Tuesday, July 31, 2012

True Grit

It was also at Corflu in a conversation about comic books when Dan Steffan mentioned he’d always been curious about GRIT, America’s Greatest Family Newspaper, advertised in most comics from the 1940s to the 1970s. “Boys!” screamed the headline. “Sell GRIT! Make money! Win prizes!”

“I used to sell GRIT,” I said.

People who know me as fairly introverted are somewhat surprised to learn about my background in sales. I not only sold GRIT, before Christmas I also sold greeting cards for the Cheerful Card Company, another comic book advertiser. For several years, GRIT and Cheerful Cards were the sole source of my spending money. GRIT sold for 20¢, and I kept 7¢. I could even strip the unsold copies and return them in lieu of payment.

My first experience in sales came from my brief days as a Boy Scout (I made it all the way to Second Class before I got kicked out for missing too many meetings — they conflicted with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. on Monday nights). There was an annual Scout Jamboree, and tickets were 50¢. If you sold 50, you got a free tent, and I sold about 65 or so. Some of the buyers gave me the money but declined to take a ticket, so I made a few extra bucks on the side as well.

I worked the concessions for a Shriner-sponsored event featuring the Flying Wallendas, a big act for small-town Decatur, Alabama, and moved a lot of merchandise. Somewhere I have an autograph of one of the Wallendas. So I was primed to Make Money and Win Prizes when GRIT came along.

GRIT was a weekly newspaper founded in 1882. Originally, it was just the Saturday edition of the Williamsport (PA) Daily Sun and Banner, but it was purchased in 1885 by a German immigrant named Dietrick Lamade, who built it up to a circulation of 20,000 within a few years. By the mid-1930s, circulation reached half a million.

GRIT wasn’t like other newspapers. Aimed at rural and small-town America, GRIT was a good-news newspaper. Here’s Lamade’s editorial policy:
“Always keep Grit from being pessimistic. Avoid printing those things which distort the minds of readers or make them feel at odds with the world. Avoid showing the wrong side of things, or making people feel discontented. Do nothing that will encourage fear, worry, or temptation... Wherever possible, suggest peace and good will toward men. Give our readers courage and strength for their daily tasks. Put happy thoughts, cheer, and contentment into their hearts.”
I liked GRIT for the extensive comics section, containing next Sunday’s comics. They were, unfortunately, in black and white, but I did get to read them several days early. (GRIT arrived Thursdays, and I sold them on Fridays.) A number of the strips weren’t carried in the local paper, the Decatur Daily at all: Mandrake, Prince Valiant, and Terry and the Pirates, among others.

As a salesman, my big advantage was that I had access to my father’s office building. He was a vice president of Mutual Savings Life Insurance, one of the largest companies in town. Mutual Savings occupied Decatur’s only skyscraper, towering six full stories over Bank Street. I started on the first floor and made my way up, and quickly reached a circulation of over 50 copies a week — more than $3.50 in income. I was a rich man; paperbacks cost 35¢ to 40¢, so I could buy five books a week with plenty of cash left over.

Most of GRIT’s customers were secretaries and clerks, many of whom I think actually enjoyed the “good news” paper. The executives on the sixth floor, I think, by and large bought it as a courtesy to my father, but that was okay by me. The fifth floor was most fun; it was home to WMSL Channel 23, the NBC affiliate and sole TV station in Decatur. The guys in the control room bought copies; the anchor of the evening local news bought a copy, and the kid show host, local legend Benny Carle, bought a copy. He did a publicity shot with me that appeared in an issue of the GRIT salesman newsletter, my first major media exposure.

I had a few customers not in the Mutual Savings building, so my mother would drive me around on Saturday mornings, then drop me off at the book-and-Hallmark Card shop where I’d pore through the limited selection of science fiction and get my reading fix for the week.

I sold GRIT for about two and a half years, starting in 1964, when I was in sixth grade, and continuing until the summer I started ninth grade, when I got a job as a page in the local library, where I worked for the great sum of $1.00/hour all the way through high school.

