new boss every four to eight years. Even in those rare cases where a single party holds the White House for twelve years, the new President still wants to put their own stamp on everything.

        And all too often, even within a single administration, ambitious plans are announced but not implemented.

        Our most ambitious space program plans take decades, not years. That’s long enough for a complete change of direction. Or two.

        I remain convinced that the only reason we stuck it out through Apollo was because the program was the legacy of a dead hero president. President Johnson was no fan. President Nixon seemed more interested in the PR value than the science. But neither dared to touch President Kennedy’s legacy.

        1. A *good* Scooby Doo movie? Now *there’s* a pleasant dream.

          On the other question, I mostly agree. I might add in the Cold War aspect. Neither Johnson nor Nixon wanted to be the President who *gave* the Moon to the Soviet Union. And they knew changing horses in midstream would do exactly that.

          Doesn’t invalidate your theory at all, of course. Runs parallel at most. And it certainly doesn’t change your conclusion.

      2. “What kind of political or social shift would it take to get the United States to commit to building super-boosters like the Saturn 5 again?”

        China sticking MIRVed nuke satellites in orbit, and a rail-gun on the moon.

        Which they show every intention of doing, as it happens.

      3. *grin* I remember being told that the Americans landing on the moon was a hoax designed to discredit Soviet achievements, and that greedy capitalists wouldn’t do anything if the effort didn’t line their pockets somehow. Mind, this was me still living behind the Berlin Wall. (I always wondered what happened to that East German encyclopedia volume I was given as a gift once. I think it was lost in our moves ’round…)

        I think, Brad, that one of the things that we’d have to overcome is the rabid treehugger bitching about technological applications that ‘benefit humans, not the planet’ – then the flipflop over to ‘but space exploration doesn’t benefit anyone except the wealthy few! / We could end hunger in Africa with that kind of money!’

        1. I fear that the Soviets may get the last laugh when their ideological heirs write that lie into *our* textbooks.

  10. The National Space Transportation System consisted of the Shuttle, the External Tank, the solid rocket boosters, and the Space Shuttle main engines. Tank is the only part we threw away and there were valid arguments for why we really should have boosted them into orbit instead. Everything else including the SRB casings returned or was recovered.
    Interesting tidbit, the servers onboard Shuttle all ran on 386SX processors. Best available when it was first designed, did the job required, and every time an upgrade was investigated we couldn’t find anything close to as resistant to space radiation induced faults.
    Shuttle downlink was a 50 megabit (bit not byte) stream and only available for two thirds of each orbit when a Tracking and Data Relay satellite was in line of sight. 50 megabit of data or a two megabit data stream and one 48 meg frequency modulated video stream. Constant fight during missions between the science data folks and the PAO let’s watch the crew do silly tricks folks.
    And Paperclip was the reason we could say to the Soviets our Germans can beat your Germans, nah nah nah. I hired on in ’87 and got to meet and occasionally work with the last few of that bunch. Magnificent gentlemen each and every one.

    1. uhm, the first gen shuttle computers were not 386sx. The shuttle had been doing commercial flights for a few years when the 386SX came out. It was a much much older processor, using iron core memory. *shudders*

      1. My mistake. I came onboard in ’87 during return to flight so I missed much of the early day ramp up.

        1. Iirc the 386sx was the second gen systems, which they used because that was the fastest thing they could get that was already space rated.

  11. When I was in school, every time there was a launch TVs would appear in every classroom. and the day was devoted to NASA’s feed. I like to think we absorbed something from that, about what we could be. I know we all thought we’d be in deep space by now.

    1. There were only two TVs in school during the mercury launches. We would all file into the cafeteria and sit on the floor. B&W TV. Only well to do families had color.

  12. I you want to learn how you can really move around and go places in space (hint, its not like star wars and star trek make it look) you can learn while doing with the Kerbal Space Program.


    It’s cheap, its fun. You can trick you kids into learning something.

    And after playing it for a while you can legitimately use the phrase, “Things were going great until it exploded.” in a sentence.

  13. At the risk of tooting my own horn, Travis Taylor and I put out a book that covers the history of manned space exploration by way of laying a foundation for where we ought to be now, and where we should be going in future. (I worked hard on that history stuff!) It’s called A New American Space Plan, published by Baen, and you can get it here in print and ebook:

    1. Having read, and loved, Half-way to Anywhere (which spends the second half of the book talking about what could be) I’ll have to add this to my list on Amazon.

  14. The First Space Age is behind us, but I believe the Second will eclipse it.

    1. Hear, hear. It’s going to be the commercial operators, not the government that gets us back to the Moon.

  15. When you mentioned Apollo I, I immediately thought of the several stories about Roger Chaffee that I’ve written. I started with The Crime and Glory of Antonia DeVilbiss,, in which I was trying to capture the story of his digital resurrection and epic journey as something told around a campfire, perhaps a couple of timelines over. After a while, I ended up rewriting it in a more conventional narrative format as “Phoenix Dreams,” which appears in the anthology Lazarus Risen. Then I started writing a novel about Toni’s adventures after Roger gets her to the Gus on the Moon timeline (about the same time as the Gus on the Moon version of Roger showed up in “Lunar Christmas,” over at Liberty Island), and realized that I never have shown any evidence that cyber-Roger really is a self-aware being, and not a clever program about which Toni is indulging in wishful thinking. So I wrote another story roughly overlapping “Phoenix Dreams,” from his point of view. However, it needs a major rewrite, and I’ve discovered the novel of Toni’s adventures in the Gus on the Moon timeline needs to be split into two novels, because it’s just too huge and overwhelming and I’ll never get it finished.

  16. Excellent post. I love the early space era when we were just trying to figure things out. Although, as partial to history in general, that’s probably part of it too. I do think that writing scifi it’s easy to forget about the roots of how we first went into space because we focus on centuries into the future (or, we often do). The hard work that went into it during those first decades, the triumphs but also the bad days, it’s well worth reading about and watching shows that can relay that. Again, excellent post.

  17. My dad saw V2 rocket launches when he was a kid (my grandfather was a welder on the program). He also experienced an American bomb landing in front of the house. My grandfather refused to go along, when they went door to door, asking who wanted to go with Von Braun and co, to surrender to the Americans. By this time, they had been moved from the Baltic shore to the mountains in southern Thüringen.

    Don’t forget, the space program goes even further back. The museum in Peenemuende, on Usedom is a worthwhile visit too.

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