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Apollo Fever

by Fran Bagenal

January 2006

Thirty years after Apollo, Cocoa Beach still exudes the romantic lure of spaceflight. I marvel at the lush, almost-tropical greenery as I drive along the Beeline Highway from Orlando to the coast and get a thrill out of spotting the huge flight facilities on the skyline. The two times I have seen launches were the small cozy Delta II launch of Deep Space 1 and the populous jamboree of a shuttle launch, for me the special occasion of seeing my colleague Ed Lu off on his first flight. This time my business, press briefings for the New Horizons launch still 90 days away, allows me some time to explore.

I imagine jogging along the beach like the 60s astronauts, gawking at the immensity of the Saturn V in the rocket museum and perhaps taking a tour of what’s left of the Apollo facilities. You see, I have caught a bad dose of Apollo fever. I insist it has nothing to do with the nonsense talk of Exploration Vision to go back to the Moon, Mars and Beyond. I agree with the students in my classes who say “Been there, done that — why go again?” It seems to them that the Apollo astronauts picking up lunar rocks are as much “Dead White Men” as Galileo rolling balls down planks. No, in my case, I have to admit the nostalgia of being a teenager in Britain staying up until 4 in the morning to watch the Apollo 11 moon landing. Not that I’ve ever been one of those fanatics who remember all the names of the astronauts and what each of them did, nor reveled in the acronyms and technospeak. As a teenager I was just curious as heck about what was there on the Moon.

My interest now is about the boldness of the policy, the drive to surmount enormous technical challenges and the human stories behind the characters involved, including the women who also wanted to fly in space.

It started by reading the (auto)biography of Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter — as much to read about Boulder in the 50s as spaceflight. The book caught me deep in the battle between scientists and engineers for primacy of NASA. Ed Lu and I had a shouting match: “You scientists are all about ‘me, me, me’ and ‘my precious science’ when we all know NASA is all about human exploration — without it there’s no science. You scientists need to help out and get the human side back on track,” insisted Ed. I ignored the easy quip that he is in fact a scientist himself. “Help out?!” I yelled back, “Your human exploration adventure will eat our science budget as an amuse bouche and then Congress will baulk at the cost of the appetizer to the Moon, let alone the main course of getting to Mars.” Scott Carpenter pointed out that this battle goes back to the very beginning of space exploration. He vividly described taking scientific measurements of what he thought was atmospheric airglow on 3 orbits of his Mercury flight in May 1962. He thought the phenomenon was neat as well as having important engineering implications for future flights. But flight control kept telling him “Just fly the machine.” I later read other Apollo astronauts make discrete understatements that “Carpenter had made a mistake”. But reading about the incident had gotten me thinking about battles between scientists and engineers on missions such as Cassini where the decision to cut the scan platform had an enormous cost to science. And the fact that no expense seems to be spared during building of spacecraft but science always seems to come up short when it comes to analyzing the data. We argue and fight but each side knows they need the other. Each is actually in awe of the other. I thought of writing an article called “NASA engineers are from Mars, NASA scientists are from Venus.” But somehow planning the next planetary mission got in the way.

To feed my Apollo fever, I browsed the biographies at the new National Aerospace Museum near Dulles airport. I came across a slim, rather different book. It had the obligatory rocket liftoff on the front but the fifties photos were not swaggering, grinning crew cuts but neatly coiffeured, smiling women. I had heard of a book about the Mercury 13 women but somehow it just seemed too depressing to read. The smiling women exuded such calm confidence that I just had to pick up the book. As I read I began to see why they were so confident. While they had no military or jet flight test experience like the men, these women had flown thousands of hours as pilots, often more hours than the selected male astronauts, in different types of planes and through all sorts of conditions. To them it seemed natural that their flight experience should qualify them for the new adventure of spaceflight.

To some of the doctors involved in testing the astronauts as part of the selection process, particularly Randolf Lovelace, it seemed obvious that women should become astronauts and he began to put a few of the top women pilots through the same rigorous tests that the men had experienced. These tests were grueling (graphically described in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and apparently much worse than current astronaut tests) so that when they were told they had passed they were optimistic that they would become astronauts. But this was in the late 50s to early 60s, a time that has to be an all-time low for belittling any meaningful contributions of women, except childrearing, to society. For example, Colonel John Stapp, chief of the Wright-Patterson Aeromedical Laboratory claimed (without citing any evidence) that females were considerably less equipped to withstand the emotional stresses that accompany spaceflight. Furthermore, he argued “Economically, the cost of putting a woman in space is prohibitive, strictly a luxury we cannot afford.” Women, he said needed to be protected against exposure to dangerous work. “To expose women needlessly,” he said,“ to the known as well as the incalculable dangers of pioneering space flight would be like employing women as riveters, truck drivers, steel workers, or coal miners.” Of course, there are plenty who still think these things but at least they cannot say so in public without ridicule.

