LIFTOFF! YEAH BABY!!
BOHD has been a space cadet since 1961. Below are recommended books, films and web sites for fellow cadets, or for those who think they might be (don’t fight it – you can’t win).
BOOKS AND FILMS
Apollo: Race to the Moon, by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox. Quite simply the best book on Apollo and the developmental years. By the time Murray and Cox began their research the astronauts’ experiences and stories had been covered many times over, so they concentrated on the people on the ground. Even the footnotes are a must read. Consistent, thorough and truly exciting reporting. This book is still available used.
A Man on the Moon, by Andrew Chaikun. A very good book in its own right, with a somewhat broader view than the Murray and Cox book.
“From the Earth to the Moon,” 1998 HBO production. Based on Chaikun’s book, this excellent docudrama was lovingly produced by Tom Hanks. I needed two viewings of this twelve-part series to appreciate the accomplishment of its scope and structure.
The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe. Wolfe’s account of turning obscure test pilots into national heroes. Some veteran astronauts thought Wolfe was mocking them. He was not.
“The Right Stuff,” the 1983 movie of Wolfe’s book. An excellent, imaginative adaptation that should have won Best Picture but lost to the treacly “Terms of Endearment.” The old drunk coot in one of the bar scenes is played by Chuck Yaeger, perhaps the flyingest flyboy with the rightest stuff of all time. The portrayal of Death as an actual on-screen character (and in a way Bergman never imagined) is flat out brilliant and delightfully American.
Into that Silent Sea and In the Shadow of the Moon, by Francis French and Colin Burgess. These companion books, covering, respectively, 1961-1965 and 1965-1969, offer mini biographies of many involved in the space race, including the unsung. Of particular interest is the amount of ink given to Soviet cosmonauts and engineers, a topic covered in America only esoterically for fifty years. Likewise, from the early years, an informal group of thirteen top female aviators, who tried to become astronauts while facing tradition and blatant sexism, is discussed concisely.
Myths to Live By, by Joseph Campbell. In this collection of lectures is The Moon Walk – The Outward Journey from 1970, easily the best essay I’ve found about this event.
Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, by Nicholas de Monchaux. This fascinating book documents how the Apollo spacesuit came to be. That it was not written for the space cadet audience makes it no less intriguing, in that the book is a cultural treatise about clothing. NASA’s original vision of space suits was actually cans for people, not garments (picture Robbie the Robot). But in the end the design the Playtex Company submitted was chosen, and so what kept lunar explorers alive was a suit made by master seamstresses, ladies who had earlier made bras and girdles.
nasa.gov – just about anything you’d want to know about NASA is here. The archives relating to way back when are particularly interesting.
www.asc-csa.gc.ca – web site for the Canadian Space Agency. (I could not connect to this site without www.)
esa.int – web site for the European Space Agency
federalspace.ru – web site for the Russian Space Agency
cnsa.gov.cn – web site for China National Space Agency
jaxa.jp – web site for Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency
spaceweather.com – a very cool, informative and well-designed source for what’s happening in our skies, and beyond.
xcor.com – web site for XCOR Aerospace. A small company at the forefront of private spaceflight, located in the Mojave desert, XCOR is a remarkable group of dedicated, innovative people. Both XCOR and Virgin Galactic (below) will offer suborbital flights. XCOR’s initial flights will not be quite as elaborate, but then the charge will be less than half of Virgin Galactic’s $200,000 ticket price.
virgingalactic.com – web site for Richard Branson’s space venture company. The civilian flight vehicles Virgin Galactic will use were designed by genius aircraft designer Burt Rutan.
spaceadventures.com – this is the site for billionaires, or those who consider twenty to thirty million couch change, anyway. Seven private individuals have been into space, all of them through the negotiating offered by Space Adventures. The company has plans to offer a flight to the moon (no landing) for $100,000,000.
spacex.com – web site for SpaceX, a private full-scale space flight company founded by Elon Musk, who also founded Tesla Motors. Whereas XCOR and Virgin Galactic are for space tourists, SpaceX is involved with industrial space flight. The company is under contract with NASA to provide flights to the International Space Station. With the retirement of the shuttle fleet, it could be argued that companies like SpaceX and SNC (below) are currently the de facto U.S. manned space program.
sncspace.com – web site for the space systems division of the Sierra Nevada Corp. Like SpaceX, SNC holds NASA contracts to develop manned spacecraft. SNC’s Dream Chaser reusable craft is currently on schedule and on budget.
nasawatch.com – news and commentary about almost anything to do with space exploration. Incredibly complete.
ABOUT PRIVATE SPACEFLIGHT
Reaching the edge of space for the price of a ticket (one affordable to the non-ultra rich, anyway) has been just a few years out since the late 1990s. Now, however, such a trek really does seem to be in the near future. Virgin Galactic plans to offer passenger service by 2014.
Personally, I find this opportunity both intensely exciting and remarkable. When I was fifteen I stood on a Florida beach and watched Apollo 11 lift off, expecting to vacation on the moon in the twenty-first century. Wow! What different times those years were. More recently, though, I don’t think I really expected to see space tourism become a reality in my lifetime.
I’m enthusiastic, but I also think it’s important to know, before you raid your 401K, what $100K — $200K will buy. You will not achieve orbit, your flight will be brief, and your period of weightlessness will be briefer.
The edge of space, by definition of the Karman line, begins at an altitude of 100 km or 62 miles. This demarcation is not the end of the atmosphere, which typically extends about 200 miles, sometimes significantly beyond during intense solar activity. However, at 62 miles nearly all of the atmosphere is below, as is virtually all water vapor and particulates. Aerodynamic flight becomes impossible, and an exposed human body would simultaneously freeze, suffocate and experience outgassing from the blood. So, yes, you’re in space. At this altitude you will see the curvature of Earth under a blue band of atmosphere, the blackness of space beyond our planet, and an intense star field. However briefly, you will have gotten yourself up there and experienced a possibly transcendent moment with your own senses. There’s no app for that. As Neil deGrasse Tyson once said, “Nobody’s ever given a parade for a robot.”
Your journey will be a ballistic flight, as was Alan Shepard’s flight in 1961 when he reached an altitude of 116 miles. Getting into orbit, and, more important, getting out of orbit in one piece, is an entirely different undertaking.
What is a ballistic flight? Pick up a golf ball-sized rock in your back yard. Throw it into the air as hard as you can. The rock will follow a parabola, the shape of which determined by the angle of your release. The moment you let go energy is no longer imparted to the rock, which continues moving up by momentum, which begins to be eroded by gravity. (Letting go of the rock is the analog to engine cutoff in your flight.) The rock will reach the top of the parabola, then come back down the other side of the parabola. That’s what Shepard did, dropping by parachute into the ocean.
You won’t drop. You will descend in unpowered controlled flight. (Don’t worry. The shuttles returned to Earth unpowered, gliding from deorbit to the runway. Among the stick and rudder crowd, the shuttle wasn’t called the flying brick for nothing.) But the important part of your flight, the top part of the parabola that is above 62 miles, will be like Shepard’s. Once engine cutoff has happened, momentum, gravity and the mathematics and physics of parabolas will control your journey.