Gareth Stringer's 2012 blogGAR Entries

JAN 26 2012
blogGAR - How I Learned to Love the Space Race

Last week’s BBC Stargazing Live demonstrated emphatically just how fascinating we still find the world of astronomy and the huge popularity of anything beyond our own earthly boundaries. Indeed, I read afterwards that following three nights in the company of Professor Brian Cox et al – sales of telescopes increased by an incredible 500%!

For me though, one part of the broadcast stood out above all – the first night, and the live interviews with Captain Eugene ‘Gene’ Cernan. I’m guessing that if you asked Joe Public what Cernan had achieved in his lifetime then many would fail to come up with the correct answer, for we are very good, and understandably so, at remembering only ‘firsts’ - and Cernan was actually the last man to walk on the moon.

Cernan and his colleague Harrison Schmitt left the lunar surface on December 14th 1972 and as we approach the 40th anniversary of that historic moment we do so having never been back. While much has been achieved in that time, hand in hand with tragedy too of course, it has all been done with humans in earth orbit and man has not repeated the grand voyages of the late 60s and early 70s which saw us travelling in to deep space and to the moon, a distance of some 240,000 miles.

The race to the moon, it was the Cold War and the Russians were winning it for some time, has developed in to a real passion of mine over the past few years and, surprise, surprise, it all started for me with aviation and another first – Charles ‘Chuck’ Yeager and the day he broke the sound barrier.

I had seen ‘The Right Stuff’ on VHS when I was about 12 years old, during the school holidays I seem to remember, and I only rented it from our local video outlet because I knew that it told the story of Yeager reaching Mach 1 in the Bell X-1. If I’m honest, the rest of the film, which looked at the selection of America’s first astronauts and the race to put a man in to space with Project Mercury, passed me by somewhat.

It was only when, about eight years later, that I first read Tom Wolfe’s book from which the film had been adapted, that the story really grabbed me. You see, like Yeager, America’s first astronauts were all test pilots. Dubbed the ‘Mercury 7’ and also the ‘Original 7’, these, you guessed it, seven men, were heroes in the USA before they had even done anything space-related whatsoever.

Even the fact that Russia won the race to fly first when Yuri Gagarin completed an orbit of the earth on 12th April 1961 did little to dent their popularity or the huge enthusiasm for the space programme. For me though, initially at least, it was their background that was of most interest. If you’re wondering why, let’s take a look at what those seven men flew before joining the astronaut corps.

Alan Shephard – the first American in space. US Navy and a graduate of the Test Pilot School at Patuxent River - F2H-3 Banshee, F-3H Demon, F-8 Crusader, F-4D Skyray, F11F Tiger and was also project test pilot on the F5D Skylancer.

Gus Grissom – the second to fly and also flew on Gemini (the precursor to Apollo and the moon missions) before his untimely death in the Apollo 1 command module fire that occurred during ground testing. F-86 (100 missions in Korea), then to Wright-Patterson as a fighter branch test pilot flying the likes of the F-104 Starfighter.

John Glenn – a true national hero and the first American to orbit the earth, Glenn famously returned to orbit on the Space Shuttle in 1998 at the age of 77. A Marine, Glenn also flew the F-86 in Korea, claiming three MiG-15 kills, and then became a test pilot, conceiving and making a transcontinental record breaking flight in the Vought F8U-1 Crusader. Project Bullet saw Glenn depart from Los Alamitos Naval Air Station in California and, just 3 hours, 23 minutes, and 8.4 seconds later, he touched down at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, thereby setting a transcontinental speed record of 725.55 mph.

Scott Carpenter followed Glenn in to orbit and the two men are the only surviving members of the Mercury 7. The only one of the group who didn’t come from a fast jet background, Carpenter flew the Lockheed P2V Neptune in Korea and then went on to become a test pilot specialising in electronics.

Wally Schirra was the fifth American in space, the first man to fly in to orbit three times and the sole member of the group who flew on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programmes. A US Navy pilot, Schirra flew Air Force F-84s on exchange in Korea before working at China Lake as test pilot on the Sidewinder missile, the F7U-3 Cutlass jet fighter and to evaluate the F-4 Phantom for naval service.

Gordon Cooper was on board the final Mercury flight (Deke Slayton, the seventh member of the group, didn’t fly due to an irregular heartbeat) and was therefore the sixth to fly, becoming the first American to spend more than a day in space and also the last American to orbit the Earth alone. Cooper flew the F-84 Thunderjet in Germany for the USAF before joining the Flight Test Engineering Division at Edwards AFB where he served as a test pilot and project manager testing the F-102A and F-106B.

I mean come on – what a list of aircraft. Some real beauties in there and how could a young aviation enthusiast not want to know more about them?! It was precisely that that led me down a path where I wanted to learn more and, along the way, my interest in the different space programmes themselves grew and grew.

I’ve often wondered how different things might have been if test pilots hadn’t been chosen in the beginning. NASA did, famously, consider people from other walks of life such as high divers and acrobats but eventually plumped for test pilots as they were already technically minded, security cleared and earning a pittance!

They weren’t however great PR men and were far more comfortable dealing with technical matters than they were when trying to elaborate on how it actually felt to be in space. It is the sort of question that has hounded many of them to this day and there is little doubt in my mind that the whole thing would probably look and feel quite different had test pilots not been the chosen ones.