But that’s another story.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Let's Go to the Tape, Johnny! (Watergate Part 7)

Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods demonstrates how she might have erased 18-1/2 minutes of a key Watergate tape.

For previous installments of my irregular series tracing the history of the Watergate scandal, click here. This week, the revelation of the White House taping system.

On July 16, 1973, as we learned in our last thrilling episode, former White House deputy assistant Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of a heretofore secret White House taping system to the Senate Watergate Committee, more formally known as the Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices. Two days later, on July 18, 1973, Nixon ordered the tape recorders turned off.

Unlike previous Presidential taping systems, the Nixon system was automatically activated by voice. Previously, the President had to manually activate the taping system by flipping a switch. Of course, no sensible president would voluntarily tape himself talking about potentially criminal actions, but in the case of Nixon, the automated nature of the tapes suggested that if he had indeed made self-incriminating statements, they would be on the tapes.

The previous month, former White House counsel John Dean had famously testified before the Watergate Committee. Although Dean himself had managed a large portion of the cover-up, he had increasingly suspected that he was being groomed as the scapegoat for the entire affair. As a result, he began providing information to the Special Prosecutor, and subsequently appeared before the Senate committee, implicating numerous senior administration officials including Attorney General John Mitchell and Richard Nixon himself.

The obvious flaw in Dean’s testimony was that it was his word against the President of the United States. But if the tapes confirmed what Dean was saying, it would substantiate his testimony. Accordingly, Archibald Cox, the Watergate Special Prosecutor, subpoenaed eight tapes.

Nixon initially refused to release the tapes, on the Constitutional grounds of executive privilege and the separation of powers, then added another claim that the tapes were vital to national security. In October 1973, under increasing political pressure, Nixon offered a compromise in which he would allow Mississippi Democratic Senator John Stennis to review and summarize the tapes, and report his findings to the Special Prosecutor.

When Cox refused the compromise, as chronicled in our last installment, Nixon ordered what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. The pressure didn’t go away, and a few weeks later on November 1, Nixon appointed a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski. A few days later, on November 17, Nixon famously announced, “I am not a crook.”

As 1974 began, bad news for the Nixon Administration began to mount, and in April of that year, Nixon decided to release typed transcripts of the relevant tapes, from which the infamous phrase “expletive deleted” originated.

(As an aside, a friend of mine, the daughter of columnist Jack Anderson, told me how Anderson’s newspaper column got the transcripts before the Senate did. It seems that Anderson had a White House janitor on his payroll, who fished the single-use carbon paper out of the trashcans and delivered it to Anderson. The daughter, Laurie, taped the carbons to a lampshade and typed up the contents for her father.)

Meanwhile, the court case made its way to the Supreme Court. On July 24, 1974, in the case United States v. Nixon, ruled unanimously (with justice William Rehnquist recused because he had formerly worked for Nixon’s Justice Department) that the tapes should be released. Six days later, on July 30, Nixon complied. The transcripts confirmed Dean’s testimony.

The damage was already done. The House Judiciary Committee had passed two articles of impeachment already, with the third passed on the same day the tapes were released. To avoid a trial in the Senate that he would surely lose, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 8, 1974.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Legend of Wrong Way Corrigan

On July 17, 1938, Douglas Corrigan took off from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, in a modified Curtiss Robin airplane named “Sunshine.” His official destination was California, but 28 hours later, he landed at Baldonnel Aerodrome in County Dublin, Ireland.

He claimed he’d made a navigational error and misread his compass, thus gaining the nickname he’d bear for the rest of his life: Wrong Way Corrigan.

Like many young men of his generation, Corrigan was obsessed with flying. He took his first ride in a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” in October 1925 (paying $2.50 for the privilege, the equivalent of about $35 today), and started flying lessons a week later.

