AidSpace Blog

Apollo@45: Technological Virtuosity Remembered

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There is no question that the success of Project Apollo in the 1960s helped to create a culture of competence for NASA that translated into a level of confidence in American capability, and especially in the ability of government to perform effectively, to resolve any problem. Something that almost sounds unthinkable in the early twenty-first century but such was indeed the case in the 1960s.

President Kennedy speaks to Congress

President John F. Kennedy in his historic message to a joint session of the Congress, on May 25, 1961 declared, “…I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Shown in the background are, (left) Vice President Lyndon Johnson, and (right) Speaker of the House Sam T. Rayburn. Does the United States still have the political will to engage in bold space exploration ventures demonstrated by JFK in 1961? NASA Photo no. GPN-2000-001658.

Recollections of the Apollo program’s technology lead many to express wonder at the sophistication of the technical competence that made the Moon landings possible and the genius of those that built the rockets and spacecraft that carried Americans into space. Farouk el-Baz, a scientist who worked on the program, expressed well this sense of awe at the Moon landings: “Oh, the Apollo program! It was a unique effort all together. When I think about it some 40 years later, I still look at that time with wonder.”

This is all the more the case because of the relative lack of complexity of the technology used to go to the Moon in the 1960s. Many express wonder that there is more computing power in a pocket calculator than in the Apollo guidance computer. Others are surprised that something as simple as writing in space required the development of a new type of pen, with the ink under pressure so that it could write in a weightless environment.

American belief in the technical virtuosity of NASA, an agency that could accomplish any task assigned it, can be traced directly to the experience of Apollo and its legacy of success. The success in reaching the Moon established a popular conception that one could make virtually any demand and the space agency would deliver. This has remained a powerful image in American culture.

Despite tragedies along the way, including the near disaster of Apollo 13 and the very public Challenger and Columbia accidents that killed 14 astronauts, the vast majority of the public remains convinced that NASA has the capability to succeed at whatever it attempts. The Moon landings established that image in the American mind and it has been difficult to tarnish despite the space agency’s very public failures after Apollo.

Apollo 11 Launch

The power of the Saturn V is depicted as Apollo 11 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969. This photograph captured the emotion and power of the launch of the mighty Moon rocket, an image that also has found myriad reproduction in a variety of settings since that time. Hundreds of thousands of Americans made it possible to reach the Moon, and this launch of Apollo 11 represents one of the most watched events in human history. It defies credulity that so many people could have perpetrated such a hoax. NASA image, No. 69PC-0421.

Of course, there has also been concern about an undefined sense of declension present in so many parts of recent American society. They have expressed a desire to recapture what may be conceived of as a can-do spirit and a genuine technological virtuosity that existed in the 1960s but has declined since. For one, Farouk el-Baz bemoaned: “This is why I believe that my generation has failed the American people in one respect. We considered Apollo as an enormous challenge and a singular goal. To us, it was the end game. We knew that nothing like it ever happened in the past and behaved as if it would have no equal in the future.”

The technology required to reach the Moon was certainly more complex than anything ever attempted before, but was firmly understood at the time that the program began. NASA engineers reasoned, first, that they needed a truly powerful rocket with a larger payload capacity than any envisioned before. As a second priority, they recognized the need for a spacecraft that could preserve the life of fragile human beings for at least two weeks; this included both a vehicle akin to a small submarine but one that could operate in space and a second spacecraft in the form of a spacesuit that allowed the astronauts to perform tasks outside the larger vehicle. Third, they needed some type of landing craft that would be able to operate in an environment at the Moon far different from anything found on or near Earth. Finally, they needed to develop the technologies necessary for guidance and control, communication, and navigation to reach the Moon.