What rather surprised me in The Mercury 13 was the battle between two women pilots, Jerri Cobb and Jacqueline Cochran, for leadership of any women astronauts program. In the absence of any real hope of following their ambitions to fly in space, I can understand how they might be pitted against each other. The book provides a detailed, blow-by-blow account of their being defeated by the authorities of NASA, Congress and Vice President Johnson. As I read about the duplicitous actions of NASA Administrator James Webb, I wondered why we are naming the next space telescope after such a character. But Mercury 13 falls short of putting the story of these early astronaut wannabes in proper political or sociological context.

For the political context of the space race, I recommend Two Sides of the Moon in which astronaut David Scott and cosmonaut Alexei Leonov (ably assisted by journalist Christine Toomey) describe their views from either side of the cold war race to the Moon as well as their subsequent meetings and activities as the cold war eventually thawed. And, of course, there’s lots of the right stuff for an Apollo junkie — tales of daring-do, technical wizardry and jock-ular astronaut pranks.

For the sociological context of not just the Mercury 13 women but also the women who were chosen to fly in space, I was enthralled by Almost Heaven. Bettyann Kevles has produced delightful book that describes how the changing of women’s role in society opened up possibilities for women to go into space. I suppose I had thought that the active roles of women in the Soviet regime produced many women cosmonauts. But the first woman space, Valentina Terashkova (June 1963), was primarily a huge publicity stunt, a show of one-up-manship (literally) for the Soviet very-largely male space technocrats. The Soviet engineers and fellow cosmonauts were just as disparaging against women going into space as their American equivalents. The second woman cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaia, did not fly until 1986, three years after Sally Ride flew as a mission specialist on the Shuttle.

Kevles describes how films like Barbarella and TV series like Star Trek began to give society a view, albeit still fictional, of the possibility of women in space. But NASA resisted. Chris Kraft, the “cool guy” Apollo mission controller, is quoted as saying that in the seventies “the subject of including women never came up until it was raised by outsiders” — where he obviously meant outsiders to be those who were not part of his exclusive white male techno-elite. Kevles points out the ways that the changing world outside NASA meant that women began training as airforce test pilots in 1974, six women joining the class of 1978 astronaut corps as mission specialists and eventually test pilot Eileen Collins flying in 1990 as Shuttle pilot and then in 1999 as commander.

Sociologically, the post-Apollo eras of Soyez, Mir, Shuttle and ISS are much richer than Apollo (the “right stuff” gets a bit predictable). Kevles points out the cultural differences between the treatment of women in the Soviet-later-Russian space program vs. in the US that not only kept women from flying but also led to major misunderstandings
when the two space-faring nations began to work together. It seemed that Russian cosmonauts were more prepared to accept aggressive/ competent American women but continued to insist that Russian women — even doctors and engineers — remain “feminine” as well as do all the household chores. I could only shake my head when reading that on arriving at Mir, Savitskaia was handed an apron, a symbol of her subservient, female status. That was 1986 — just 20 years ago. When Helen Jarman was picked to be the first Briton to go into space in 1990, her cosmonaut host on Mir, Anatoli Artsebarsky declared “It is not a woman’s business to fly into space. More work can be done by a man.” And Alexei Leonov, by then cosmonaut director, gave her a pink chiffon jumpsuit to wear on board. While American astronauts and NASA officials quickly learned to be “politically correct” Kevles chronicles incidents where male astronauts resented that women were not only being selected but getting lots of limelight. Unfortunately, she gets onto rather wobbly ground in discussing females styles of leadership, comparing male pilots with Eileen Collins, Pamela Melroy and Susan Kilrain. It is an interesting topic to discuss but needs much deeper analysis.

My biggest beef with space exploration literature is where’s the science? It’s all about getting selected, training and then flying the machine. Or staring in awe at the Earth. In Andrew Chaikin’s 650-page tome A Man on the Moon, there is scant mention of the hundreds of lunar science experiments, even though the
astronauts themselves got pretty wrapped up in the science. Tom Hanks’ delightful 3-D IMAX movie Magnificent Desolation has all sorts of fabulous visual effects and provides the basic story — all to inspire young people to go to the Moon — but makes no mention of science. OK, so the Moon is just a big dead rock compared with Europa, Titan or giant Saturn and its complex ring system. But wasn’t the ISS justified in terms of the science that would be done there? There’s often mention of biomedical experiments, growing seeds and lighting matches in zero-g, but I feel insulted as a taxpayer that so little is explained about what we have learned from all the hoopla about humans in space. I admit it’s still cool and when New Horizons blasts off to Pluto in January 2006 I will again wander around Cape Canaveral, marvel at the massive machinery and admire those brave, clever, skillful astronauts, (as of February 2003, 160 men and 36 women) who happily ride up into the sky.

For further reading on human spaceflight:
For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut, Scott Carpenter and Stoever, Harcourt Books, 2002.
The Mercury 13, Martha Ackmann, Random House, 2004.
The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe, Bantum Books, 1979.
Two Sides of the Moon, David Scott and Alexei Leonov, Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Almost Heaven, Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles, Basic Books, 2003.
A Man on the Moon, Andrew Chaikin, Penguin Books, 1994.

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