Tuesday, 18 November 2008

General Musings

I'm feeling rather more upbeat about the dissertation - and its possibility of it evolving into a book further down the line.

Weirdly, that feeling was boosted by an event I attended at the British interplanetary Society at the beginning of the month following the fortunes of women in space. The audience was older, knowledgeable and eager for information - but neither the presenter or his colleague who facilitated the Q&A were that great.... I've always been a bit daunted that my understanding and enthusiasm for the history of the Space Race might be a bit noddy when placed alongside those who make a living writing about it. And while my detailed grasp of the minutiae may pale beside those who spend their lives in the more geeky aspects of space research, I've actually found that the knowledge I have of the period and the politics around the space programme is actually pretty good - and the perspective I bring as one born during the Gemini programme gives me a slightly different outlook to those who were adults already when the Cold War dawned.

I was furthe bouyed up by a good old dose of Apollo TV over the weekend when I caught up on Discovery's NASA's greatest missions. Now I've seen more or less all of the original foorage in other packages before, but these were good programmes, well researched - and it's always good to see the likes of Kranz, Aldrin, Armstrong (a rarity!), Duke and Cernan enthusing about the missions.

My final bouancy device is to find there's a possibility that my own university may part-fund next Spring's research trip to Washington and Austin. It'll be a great relief to secure even partial funding and while confirmation is far from certain, things are looking a tad more hopeful.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Feeling glum

Things aren't going so well on the research front at the moment. I'm heavily tied up in two taught MA modules at the moment, so the dissertation has been on the back burner, but a letter received today plus the lack of response from potential interviewees has left me a bit down in the dumps.

I've had my application for funding to research at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas next Spring rejected. No specific reason has been given so I've asked for some more detailed feedback. Obviously failing to secure travel/accommodation money is a blow, but not insurmountable. This was my first application, and hopefully I'll be able to find funding elsewhere.

Meanwhile, I've yet to hear from Paul Haney - a key NASA public affairs spokesman in Gemini/early Apollo times, and latterly ITN's expert on the moon landings. A guy at the New Mexico Museum of Space History put me in touch with Mr Haney - but he hasn't yet got back to me.

Perhaps rather less surprisingly, those Apollo astronauts scheduled to be in the UK this weekend for an autograph show - Lovell, Scott and Brand among them - haven't responded to my requests for interview. Somehow I think it's sad that their appearances are now rationed to money-making zoo shows - and I doubt it's what they or NASA had planned 30 years ago. it's tempting to shell out a tenner and join the queues anyway....but I really don't want a three second hello and an expensive autograph, I want to run through a set of research questions with them that will add first-person experience to a piece of academic research. I'm rapidly getting the impression though that I'm a bit naive and over-optimistic!

Anyway, I'm realising I really don't rate on the academic historian scale at all yet. I recently submitted an article to a magazine and got no response at all - nothing, not even a two word 'no thanks'.

When the targeted magazine came out, they'd covered the subject using a piece I'd already seen in a US publication. That certainly put me in my place!

I can live with rejections - they're a part of my working life in corporate communications. But it's doubly galling to hear nothing at all. That builds up false hope, even a false sense that things are going well.

Anyway, rant over. It's up to me now to get things back on track.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Happy Birthday BiS

Happy birthday to the British Interplanetary Society (of which I am a member!) - 75 today, making it the second oldest organisation in support of space exploration in the world.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The Flight of the Phoenix - 40 years on

As part of my MA research, I recently had the chance to interview Apollo 7's Walt Cunningham. This article covers his Apollo 7 mission - the 'forgotten' Apollo that got NASA back on its horse and well set for a moonshot.

Copyright on the content resides with Mark Shanahan and none of the interview below can be reproduced without permission.

The Flight of the 'Phoenix' - 40 years on

“You’re prompt!”

There’s nothing more unnerving than an unexpected phone greeting. So Walt Cunningham’s way of answering my phone call threw me a bit when I rang him, as planned, at his Houston, Texas home.

Cunningham is the last surviving crew member of Apollo 7, the phoenix that rose from the flames of the Apollo 1 fire and put the US manned space programme back on track in 1968.

October 11th marks the 40th anniversary of the flight of the ‘Phoenix’ – a near-perfect shakedown of the Apollo Command and Service Modules, although it’s probably best remembered now for Mission Commander Wally Schirra’s head cold and general irascibility.