He took a job as an aircraft mechanic with Ryan Aeronautical Company in San Diego, a few months before Charles Lindbergh commissioned the company to build the Spirit of St. Louis. As an aircraft mechanic, Corrigan assembled the wing and installed the gas tanks and instrument panel for Lindbergh’s plane, and pulled the chocks when Lindbergh took off from San Diego to New York.

Obsessed with duplicating Lindbergh’s feat, Corrigan decided his target would be the family homeland of Ireland. He spent his lunch hours practicing aerobatics, flying up to a dozen chandelles in a row until the company told him to stop. Corrigan moved his practice to a field further south, where his bosses couldn’t see him.

He moved from job to job as an aircraft mechanic, honing his flying skills. He started a passenger service with a partner, and barnstormed around the East Coast. In 1933, he spent $310 (just under $4,000 today) on a used 1929 Curtiss Robin OX-5, and began modifying it to fly the Atlantic.

This was foolhardy in the extreme. He took two old Wright Whirlwind engines and cobbled them together to make one engine with greater horsepower, installed extra fuel tanks, and applied for a permit from the Bureau of Air Commerce. They turned him down flat — his plane was too flimsy for transatlantic flying, though it was acceptable for cross-country flights. Undaunted, Corrigan kept working. He reapplied several times, and was turned down each time. By this time, he’d invested nearly $900 in his plane, but the plane had no radio and the compass was 20 years old.

A journalist later wrote about the plane: “He built it, or rebuilt it, practically as a boy would build a scooter out of a soapbox and a pair of old roller skates. It looked it. The nose of the engine hood was a mass of patches soldered by Corrigan himself into a crazy-quilt design. The door…was fastened together with a piece of baling wire.”

On July 9, 1938, Corrigan flew Sunshine from California to New York, cruising at 85 miles per hour. The flight took 27 hours. Toward the end, a gasoline leak threatened to bring him down; the cockpit filled with fumes. He arrived unannounced and unheralded; the big story was Howard Hughes, preparing to take off on a world tour.

Officially, Corrigan was supposed to return to California on July 17. In a hurry to meet his self-imposed deadline, he decided that repairing the gasoline leak would take too long. He loaded Sunshine with 320 gallons of gas, 16 gallons of oil, two chocolate bars, two boxes of fig bars, and 25 gallons of water, and took off at 5:15 in the morning — heading east, not west.

For the rest of his life, Corrigan maintained that he’d always intended to fly back to California, and his flight across the Atlantic was an error. This is unlikely; he was a skilled pilot. Officially, he claimed he’d discovered his “error” after 26 hours. This is not entirely consistent with known facts. After 10 hours, the gas tank began leaking again, and his feet were soaked with fuel. He punched a hole through the cockpit floor with a screwdriver to drain the fuel. Rather than look for an opportunity to land (the most reasonable thing to do if he were really flying to California), he increased his speed to lower his total flight time.

In any event, 28 hours and 13 minutes after takeoff, he landed in Ireland, a remarkable achievement considering he'd flown under IFR conditions by needle, ball, and airspeed, with only a magnetic compass to aid him. American aviation officials, however, were livid. They sent a 600-word(!) telegram listing the regulations he’d broken, but his punishment was a slap on the wrist — his license was suspended for 14 days. More people attended Corrigan’s ticker tape parade on his return to America than had attended Lindbergh’s, but Lindbergh himself never acknowledged Corrigan’s flight.

Corrigan cashed in on his fame, endorsing “wrong way” products, publishing an autobiography, and starring as himself in an RKO movie about his flight. He earned $75,000, the equivalent of well over a million dollars today.

In later years, he tested bombers during World War II, ran for the U.S. Senate on the Prohibition Party ticket (winning 2% of the vote), worked as a commercial pilot, and bought an orange grove in California, most of which he sold for development after his wife’s death in 1966. One of his sons died in a plane crash in 1972.