In every case, and this proved critical, planners at NASA understood the nature of the technical challenges before them in reaching for the Moon so they could chart a reasonable and well-defined technology development course for overcoming them.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the Moon

Aldrin at the Flag, another iconic image from Apollo 11. This image also circled the globe immediately after its release in July 1969 and has been used for all manner of purposes since that time. The flag in this image proved a powerful trope of American exceptionalism. It also has often used by Moon landing deniers as evidence that the landing was filmed on Earth, because the flag appears to be waving in the breeze, and we all know there is no breeze on the Moon. When astronauts were planting the flagpole they rotated it back and forth to better penetrate the lunar soil (anyone who’s set a blunt tent-post knows how this works). Of course the flag waved—no breeze required! NASA image, No. AS11-40-5875.

For the generation of Americans who grew up during the 1960s watching NASA astronauts fly into space, beginning with 15-minute suborbital trajectories and culminating with six landings on the Moon, Project Apollo signaled in a very public manner how well the nation could do when it set its mind to it. Television coverage of real space adventures was long and intense, the stakes high, and the risks of life enormous. There were moments of both great danger and high anxiety.

Project Apollo was a triumph of management in meeting enormously difficult systems engineering, technological, and organizational integration requirements.

Indeed, the Moon landing program came to exemplify the best Americans could bring to any challenge, and has been routinely deployed to support the nation’s sense of greatness. As one example, Actor Carroll O’Connor perhaps said it best in the midst of the Moon landing effort in an episode of All in the Family in 1971. Portraying the character of Archie Bunker, the bigoted working class American whose perspectives were more common in our society than many observers were comfortable admitting, O’Connor represented well how most Americans embraced the success of the Apollo program. Archie Bunker observed to a visitor to his house in the sitcom that he had “a genuine facsimile of the Apollo 14 insignia. That’s the thing that sets the US of A apart from…all them other losers.” In very specific terms, Archie Bunker encapsulated for many what set the United States apart from other nations: success in space flight.

More recently, another reference from popular culture points up the lasting nature of this sense of success granted the nation through its Apollo Moon landings. In the critically acclaimed television situation comedy Sports Night, about a team that produces a nightly cable sports broadcast, one episode in 2001 included a telling discussion of space exploration. The fictional sports show’s executive producer, Isaac Jaffee, played by Robert Guillaume, is recovering from a stroke and disengaged from the daily hubbub of putting together the nightly show. His producer, Dana Whitaker, played by Felicity Huffman, keeps interrupting him as he reads a magazine about space exploration. Isaac tells her, “They’re talking about bio-engineering animals and terraforming Mars.” When I started reporting Gemini missions, just watching a Titan rocket liftoff was a sight to see. In the process, the Isaac Jaffee character affirms his basic faith in NASA to carry out any task in space exploration. “You put an X anyplace in the solar system,” he says, “and the engineers at NASA can land a spacecraft on it.”

Apollo World Tour

The Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins, wearing sombreros and ponchos, are swarmed by thousands in Mexico City as their motorcade is slowed by the enthusiastic crowd. The GIANTSTEP-APOLLO 11 Presidential Goodwill Tour emphasized the willingness of the United States to share its space knowledge. The tour carried the Apollo 11 astronauts and their wives to 24 countries and 27 cities in 45 days. NASA image, No. 70-H-1553.

The technological virtuosity remains to this day. It has long supported an emphasis on nation greatness and offers solace in the face of other setbacks. At a basic level the Moon landings provided the impetus for the perception of NASA as a successful organization, and the U.S. as the world leader in science and technology. Might NASA and the United States return to those thrilling days in the twenty-first century?

Roger D. Launius is associate director for collections and curatorial affairs at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The First Transpacific Passenger Flight

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Passed over S.F. Bay Bridge, along Embarcadero, Marina, Presidio, etc. Just after passing over Golden Gate Bridge encountered low cumulus clouds on the coast. “On top” from there on over “snowy desert.” Later clear & broken—smooth air. Early morning, “detoured” to south to avoid several storm areas. Arrived Honolulu (Pearl City) after passing over “Diamond Head” & Waikiki Beach. Very elaborate “Hawaiian welcome.”

Richard Bradley's log book

Richard F. Bradley’s log book.

