Saturday, April 29, 2017

What We're Reading: Spaceflight before NASA

Breaking the Chains of Gravity:
The Story of Spaceflight before NASA,
by Amy Shira Teitel

This book was published in 2015. I missed reading it at that time, probably thinking like a lot of other people that it would be less interesting than stories about astronauts being lifted into space by huge rockets in the Mercury program, or books that captured the excitement of the lunar missions. I picked it up now because the author, Amy Shira Teitel, has agreed to participate in a conversation with Jeffrey Kluger at the Buena Vista Branch Library on May 24th for his new book on the mission of Apollo 8: Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon.

I vaguely remembered (mostly from a long-ago read of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff ) some of the pre-history of NASA; but this book goes into greater detail about that history, and I was surprised by what a fascinating story it turned out to be. Part of the challenge in writing this book must have been how to decide which of the many programs and research ventures deserved inclusion, how much time to devote to explaining each of them, and how to frame them into a compelling story. Teitel does this wonderfully. What is more amazing, though, is the command she has developed over the incredible technical details and decision-making involved in each of these highly technical projects, and the skill with which she has been able to explain these things to a general readership. This book is well researched, and the author demonstrates here not only a command of the technical issues, but a thorough knowledge of the bureaucratic, political, and international context in which the early development of spaceflight took place.

In early November of 1963, John Kennedy and Wernher von Braun

discuss rockets at Cape Canaveral.

Walt Disney and Wernher von Braun at the
Marshall Space Flight Center in 1954
Among my favorite stories in Breaking the Chains of Gravity are those of rocket builder Wernher von Braun’s history with the Nazi regime and the
V-2 rocket, as well as the account of the imaginative popularization of spaceflight he did in the 1950s with Collier’s Magazine and with the Walt Disney Company. The supersonic test flight programs at Edwards Air Force base are also fascinating, as is the inside look at the design challenges faced in building the X-15 rocket plane. But what I found most engaging were the experiments conducted by the Air Force that explored what it would take for humans to survive in space--I suppose what you would call the physiological challenges--and how they might be addressed. I knew nothing about these experiments, and they yielded the frisson that comes with what seems to be a kind of madness--"extreme sports," if you will, before that modern term came into use. The story of U.S. Air Force flight surgeon John Paul Stapp is one of those stories.

Stapp wanted to find out about the ability of the human body to withstand “g” forces in sudden deceleration and he built a device at Edwards that was a kind of sled along which a rocket-propelled chair was shot at high speeds and then brought to an abrupt stop. It was called the “Gee-Whizz.” Stapp strapped himself into the chair on this device and then had technicians shoot him at higher and higher speeds. In one experiment, on a similar device dubbed “Sonic Wind,” he had himself fired at 632 miles per hour, stopping in just 1.4 seconds and experiencing 46.2gs! As Teitel writes, “He had cracked ribs, two broken wrists, burst vessels in his eyes, and minor damage to his circulatory and respiratory systems, but otherwise was fine.” He wanted to put yet more rockets on the Sonic Wind, but the Air Force put a stop to the experiments, fearing a disaster (see a film of Stapp in action here).

U.S. Air Force surgeon John Paul Stapp strapped into the seat of the "Gee Whiz"
rocket sled, a device he designed to test the impact of "g" forces on the human body. 

Not much room to move. Air Force doctor
David Simons, about to be enclosed in the
"Manhigh" capsule and lifted to 100,00 ft.
 It was Stapp who talked an Air Force colleague, Dr. David Simons (who had been working on issues of human survivability in space) to himself become the subject of a high-altitude experiment. This was for Project Manhigh, in which Simmons would ascend by balloon to a high altitude (more than 100,000 feet) in a specially designed capsule and record various high-altitude data as well as record the biomedical effects on his own body. Simmons did this successfully, and the capsule design and the experimental data became important as greater thought was given to putting a manned mission into space.

Breaking the Chains of Gravity will serve to remind readers that amazing technological achievements do not just suddenly happen, that they have complex antecedents--a world of individuals with ambitions and remarkable daring--and that for their dreams to come true in so complex an enterprise, the challenges of organization, coordination of programs, and sound planning on a large scale must also be met. The journey to the creation of NASA happened at a time when the nation had the singularity of will and passion to do those things, and what followed was amazing: our entry into space. Surely it is one of the great triumphs to occur during the lifetime of many of us, and one that will forever mark an important epoch in human history.

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