In 1988, on the golden anniversary of the flight, he allowed Sunshine to be displayed. After all those years, the jury-rigged engine still worked. That was the last time the plane was seen publicly; rumors suggest he dismantled the plane and stored pieces in several locations.

He died in 1995 and is buried in Santa Ana, California.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Tape Worm (Watergate Part 6)

For previous installments of my irregular series tracing the history of the Watergate scandal, click here. This week, the revelation of the White House taping system.

Alexander Butterfield never planned to be part of a White House conspiracy, but by accident turned into one of the key figures in the scandal. A former Air Force pilot (he commanded reconnaissance aircraft during Vietnam), he retired from the USAF at the urging of college pal H. R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, and became Deputy Assistant to the President, responsible for the daily business of the White House ranging from visitor tours to overseeing Nixon's schedule.

In addition, Butterfield was responsible for maintaining Nixon's historical records, and in that role he oversaw a secret taping system that Nixon had installed in the White House. (Nixon, of course, was not the first president to do so. I've read transcripts of secret tapes made by FDR, and have downloaded for my iPod the JFK tapes covering the Cuban Missile Crisis. Eisenhower and Johnson also taped Oval Office conversations, but I haven't heard any of them personally.)

After Nixon's reelection in 1972, Butterfield became administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. In July 1973, members of Sam Ervin's Senate investigation team interviewed Butterfield about his time in the White House. Previously, John Dean had mentioned that he suspected White House conversations were being taped, and so the committee staff routinely asked witnesses whether they knew it was true. Although Butterfield avoided revealing the taping system voluntarily, he had decided to tell the truth if asked directly. Ironically, it was the minority Republican counsel, Donald Sanders, who put the direct question to Butterfield, who replied that "everything was taped ... as long as the President was in attendance. There was not so much as a hint that something should not be taped."

The significance of this was obvious, so the committee quickly scheduled Butterfield to appear before the full Senate committee on July 16, 1973, where chief minority counsel Fred Thompson (later part of the Law and Order television cast) asked the fatal question, "Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?"

There was, of course, no suggestion that Butterfield was part of the cover-up. He remained as FAA administrator until 1975. Butterfield, interestingly, was one of the few who guessed the real identity of "Deep Throat," telling the Hartford Courant in 1995, "I think it was a guy named Mark Felt."

Only about 200 hours of the 3,500 hours of conversation recorded on the Nixon tapes even mention Watergate, but eight of the tapes were subpoenaed by Special Watergate Counsel Archibald Cox. Citing executive privilege, Nixon refused. When Cox did not back off, Nixon ordered his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire him. Richardson refused and resigned, as did his deputy William Ruckelshaus. It fell to the Solicitor General, Robert Bork, to fire him.

That was hardly the end of the taping problems. Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, made a "terrible mistake" and erased five minutes of the June 20, 1972, recording. Strangely, the gap grew from five minutes to 18-1/2 minutes. Woods denied she had anything do to with the additional 13 minutes. While only the participants know for sure what was discussed in those missing 18-1/2 minutes, H. R. Haldeman's notes say that in that particular meeting, Nixon and Haldeman spoke about the arrests at the Watergate that had taken place three days previously.

Although various attempts were made to explain away the gap, the President's attorneys eventually decided that there was "no innocent explanation" they could offer for the problem.

In any event, it wasn't the 18-1/2 minute gap from June 20 that was the problem, but rather the "smoking gun" tape of June 23, six days after the break-in. On that tape, Nixon agreed to pressure the CIA to ask the FBI to halt its investigation of the break-in on the grounds that it was a national security matter. That, according to the Watergate special prosecutor, constituted a criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice, a Federal — and impeachable — offense. That tape was released in late July 1974; Nixon resigned in early August.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lord of the Instrumentality

July 11, 1913, is the birthday of Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, known to science fiction fans by his nom de plume Cordwainer Smith.