These brief observations, written by Richard F. Bradley on October 21–22, 1936, hardly hint at the enormity of the occasion. The aviation manager for the San Francisco office of Standard Oil, Bradley was one of seven lucky people to acquire a ticket to fly that day on Pan American Airways’ Hawaii Clipper. Bradley, in fact, held Ticket No. 1 for that inaugural passenger flight to Hawaii.

Richard F. Bradley (left) bought Ticket #1 for the inaugural transpacific passenger flight, October 21–22, 1936. National Air and Space Museum Archives.

Bradley wrote those words in a small souvenir log book, presented to him by Pan American Airways and now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum Archives. I came across it while looking for artifacts and images relating to travel to Hawaii. Leather bound and enclosed in its own sleeve, the log book is embossed with Bradley’s name and personally signed by Pan Am founder and president Juan Trippe.

In the log book, Bradley recorded the details of his flight from Pan Am’s base at Alameda on San Francisco Bay to Hawaii, and then on to Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines, and back again. It includes a single page for each day of the 10-day flight, which accounts for Bradley’s brevity. He notes departure and arrival times, distances flown, average speeds, and times aloft, along with other things he saw or experienced.

As you travel the same route today in a jetliner, you probably don’t realize just how big a deal it once was to reach Hawaii by air. To get a better sense of why, turn and tilt a globe so the Hawaiian Islands are dead center. Nearly all the rest of that hemispherical view is water. Located near the middle of the world’s largest ocean, Hawaii is one of the most remote places on Earth. The route Bradley flew from San Francisco to Honolulu was at that time the longest landless air route in the world. Beyond the small rocky islands just past the Golden Gate, not a single spot of land breaks the waves for 2,400 miles. Out over the Pacific with nothing below me for hours but water, I still get a little nervous thinking about that.

Bradley’s flight on the Hawaii Clipper marked the beginning of transpacific air travel and followed years of planning and preparation. Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh had scouted a great circle route to the Orient for Pan Am that followed the North Pacific rim. But obtaining operating rights in Asia proved problematic, so Juan Trippe decided to create a route across the Central Pacific via Hawaii and other U.S. possessions. Pan Am had to plan and survey the route, establish bases on islands across the Pacific, and build hotels and other facilities for passengers on remote Midway Island, uninhabited Wake Island, and the territory of Guam.

The China Clipper flies past the unfinished Golden Gate Bridge and heads toward Hawaii, November 22, 1935. National Air and Space Museum Archives

Pan Am also needed a new seaplane large enough and powerful enough to carry a load big enough and far enough to make the whole enterprise feasible. The airline worked with the Glen L. Martin Company of Baltimore to develop such an aircraft. While Pan Am surveyed the route and built the bases, Martin designed and built the three largest air transports yet created: the Martin M-130 clippers. The China Clipper gained lasting fame on November 22, 1935, when it left San Francisco Bay to inaugurate regularly scheduled transpacific air service. For the next year, while passenger accommodations were being completed, the China Clipper and its sister ships, the Philippine Clipper and Hawaii Clipper, carried cargo and mail back and forth across the Pacific. By October 1936, the route was finally ready for passenger service.

The Martins were huge planes for their time, but even so, the extra fuel needed for the flight from California to Hawaii, the longest hop on the transpacific route, limited the number of passengers they could carry. Richard Bradley shared the spacious cabin with only six other passengers. Future flights would carry as many as 13, but more often the crew would outnumber the passengers.

That wasn’t the only thing that made membership in this particular flying club so exclusive. The one-way fare from San Francisco to Manila was set at $799. That amounts to almost $14,000 in today’s dollars. Not until after World War II and the introduction of faster and more economical aircraft would transpacific air travel begin to become more affordable.

The Hawaii Clipper’s passengers after arriving in Hawaii. They included five businessmen and two women world travelers. Bradley, in his distinctive fedora, stands at the left. Hawaii State Archives.