The second group of astronauts, ‘The New Nine’ were also recruited from the test pilot cadre and it is from here, and the third and fifth groups selected that we find those who dominated the Gemini and Apollo programmes. Astronaut Group 4 incidentally was dubbed ‘The Scientists’ and waived test pilot and minimum flight time requirements while Group 5, all nineteen of them, produced no less than three moonwalkers and six command module pilots who flew to the moon.

‘The New Nine’ consisted of Jim McDivitt, James ‘Jim’ Lovell, Ed White, Tom Stafford, Elliott See, Charles ‘Pete’ Conrad, Frank Borman, Neil Armstrong and John Young. Three of this group would eventually walk on the moon (Armstrong of course, Conrad and Young), while two were sadly killed (Ed White in Apollo 1 and Elliott See in a T-38 crash, the first US astronaut fatality). It also included the first two civilians, and Armstrong was the first man selected who had flown the mighty North American X-15, which still holds the official world record for the fastest speed ever reached by a manned rocket-powered aircraft. That’s Mach 6.70 or 4,519mph incidentally!

If all this, and believe me, there is lots lots more of it, is of interest, then I would like to recommend some reading material. Inside this little lot you’ll find everything you need to know about the space programme, the personalities involved and yes, plenty on what they did beforehand – so lots of aviation if the actual NASA stuff doesn't grow on you as it did for me!

Firstly, there are a number of memoirs written by astronauts themselves and you are guaranteed an aviation fix with these titles because they frequently cover a lot more ground than just NASA activity.

Perhaps the best of the bunch and certainly my favourite is ‘Carrying The Fire’ by Michael Collins. Collins was one of the more outgoing astronauts and flew on Gemini 10 and Apollo 11, where he was command module pilot while Armstrong and Aldrin went to the surface of the moon. It’s a funny and very open account of his life and work and one that doesn’t pull any punches.

I also very much enjoyed ‘Light This Candle – The Life and Times of Alan Shephard’. Shephard was a huge personality and sometimes controversial character during his time at NASA and his forceful nature undoubtedly played a part in him becoming the 5th person to walk on the moon at the age of 47 - the oldest astronaut in the system at that time. The antics he got up to during his time as a US Navy pilot are also eye-opening, especially for anyone with a love of low flying!

Neil Armstrong is one of the most reticent of the bunch and James.R.Hansen’s ‘First Man’ is, as an authorised biography, essential reading about a man for whom the title Engineering Test Pilot could have been invented. He was never especially comfortable with the PR side of the astronaut business and ‘First Man’ does much to deal with some of the myth surrounding Armstrong and does detail his time at Edwards flying the X-15 very nicely.

There are other titles which sit alongside those detailed above and I would also like to recommend a couple of these more generic or all-ecompassing books that I, for what it is worth, consider essential. The first is Andrew Smith’s ‘Moondust’. A few years ago Smith set out to talk to each of the nine remaining men who walked on the moon and his is a wonderfully touching, and occasionally whimsical (I don’t mean that in a negative sense) look at the Apollo programme.

The interviews are some of the best and most revealing I’ve read, mainly because Smith endeavoured throughout to steer clear of the most obvious lines of questioning and his quest to track down Neil Armstrong is also fascinating. Indeed, he took this element one stage further in 2009 with a BBC documentary to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, ‘Being Neil Armstrong’, and, if you can track it down, it’s well worth a look should you have missed it first time round.

I’m currently reading Andrew Chaikin’s seminal, I’ll call it that already even though I haven't finished it, ‘A Man on the Moon’. This is a weighty title that details the entire Apollo programme and was written when all 24 of those who travelled to and around the moon were still with us, drawing upon hundreds of hours of interviews. I didn’t think there was too much I hadn’t read about Apollo from the astronauts perspectives – until I started reading this one!

Finally, and moving slightly away from what I humbly consider to be the golden age of space exploration, I’d urge you to read ‘Riding Rockets’ by Mike Mullane. Mullane was a USAF Weapons System Officer (RF-4C Phantom) who served in Vietnam and was eventually selected as one of the group of 29 men and 6 women who were chosen for the Space Shuttle programme. ‘Riding Rockets’ is hysterically funny, painfully sad and brutally honest - in many ways nothing like any other memoir I’ve read.

Finally, in terms of TV and film, other than the documentary mentioned above then I would of course highly recommend ‘The Right Stuff’, it really hasn’t aged, and ‘Apollo 13’ is a superb portrayal of what was nearly NASA’s biggest disaster. ‘In The Shadow of the Moon’ is a fantastic documentary featuring interviews with many Apollo personalities and there are a host of others detailing the whole space race with the NASA website and You Tube both providing a wealth of archive footage.

I can’t get enough of it to be honest and if you are, like me, an aviation enthusiast, I think you’ll find it hard not to become captivated by what was surely Man’s greatest achievement of the 20th Century – it really was one small step (damn!) from one subject to the other. If you are already an aficionado then I’m preaching to the converted but hopefully some of the suggestions might be new to you and if you’ve got any other recommendations then I’d love to hear them. My only regret is that we stopped going to the moon before I was even born.

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