If you haven’t read Cordwainer Smith, mere words cannot convey the beauty and mystery of his writing. His stories are like nothing else in science fiction. Written in a narrative style heavily influenced by Chinese storytelling, they tell the story of the Instrumentality of Mankind, a world nearly 14,000 years in the future, in which the servile classes (the “underpeople”) are evolved from animals: C’mell, half cat, half woman; D’Joan, a Joan of Arc figure of dog origin; and the mysterious E’Telekeli, an eagle who leads the fight for emancipation. The ruling class, the Lords of the Instrumentality, are Chinese mandarins, powerful and tradition-bound. The Instrumentality is held together by the immortality drug stroon, available only on the planet Norstrilia.

The real-life Paul Linebarger is as remarkable as the fictional creations of Cordwainer Smith. Paul’s father, a jurist, was recruited by no less than Sun Yat-Sen to help establish the legal system for the new Republic of China. Sun Yat-Sen became godfather to the young Paul, who grew up immersed in Chinese culture. He became fluent in six languages, and obtained his PhD in Political Science from Johns Hopkins University at the age of 23.

As World War II began, Linebarger organized the first psychological warfare unit in the US Army, and wrote the classic textbook on the subject: Psychological Warfare, published in 1948. Although officially an academic, Linebarger did undocumented work for the CIA and DIA, and advised John F. Kennedy. He referred to himself as “a visitor to small wars.”

There’s circumstantial evidence, but no solid proof, that Linebarger was the real life “Kirk Allen,” the psychological patient whose strange story was told in “The Jet-Propelled Couch,” in Robert Lindner’s well-known book The Fifty Minute Hour. “Kirk Allen” had created a far future world in which he believed completely. As part of Lindner’s attempt to cure him, Lindner himself became obsessed with that world.

Thanks to my friend Ralph Benko, I was elected to the exclusive Cordwainer Smith society, the Instrumentality of Mankind, whose limited membership includes the Linebarger daughters as well as a number of science fiction luminaries. Although the Instrumentality doesn’t do very much (I attribute this to the lack of stroon), it’s an honor I appreciate very much.

Paul Linebarger passed away in 1966, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Crisis in Outer Space! (The True Story of Apollo 13)

My 26th book will be Project: Impossible, an exploration of how people achieved goals any reasonable person would have thought impossible. This week, the true story of the the Apollo 13 mission, continuing last week’s brief history of rocketry and spaceflight. 


Although the United States officially “won” the space race with Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, there would be five more missions to the Moon, during four of which astronauts walked on the lunar surface. The exception was Apollo 13, the seventh manned mission in the program.

Gordon Cooper and Donn Eisele, originally scheduled for Apollo 13, were passed over by NASA management. The flight crew operations chief selected Alan Shepard, the first American in space, to replace Cooper, but management turned him down because of recent surgery. As a result, NASA selected the backup crew for Apollo 11, who were scheduled for Apollo 14, for this mission. Jim Lovell, who had flown on two Gemini missions and one previous Apollo mission, was to be the mission commander. Fred Haise, a research test pilot, had been on two previous backup crews but had never flown in space. The command module pilot, who would stay in orbit while the other two crew members went down to the lunar surface, was Ken Mattingly. It would also be his first time in space.

Seven days before launch, Mattingly was exposed to measles (as it turned out, he didn’t get them), and was replaced by Jack Swigert from the backup team. It would also be Swigert’s first time in space.

The lead flight director, in overall command, was Gene Kranz.

Crisis in Outer Space

Liftoff for the Apollo 13 mission came on April 11, 1970, at 13:13 Central Standard Time. There was a small hiccup during the launch: the center engine in the second stage had to be shut down early because of a malfunction known as “pogo oscillation.” It had been seen in previous missions, but never so seriously. Automatic cut-offs stopped the problem before it could tear the ship apart; later missions had technical modifications to prevent a reoccurrence. In any event, the remaining engines burned longer, and the vehicle continued to a successful orbit.