Bradley’s log book contains a map of the route and a brief history of it, and then the 10 pages where Bradley wrote about each day’s flight. Here you can read his notes on winds and weather and the impact of storms on other clipper flights, about his crossings of the International Date Line, and about beautiful views and memorable meals. The end pages are devoted to autographs of the crew, passengers, and others he met. A few of the names may sound familiar.

Topping the list of crew signatures is Captain Edwin C. Musick, Pan Am’s most famous and accomplished pilot. Musick led the surveys that established the route and piloted the China Clipper on its first transpacific flight. In 1938 Musick and his crew perished on the Samoan Clipper when the aircraft exploded in flight.

Beneath Musick’s name is First Officer H. E. Gray, another top Pan Am pilot, one of the first 10 hired by Pan Am. Harold Gray became president of Pan Am after Juan Trippe retired in 1968 after leading the airline for more than 40 years.

Also on the crew list is the signature of another famous flyer, F. J. Noonan. One of the best navigators of his day, Fred Noonan later left Pan Am and accompanied Amelia Earhart on her ill-fated round-the-world flight in 1937, from which neither returned.

The Hawaii Clipper on which Bradley flew has its own tragic story. In 1938, six months after the Samoan Clipper explosion, the Hawaii Clipper and all its passengers and crew vanished without a trace somewhere between Guam and Manila. What happened to it is another of aviation’s enduring mysteries.

On the last page of Bradley’s log book is a final interesting item: his “Passenger’s Identification Coupon,” imprinted with a special commemorative stamp and stating his itinerary, baggage weight allowance, and fare. How much did it cost Bradley to take part in this “Special Inaugural Flight”? The fare printed on the coupon is $3,000—which amounts to more than $50,000 today.

Thanks for reading; I have to go. I’m putting the final touches on a new exhibition that will open in the Museum on July 25. It’s called Hawaii by Air.

David Romanowski, is the Writer-Editor in the Exhibits Department of the National Air and Space Museum.

Skylab is Falling!

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Thirty-five years ago, on July 11, 1979, the first US space station fell out of orbit. It wasn’t a surprise or an error, nor was it a calamity. It was more like an intense meteor shower—sparkling and momentary—as Skylab entered the atmosphere. Very little of this spacecraft as large as a house was ever found on the ground.

Skylab had a brief but distinguished history between the last Apollo missions and the beginning of the Space Shuttle era. NASA repurposed some remaining Saturn hardware into an “orbital workshop” where three men at a time could live and work. It was the first US foray into spaceflight lasting longer than two weeks.

Skylab Orbital Workshop in Orbit

An overhead view of the Skylab Orbital Workshop in Earth orbit as photographed from the Skylab 4 Command and Service Modules (CSM) during the final fly-around by the CSM before returning home. Credit: NASA.

Three crews occupied Skylab in 1973-1974, staying 28, 59, and 84 days and setting US long-duration records that lasted until Americans stayed on the Russian space station Mir in the 1990s. They operated an attached solar observatory (the Apollo Telescope Mount), did Earth and astronomical observations, conducted microgravity and biomedical experiments, did EVA maintenance and repair tasks, and proved how productively they could work in space.

When the third crew left, NASA powered down Skylab and abandoned it, committing resources to the next big program, the Space Shuttle. Skylab drifted silently in a parking orbit for the next five years, circling about 269-283 miles (433-455 km) overhead. Expecting it to remain in orbit for about 10 years, NASA gave some thought to its possible eventual reuse.

However, Skylab’s orbit deteriorated more quickly as a more active than expected sunspot cycle affected the atmosphere and increased drag on the space station. By 1978, it was clear that Skylab was losing altitude and would fall out of orbit unless boosted higher. Had the Space Shuttle been ready to fly, it might have been used to reboost Skylab to prolong its existence, but with the first shuttle launch not expected until 1981, NASA had to work on a controlled descent instead.

Of course, the forecast for a huge falling spacecraft caused a great deal of concern and public interest. In 1978, a Soviet satellite crashed in Canada and spread radioactive debris, which raised awareness of potential hazards from above. Skylab had no radioactive materials onboard, but it was a massive 85-ton structure. The prospect of huge chunks of metal raining from the sky was scary.