Ironically, Cunningham, the one Apollo 7 crewman who didn’t suffer from a cold in space was recovering from a bad one when we spoke. He’s not one to spend much time recollecting his past, though he has grown more comfortable speaking about his eight years with NASA as the years since Apollo have progressed.

“When I was in business, I kind of resented the fact that all anyone wanted to know about was my 11 days in space. It used to be a barrier to getting to the real meat of the conversation. My flight was more than half a lifetime ago, and there’s a lot more to me than that one mission. But I’m more relaxed about it today and understand that people are curious about the steps that led up to the Moon landing which remains the defining event of the 20th Century.”

Cunningham rates Apollo 7 as the third most important Apollo mission, headed only by Apollo 11’s moon landing, and Apollo 8’s circum-lunar flight. “An awful lot of people think the Apollo programme started with Apollo 8, the earthrise pictures and the readings from scripture. Perhaps because we tested the CSM in earth orbit we tend to be forgotten. However, this was a crucial mission for NASA.

“After the disaster of the Apollo 1 fire, we were very aware that another failed mission would put the whole Apollo Programme at risk. While NASA was fully committed to the moon landing on Kennedy’s terms, it was clear that the political will in Washington wasn’t as strong as it had been. Our budgets were being pared back and the escalation of the war in Vietnam and Johnson’s Great Society Programmes were putting the squeeze on available dollars.

“NASA needed Apollo 7 to be a success, Johnson wanted to get ahead of the Soviets again in the race to the moon and the whole country really needed a lift after a bad year.”

So did that put extra pressure on Cunningham, Eisele and Schirra? “Personally, I don’t think this was different from any other mission,” Cunningham responded. “We had been together for three years, training first for the Apollo 2 mission until that was scrapped; then as back-up to Grissom, White and Chaffee and then, following their deaths, as the prime crew for what became Apollo 7.

“We’d had 21 months since the fire to work with North American on a much safer, much improved capsule and had all rehearsed our own roles and those of the other crew members hundreds and thousands of times over. I had no thoughts about the fire; I didn’t feel we were taking any unnecessary risks and I fully believe we were aimed at perfection, regardless of whatever was going on beyond our circumstances.

“After we came back, Wally claimed he had felt that he was carrying an extra load of pressure beyond his Mercury and Gemini flight experience. I never saw anything about him at the time that would justify this claim and, with 20:20 hindsight, suspect it was aimed at excusing his irritable behaviour on the mission.

“Leading up to the mission we were totally focused on making it a success and that’s what we achieved. The result of our successful outcome was that we gave management the opportunity to insert Apollo 8 into the schedule as a circum-lunar flight, orbiting the moon just two months after we’d returned to earth. We had six days of intensive debrief after we landed and our experience with the Apollo hardware and software made it a lot easier for George Low and Sam Phillips to press their case to send Apollo 8 to the moon rather than conducting another low earth orbit shakedown.”

Asked for his comments on Schirra’s mood and behaviour on the flight – which ended Cunningham and Eisele’s hopes of another Apollo mission, Walt said: “Wally was a great friend until his death last year – but I do hold his actions on the flight against him. In the end, he had different motives for flying than Donn and I. He’d already been in space twice and had made it clear that he intended to move on once this mission was complete.

“Aside from his cold, he was ticking the mission days off right from the start. He was the kind of character who got in, got the job done and wanted to get out again – and he thought about himself first and his crew second.

“He did start showing cold symptoms from day two, and Donn followed suit with a bit of a sniffle later in the flight. I’m sure it was horrible – in zero-g it’s very difficult to clear your head. Blowing your nose hard is the only way, and that really hurts your ears. But when it came down to it, if Wally had a cold, everyone had a cold.

“His attitude and run-ins with Mission Control were a somewhat different issue, stemming more from the fact that he wasn’t a detail-guy. Wally painted with a broad-brush and hadn’t gotten too involved in the minutiae of the flight plan which was pretty crowded – especially in the early days of the flight. So, given that he was feeling bad, he was less than pleased to see anything added to the plan.

“Unfortunately, we were all tarred with the same brush by Chris Kraft back at Houston which meant that Donn and I were grounded. Looking back, Wally should have been more of a mentor. . Other Commanders worked with their crews to help them into seats on later missions.

“Perhaps I should have spoken up more at the time, and I regret I didn’t, but my role on Apollo 7 was an unusual one for me. I’m normally pretty blunt, but I found myself in the peacemaker’s role, sometimes between Wally and Donn and sometimes between the pair of them and Houston. However, things were never as bad as they were reported afterwards. We got along pretty well – in the end, the mission came first and it was probably the best test flight of a new craft that NASA ever had.”