Such a problem was hardly unusual. Given the complexity and inherent risk of any space mission, it would have been far more notable had the flight gone off without a hitch. Solving problems was all in a day’s work for NASA’s talented and experienced people.

But what happened next tested their capabilities to the maximum.

About 56 hours after takeoff, with Apollo 13 much closer to the Moon than to the Earth, Mission Control radioed Jack Swigert and asked him to turn on the stirring fans for the hydrogen and oxygen tanks. About a minute and a half later, there was a loud bang. The crew’s first thought was that the lunar module had been struck by a meteoroid.

What had happened was actually much worse. Number 2 oxygen tank had exploded. Later analysis would reveal damaged insulation on the wires to the stirring fan, allowing a short circuit. A large aluminum skin panel on the outside of the ship blew off, damaging an antenna and momentarily interrupting communication with Mission Control. The shock of the explosion caused a break in the number 1 oxygen tank as well. Over the next two hours, the entire oxygen supply of the service module was lost. Complicating matters even more, the fuel cells needed oxygen and hydrogen to generate electricity. The command module was left with backup battery power only.

The damaged Apollo 13 spacecraft

Landing on the Moon was no longer an option. The crew hastily shut down the command module to save its limited power and moved into the lunar module. The new project was how to get the crew back safely to Earth.

What saved the Apollo 13 mission?

The Kranz Dictum

It’s only in the movie version of Apollo 13 that Gene Kranz says the phrase, “Failure is not an option.” The real message came after the 1967 Apollo 1 disaster, in which astronauts Virgin “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee lost their lives, Gene Krantz addressed his flight control team, establishing what would become known as “The Kranz Dictum.”
Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. 
We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, “Dammit, stop!”
I don't know what Thompson's committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did. 
From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: “Tough and Competent.” Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. 
Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. 
When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write “Tough and Competent” on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.

The Apollo flight teams had prepared for disaster time and time again. Exercises, simulations, and extensive training all went into achieving the goal of “tough and competent.” This is an essential ingredient in effective crisis management. By preparing for different eventualities and maintaining a high level of readiness, you and your team are in the best possible position to handle a crisis.

However, no matter how good you are, failure is always an option.

Timeline of the events in the Apollo 13 crisis

Working the Problems

Crises differ from more general projects in several ways. First, they are often imposed on the project team with little or no notice. Apollo 13 was going well until suddenly it wasn’t. Crises normally have extreme constraints in time and resources. The clock was ticking with Apollo 13. If problems could not be solved in very short order, the consequences would take hold at once — with fatal results.

While NASA had an extensive supply of spare parts, machine shops, and trained engineers who could have fixed the ship easily, those resources were on Earth, and the problem was more than a hundred thousand miles away.

Evacuating and shutting down the command module was the first order of business, but there were many obstacles yet to be overcome before the crew of Apollo 13 would once again see home. There were plans for aborting an Apollo mission, but some of them were ruled out by the exigencies of the situation. The quickest way home required jettisoning the lunar module, but that was serving as the lifeboat for the crew. The service module integrity was in doubt, so they didn’t want to fire its engine except as a last resort.

That left a circumlunar option, using the Moon’s gravity as a slingshot to send the crippled ship back toward earth. To do that, they needed to make a minor course correction, but debris from the explosion made it impossible to use the onboard sextant device, requiring Jim Lovell to fly the spacecraft using the sun in the cockpit window as an alignment star.

The problems mounted. While there was plenty of oxygen in the lunar module, carbon dioxide removal required the use of lithium hydroxide canisters. While there were enough of them available, the square command module canisters wouldn’t fit in the round LM openings. An engineering team created a kludged-together system using plastic bags, cardboard, and tape, working on an extremely limited time span.

(As an aside, the duct tape and other supplies that made this possible were also part of planning for crisis management: there was a kit containing some basic utility items available for use. One can only imagine the planning that went into deciding exactly what would be part of that kit.)