Cover of The New York Times from July 11, 1979

Cover of The New York Times from July 11, 1979.

NASA calculated a descent trajectory for minimal risk to human life and property that would bring Skylab down over remote areas of the southern Pacific Ocean. Remotely operating the spacecraft’s onboard thrusters, ground controllers oriented Skylab properly to begin its descent.

Meanwhile, the media had stoked interest in the descent and a Chicken Little “the sky is falling” alarmism—both serious and humorous—arose. The Washington Post alone ran some 30 stories about Skylab’s demise from April through July 1979. People worried where the debris would land as Skylab disintegrated and burned during its high-speed passage through the atmosphere, and some joked about being doomsday targets or placed bets on its point of impact. The political and diplomatic consequences would not be trivial if death or destruction occurred.

As it happened, the calculated path of descent was a few degrees off. Some of Australia’s population heard the sonic booms and saw the bright streaks of Skylab debris, some of which fell in the vicinity of Esperance and the desert beyond. No one was hurt, no significant property damage occurred, and some pieces of recovered debris made their way back to NASA for analysis and on to museums. Others bits were doubtless kept as souvenirs of the night when a home in space fell to Earth.

*The backup Skylab orbital workshop has been on display in the Museum’s building on the National Mall since 1976. A few small fragments of charred Skylab debris are in the Museum’s collection.

Backup Skylab Orbital Workshop at the Museum in Washington, DC

Backup model of Skylab’s orbital workshop on display at the Museum in Washington, DC.

Valerie Neal is a curator in the National Air and Space Museum’s Space History Department.

Monumental Views

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Every Fourth of July, visitors and locals alike crowd the National Mall to watch the fireworks show with the Washington Monument as one of its focal points. The monument reopened to the public in May 2014 as the last vestiges of scaffolding were removed from it, a visible reminder of the damage caused by a 2011 earthquake. Every year, thousands of visitors photograph themselves on the National Mall with the monument in the background. It is no surprise that it is popular in aviation photography as well.

For one week in June 1906, A. Roy Knabenshue and Lincoln Beachey soared over Washington, DC, in an airship. Making flights at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm, the aviators took off from Luna Park in Arlington, Virginia, and circled the city to the delight of viewers on the ground. According to the New York Times, on the morning of June 14 Beachey circled the monument and headed for the White House. Landing on the lawn, he was informed that President Theodore Roosevelt was two miles away at Georgetown University for commencement ceremonies. After a brief run-in with the White House constabulary, Beachey was in the air again, emptying the chambers of Congress as senators and representatives rushed to see the spectacle.

Lincoln Beachey Circles the Washington Monument

Lincoln Beachey circles the Washington Monument in an airship, June 13, 1906. NASM 98-15047

James “Jim” Ray, Vice-President of the Autogiro Company of America (formerly Pitcairn Aircraft Company), made a habit of flying an autogiro over Washington. His first demonstration was in 1931, on the occasion of President Hoover’s presentation of the Collier Trophy to Harold Pitcairn and associates for the development of the autogiro. On October 2, 1936, Ray landed the AC-35 in what is now Freedom Plaza. There, he converted the aircraft to its roadable configuration and drove it to the main entrance of the Commerce Building.

Jim Ray Flies over the Washington Monument

Jim Ray flies over the Washington Monument in an experimental autogiro. The photo was taken from autogiro flown by John Miller. Although the original caption written on the image gives a date of 1933, the presence and the height of scaffolding on the Monument places this image in late 1934 or very early 1935. NASM 9A05679

In 1931, Juan Trippe’s Pan American Airways introduced the Sikorsky S-40 Clipper. With 38 seats and a crew of six, it was the largest plane built in America at that time. Charles Lindbergh commanded the first leg of the first flight of the American Clipper (NC-80V) in November 1931.