General Sam Phillips, Apollo Programme Manager at NASA HQ in Washington described the mission as 101% successful, yet reading Cunningham’s book The All American Boys, there’s a sense it could have been even more productive.

“The mission was front-loaded,” he explained, “with about 75% of our core activities packed into the first four or five days. Frankly, Donn and I were a little worried that Wally might try to bring us home early. What that meant is that we weren’t exactly overloaded with stuff to do in the later days of the mission. That meant it actually got a little boring towards the end. The food was bland; the craft was a little noisy and Wally’s focus was clearly fixed on getting back to terra firma. He had a wrist calendar and used to tick the days off one by one. By the second half of the mission, he was ticking them off after breakfast!”

My assumption from reading the book was that Walt didn’t rate Donn Eisele too highly in terms of performance, noting that he once fell asleep on watch . “No, actually Donn did rather well,” he countered. “He was a rookie too and felt he had to perform well. If that meant taking his lead from the Commander, so be it. Donn’s natural style was to be a joiner. And, as Wally had an ego big enough for all three of us, Donn usually took his cue from him.”

One thing I’d never understood, and was eager to question Cunningham on was what the designated Lunar Module pilot did on missions where there was no LM? He laughed, replying: “Actually, my role was to be the systems expert on the spacecraft. Together with Jack Swigert, I’d spent months developing and refining the systems malfunction procedures. I had to know every one of the dozen systems throughout the spacecraft and was responsible for solving any problems that might occur in flight.

“We didn’t have many, just enough to keep things interesting. We got some high temperatures on a fuel cell, and the two AC buses dropped out momentarily once when the cryogenic oxygen tank heaters were cycling. We were able to overcome any issues very quickly. The whole purpose of the mission was to test the spacecraft and the systems , and it came through with flying colours.

“The mission was far more important than the crew, and it encompassed thousands of people across NASA and its contractors. When you compare Apollo to what the Soviets were attempting, it’s clear to see why we were moving into the lead. The Russian centralized command and control system produced relatively simple hardware that constrained them to relatively simple missions.

“By comparison, we produced complex spacecraft and outsiders may still not understand how so many different contractors could come together to fashion such staggering success. But the programme was too big for any single company, and our triumph was in systems management. The American way enabled us to produce a complex spacecraft with a far greater chance of success with complex missions.”

Demonstrating that success, the crew made eight firings of the Service Propulsion System – the engine that would place later Apollo craft in and out of lunar orbit, and brought firsts such as a daily TV show to the curious public back on earth some 200 miles below.

Apollo 7 splashed down on October 22 just a third of a mile from its planned landing point, bringing to a close a flight that vindicated the continuance of Apollo.

Next, I asked Cunningham for his thoughts on the mission’s legacy. “Its legacy is threefold,” he commented. “First, it got the programme back on track after the loss of Apollo 1 and its crew. Second, it gave management the collateral to change the programme and speed our progress to the moon with Apollo 8. Third, in so doing, it was an essential step towards Neil and Buzz stepping onto the lunar surface.”

So, I concluded, how does Cunningham feel about NASA’s stated aim of returning to the moon and then heading for Mars. “I find it hard to get excited about,” he concluded. “Apollo was a one off from days when America showed real leadership and wasn’t afraid to take risks. Everything about the future missions seems too woolly and lacking in direction. In this risk-averse society, I can’t honestly see the kind of decisive action and collective will necessary to turn the plans into reality. The Cold War provided the edge we needed to demonstrate the superiority of one ideology over another. The world has moved on now and I fail to see that necessary edge.”

Walt Cunningham remains busy with writing and speaking engagements. You can find out more about him and Apollo 7 at
www.waltercunningham.com. Mark Shanahan is a freelance writer based in the UK and is currently studying for an MA in international Relations at Brunel University focusing on Superpower politics in the Cold War.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

It took a fire to put man on the moon

Previously published on my work blog - this actually is more appropriate here, and timely as we approach the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 7 flight.

Apollo 204: how a fatal fire put a man on the moon

“We’ve got a fire in the cockpit! We’ve got a bad fire....get us out. We’re burning up....”On January 27, 1967 the crew of the first planned Apollo mission was in Command Module (CSM) 012 on Pad 34 at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, running through a standard ‘plugs out test’ . With a month still to their launch date, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee faced a routine rehearsal for their Apollo ‘shake down’ mission. But as testing neared its conclusion, an electrical arc caused a flash fire in the capsule. Within seconds, the astronauts were dead.