Power supplies were limited. The LM was rated for two people for a day and a half, and now it would need to accommodate three people for four days. All nonessential power was shut down. Water and food were limited. The crew became dehydrated. Lovell lost 14 pounds.

The team managed to overcome one problem after another, but the toughest technical challenge came at the end of the mission. There had never been a case where the command module had to be powered up after a long sleep, and the flight controllers had to test and write new procedures to accomplish it. (In the movie, that’s the suspenseful scene in which Ken Mattingly, played by Gary Sinise, tries to find a start-up sequence that draws less than 20 watts.) The normal time for a project like that was three months; the team had three days.

By the time the Apollo 13 team reentered the command module, condensation had covered the interior with fine droplets of water. Water was inside the circuit panels as well, and the chance of a short circuit was all too real. Fortunately, the tragedy of Apollo 1 had led to various safeguards against short circuits; there was no problem.

Four hours before landing, the crew jettisoned the service module, and one hour before landing they jettisoned the LM that had served as their lifeboat. As they entered the atmosphere, the heat of reentry created rain inside the command module.

But that was the final hazard.

On April 17, 1970, Apollo 13 splashed down safely near American Samoa.

Apollo 13 Mission Control right after splashdown

Crisis Management and the Impossible Project

What distinguishes a crisis from other kinds of projects is the way it tightens the constraints. Time pressure is normally high, and the nature of the situation normally limits resources that would otherwise be available to the team. These revised constraints are normally established by the situation, not by the will or desire of the project team. In the case of Apollo 13, a procedure that would normally take three months had to be developed in three days, for the simple reason that three days was all they had. Modifying the carbon dioxide removal system would have been trivial on Earth; it was a nail-biting project in space, with only the resources available on the ship able to be used for the job.

Had the mission control team not been well prepared — had Gene Kranz not insisted on “tough and competent” — had simulations by the hundreds not taken place, it’s almost certain that the Apollo 13 mission would have ended in failure.

But that’s the point. To prepare for crisis, prepare early.

By the time the crisis occurs, it’s usually too late.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Brief History of Rocketry and Spaceflight

Robert Goddard and his rocket

My 26th book will be Project: Impossible, an exploration of how people achieved goals any reasonable person would have thought impossible. This week, a brief history of rocketry and spaceflight.

Mercury astronaut John Glenn, asked how he felt during his three-orbit flight, is reputed to have replied, “As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind: Every part of this capsule was supplied by the lowest bidder.”

The history of rocketry and spaceflight is also a history of risk-taking and risk management. New technology is inherently unstable, a product of its newness, and when you are using that technology to propel people into previously unexplored conditions, disaster is never more than a small step away.

To China…and Beyond!

The history of rocketry traces back to ancient China. Gunpowder, a Chinese invention of the 9th century CE, was a byproduct of the alchemical search for the elixir of life, and as is the case with so many discoveries, its accidental secondary uses turned out to be far more important than the original inventor’s intent.

Rockets were first used in fireworks displays, and only entered the battlefield in 1232 CE against the Mongol invasion. The Chinese even invented multi-stage rocketry by the mid 14th century, by which time the technology had spread to India, the Middle East and eventually to Europe. The "rockets’ red glare" appear in American history during the War of 1812 and in the US national anthem "The Star-Spangled Banner."

According to legend, during the Ming Dynasty, a minor court official named 萬虎 (Wan Hu) attempted to become an astronaut by flying a chair with 47 rockets attached. He was never seen again.

In 1633, again according to legend, Lagâri Hasan Çelebi of the Ottoman Empire made a successful rocket flight to a height of 300 meters. His words before takeoff were, “O my sultan! Be blessed, I am going to talk to Jesus!” Upon landing, he told the sultan, “Jesus sends his regards to you.”

Somewhat better sourced are the achievements of car designer Fritz von Opel, who in the 1920s built a series of rocket-powered cars and a rocket-powered glider. One of his cars reached a speed of 254 km/h (157 mph). The rocket-powered glider was less successful: it exploded on its second test flight.