Pan American Airways’ Sikorsky S-40 American Clipper

Pan American Airways’ Sikorsky S-40 American Clipper flies by the Washington Monument. NASM 90-14350

In the past, the National Air and Space Museum has exhibited aircraft outside on the National Mall.  To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the first transatlantic flight in 1919 by a Navy Curtiss NC-4 between Long Island and Portugal, the restored plane was on public display in 1969 in several locations including Central Park and Philadelphia. By the summer, the aircraft was on the National Mall, almost in the shadow of the Washington Monument. After the outdoor display, the aircraft was disassembled and placed in storage. The NC-4 has been on loan to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida since 1974.

Curtiss NC-4 displayed on the National Mall

Curtiss NC-4 displayed on the National Mall, Summer 1969. The Washington Monument can be seen in the background. NASM 91-14704

Whether you’re watching the fireworks or cooking out with friends, enjoy your Fourth!

Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Department.

Remembering Frederick Ira Ordway, III

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Frederick Ira Ordway, III

Frederick Ira Ordway, III. Credit: Apogee Books

Fred Ordway passed away in Huntsville, Alabama, on the morning of Tuesday July 1. We were friends for 40 years, but then I can’t think of anyone in the aerospace community with a wider circle of friends than Fred. We have a tradition at the Museum of honoring deceased aerospace leaders with a short obituary and photo posted near the information desk in our south lobby. My colleagues offered me the honor of preparing such a farewell for Fred.

Frederick Ira Ordway, III (April 4, 1927–July 1, 2014) helped to create the space age, chronicled its history, and shaped the way in which the public perceived the past, present, and future of travel beyond the atmosphere. A native New Yorker, he was educated in primary and secondary schools in Connecticut, New York, Maine, and Washington, D.C. “Like many space flight enthusiasts,” he once remarked, “my interest was first stimulated by science fiction magazines.” He was 11 when he began to devour science fiction, and 13 when he became the youngest member of the fledgling American Rocket Society.

Following service as a naval reserve officer during the closing months of World War II, Ordway entered Harvard University, graduating with a BS in 1949. He pursued graduate study at the University of Paris, and universities in Algiers, Barcelona, and Innsbruck. Initially employed as a mining and petroleum engineer in Latin America, he accepted a job with Reaction Motors, Inc., America’s pioneering rocket motor manufacturer, in 1951, then moved on to the Guided Missile Division of Republic Aviation. A 1955 meeting with space pioneer Wernher von Braun led to a lifelong friendship and a decision to join the von Braun team at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, Huntsville, Alabama, where he would eventually serve as Chief of the Space Information Systems Branch.

Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke advised Stanley Kubrick to bring Ordway on board as technical advisor for the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that role he developed basic concepts and detailed designs for the spacecraft featured in the movie. Returning to Huntsville in 1967, he joined the faculty of the University of Alabama. Seven years later he moved to Washington, D.C. and a consulting position with the National Science Foundation followed by service as Special Assistant to Robert C. Seamans, director of the Energy Research Development Agency (later the Department of Energy).

Fred Ordway was a prolific author, producing 30 books on space flight, some with co-author Wernher von Braun, and 250 articles. In addition to his contributions to the American Rocket Society (now the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics), he was an early member of the American Astronautical Society, and an editor of its Journal of Astronautics. The only American to attend the First international Astronautical Congress in Paris in 1950, he became an active participant in the activities of the International Astronautical Federation. He was a member, often a Fellow, of many of the world’s aerospace technical societies.

Ordway donated the collection of science fiction and pulp magazines he had begun as a youngster to Harvard University. His impressive library of books on the history of space flight went to the University of Alabama, Huntsville. A collection of space art, focusing on the work of Chesley Bonestell, formed the basis for his 1992 travelling exhibition, Blueprint for Space: Science Fiction to Science Fact. For those of us who knew him, and millions of space enthusiasts around the globe, the world will be a less interesting and entertaining place without Fred Ordway.

Tom Crouch is a senior curator in the Aeronautics Department at the National Air and Space Museum.