North American Aviation technician Steve Clemmons had been monitoring the oxygen feed into the spacecraft from the Clean Room on the top floor of the gantry tower. “The astronauts had been in the capsule for over five hours and tempers were a little frayed. There had been problems all through the test. Testing was on hold and we could tell by Grissom’s scuffling inside the craft that he was agitated.

“The final test called for the Astronauts to declare an emergency, so we weren’t surprised when we heard: ‘Fire, we’ve got a fire in here.’ I looked over toward a colleague, Jim Gleaves. He could see that this wasn’t a test. Shocked, he yelled: ‘Let’s get the men out’ as he and Don Babbitt, the pad leader, followed by Jerry Hawkins, rushed out on the swing arm that led to the White Room surrounding the entrance hatch of the capsule.“I looked up at the nearest capsule window. It had turned bright orange. Then I realised that we had a real fire on our hands.

The Spacecraft ruptured several seconds later and secondary fires broke out on both levels.”

Frantic fight

Clemmons and his colleagues fought frantically through flames and acrid smoke to get to the CSM’s hatches and get them open, using the only two fire extinguishers on Level 8 (there was none in the CSM itself). By this time some of their clothes were burned off and Gleaves and Babbit had been overcome by smoke and heat.

“It took us four minutes and fifteen seconds to get the cover and hatches off. But the Astronauts were dead, killed within 18 seconds after the first explosion.”

Space race lost?

The US needed Apollo to be a success. For the past decade they’d been playing space catch-up with the Soviets who had put the first artificial satellite in space, swiftly followed by the first man (and woman). Now, NASA believed the Soviets were at least neck and neck in the race to put a man on the moon.

Following the successes of Mercury when NASA had launched the first American astronauts – including Grissom – into space, and Gemini, during which Ed White became the first American to walk in space, NASA was on the verge of the first Apollo launch – until the fatal fire struck..Now the government’s $22 billion investment in Apollo was in jeopardy, and President Kennedy’s 1961 pledge to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely before the end of the decade looked like words without substance.


Apollo 204 had been trouble from the start. The simulators didn’t work and NAA – new to the space race – had endured serious problems during the capsule’s manufacture. It was way behind schedule and shipped to the Cape with a hundreds of faults outstanding. Change in the CSM was a daily occurrence – and many of the changes weren’t being properly recorded or managed.

NASA and its contractors alike were suffering, according to Steve Clemmons, from ‘Moon fever’. “There was an attitude at Kennedy of ‘do everything, even if it’s wrong’ to get us to the moon.“We were working at top speed to get the craft ready for launch. All-too-regular VIP visits inside the capsule, plus the huge amount of work being undertaken by engineers and technicians, were bound to affect the craft. There were miles of exposed wire, aluminium tubing, valves and electrical devices. Velcro strips with an extremely flammable backing were installed on all the open wall areas, and nylon netting was suspended below the seats.

“Then, the test itself was planned in a pure oxygen environment. In such an environment, even steel burns. Hindsight provides wonderful 20:20, but this was an accident waiting to happen.”


“Such an obvious thing and yet we hadn’t considered it,” commented Apollo 11 astronaut, Michael Collins. Writing in Carrying the fire, he said: “We put three guys inside an untried spacecraft, strapped them into couches, locked two cumbersome hatches behind them and left them no way of escaping a fire.......With all those oxygen molecules packed in there at that pressure (16psi) any material generally considered combustible would be almost explosive.”


Following the accident, US space flight was put on hold. Shock gripped NASA and the nation. James Webb, NASA Administrator, told the media: "We've always known that something like this was going to happen soon or later. . . . who would have thought that the first tragedy would be on the ground?"But as the nation mourned, Webb acted to save Apollo. He asked President Johnson for NASA to be allowed to handle the accident investigation and direct the recovery from the accident. He promised to be truthful in assessing blame and pledged to assign it to himself and NASA management as appropriate. Johnson agreed.Webb appointed an eight member investigation board, chaired by longtime NASA official and director of the Langley Research Centere, Floyd L. Thompson. It set out to discover the details of the tragedy: what happened, why it happened, could it happen again, what was at fault, and how could NASA recover?

The very fact that the fire had occurred on the launch pad rather than in space probably saved Apollo. Thompson had all the evidence in front of him to assess the cause of the fire – and more so, what needed to be done to get Apollo back in the race.


The burnt out capsule was taken to Langley, and over the following weeks, a team of almost 2000 investigators took the charred capsule apart. Every piece was examined thoroughly, with intense scrutiny of the miles of wiring that had snaked through the craft.While the fire investigations singled out no specific source – NASA’s report states ‘an electrical fire of undetermined origins’, it’s generally accepted that the fire began just below Grissom’s seat on the left side of the capsule. In the pure oxygen atmosphere, it spread with frightening rapidity.

The Thompson investigation was swiftly followed by congressional hearings by both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Manned Apollo space flight was grounded until Apollo 7 launched on October 11 1968. Webb managed to deflect the criticism from Thompson’s team and the subsequent Congressional hearings away from individuals within both NASA and the CSM contractor, North American Aviation. He subsequently resigned from NASA in October 1968.

Meanwhile, Grissom and Chaffee had been buried at Arlington and White at West Point, all with full military honours, and a nation mourned its lost heroes. Some months later, the flight that never happened was given the official title Apollo 1.

Out of the fire

Yet fellow astronaut Walt Cunningham, a member of the back-up crew who subsequently served on the Apollo 204 investigation isn’t comfortable with viewing the three as heroes. He told me: “The crew was simply performing a routine test. Unfortunately there was an accident and they lost their lives. Nothing heroic was involved other than their being astronauts – a risky job.”

The biggest impact of the fire was that it gave NASA the necessary pause for breath to get the programme back on track to fulfil Kennedy’s pledge. “Apollo 1 was a vital step to the moon,” Cunningham continued, “because it reminded management that spacecraft were dangerous and bought the time necessary to fix deficiencies.”

Just whether NASA’s ‘fixes’ were enough was put to the test in October 1968 when Cunningham finally took to the skies alongside Wally Schirra and Donn Eisele aboard Apollo 7. The mission was a resounding technical success. A chastened organisation was finally in fit shape to put a man on the moon.The Apollo1 fire marked the loss of NASA’s innocence. Yet the catastrophe paved the way for a new regime that revolutionised mission planning and safety. By learning its lessons so painfully on the launch pad, NASA enabled Neil Armstrong to set foot on the moon in July 1969.

Useful web resources:

NASA history http://history.nasa.gov/history.html
Kennedy Space Centre www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/home/index.html
USAF Space and Missile Museum http://www.patrick.af.mil
Apollo 1 Memorial Foundation http://www.apollo1.org/

Books:· A Man on the Moon – Andrew Chaikin, Penguin ISBN: 0140272011· Space Race – Deborah Cadbury, Harper Perennial ISBN: 13 978 000 720994 1· Carrying the Fire – Michael Collins, Cooper Square Press ISBN: 081541028X· The All-American Boys – Walter Cunningham, ibooks ISBN: 0743486676Post:

(These are a couple of blog entries carried over from my previous blog)


We're coming up to the 40th anniversary of the manned element of the Apollo programme. I recently interviewed Walt Cunningham about his recollections of his Apollo 7 flight, and am now looking into Apollo 8 - and one particular element - the Earthrise photo that adorns this blog.

Apollo 8 marked the point where the world really switched on to the programme. Approval ratings soured and the world's media began its countdown to the moon landing to follow in July 1969. Bill Anders has always been credited with the Earthrise shot, though both mission commander Frank Borman and the third crew member, Jim Lovell have also made claims for it. It seems that there were a number of shots taken - both colour and black and white and the cameras were used by all three astronauts - so all have some title to the iconic shot.

Austrailan Broadcasting have an interesting take on the astronauts' perception of the shot - how Borman shot it with the moon's surface horizontal while anders uses the relativity of the CSM to the moon to capture a more 'real' angle with the moon as a vertical horizon - although the image is almost never reproduced in that way.

Why the US sent men to the moon - James Burke's view

A few weeks ago, I spent a very entertaining hour on the phone to James Burke, he of Connections, Tomorrow's World and, of course, the BBC's coverage of the Apollo missions.
I asked him why he thought the US chose to send men to the moon and he responded: "This was a fantastic exercise in political PR. At a time when the US was immensely rich and politically powerful, the Apollo programme provided a giant diversion from the failures at home and in Vietnam. NASA fed the comic book image of adventure, excitement and danger......but the $24billion was actually less than American women spent on lipstick across the same period."