Modern rocketry owes its start to high school mathematics teacher Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky, who worked in the final years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th. Inspired by Jules Verne, Tsiolkovsky developed a philosophy of space travel as a means for perfecting the human race, and in the process worked out most of the formulas at the heart of modern rocketry, including the famous Tsiolkovsky rocket equation.

Beginning in 1912, the American Robert Goddard established that a rocket would work in a vacuum and proposed sending a solid-fuel rocket to the moon, an idea ridiculed by the New York Times in an editorial. Goddard launched the first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926.

A young member of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (German Rocket Society) named Werner von Braun developed long-range military rockets for the Wehrmacht, including the V-1 and the V-2. The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, was the war’s only operational rocket-powered fighter plane, though it was of little practical significance.

Following World War II, von Braun, along with 500 of his top scientists, surrendered to the Americans and established a new facility in Huntsville, Alabama, to build even more advanced rockets. Other German rocket scientists went to the Soviet Union — not all by choice.

Both in the United States and in the Soviet Union, the primary focus of rocketry continued to be military applications, particularly missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

But the rocket designers themselves had other ambitions.

“Before This Decade Is Out”

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Cпутник-1 (Sputnik 1), the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, and in the process initiated the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States. In the US, Sputnik was seen as a national humiliation. President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered an acceleration of Project Vanguard, the US satellite launch program, but the first attempt ended in disaster when the rocket exploded on the launchpad on national television.

By the time the US managed to get a satellite in orbit, the Soviets already had two.

In 1961, the Soviets won another distinction when cosmonaut Ю́рий Гага́рин (Yuri Gagarin) became the first human in space. Three weeks later, American astronaut Alan Shepard completed a suborbital flight in the first Mercury mission.

In between Gagarin and Shepard, President John F. Kennedy asked his vice-president, Lyndon Johnson, to explore opportunities for the US to catch up in space, and Johnson recommended a piloted moon landing. Kennedy concurred, giving his blessing to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Apollo program and establishing its goal in a speech before a joint session of Congress: “I believe that 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.”

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union continued to set records, including the first dual-piloted flight and the first woman (and first civilian) in space. At the time, the Soviet program was shrouded in secrecy, so much so that the name of the head of their space program was classified — a mysterious figure known only as the “Chief Designer.” His real name, Серге́й Королёв (Sergei Korolev), would only be revealed publicly well after his death. Photographs of the Soviet launch complex, Байқоңыр ғарыш айлағы (Baikonur Cosmodrome), now located in Kazakhstan, were highly classified, but no more. (Here's a picture.)

Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan

The US Mercury program gave way to Gemini, a series of two-person missions. It was during Gemini that the US first crept ahead of the Soviet Union, setting records for length of flight, docking of spacecraft in orbit, and human extra-vehicular activity — better known as spacewalks.

Danger in Space!

By the middle of the 1960s, both nations were in a neck-and-neck race. The Soviet Union, under the leadership of the Chief Designer, planned a series of manned lunar flyby missions followed by a manned lunar landing planned for September 1968. In the United States, Gemini gave way to Apollo.

Both the Soviet and American programs experienced their share of disasters. In the Soviet Nedelin catastrophe, an exploding rocket at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan killed between 78 and 150 top Soviet personnel. Cosmonaut Валентин Бондаренко (Valentin Bondarenko) died in a training accident; the government erased his existence from their records to avoid embarrassment.

On the US side, almost everyone thinks that only three astronauts died in racing to the moon: Mercury and Gemini astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Gemini astronaut Edward White, and Roger Chaffee, who died in a cabin fire during a rehearsal of the launch sequence of Apollo 1. There were more: Theodore Freemann, Elliot See, Charles Bassett, and Clifton “C.C.” Williams all died in training accidents involving T-38 jet fighter trainers. Robert Lawrence, who would have been the first African-American astronaut, died in an F-104 Starfighter crash. Although their names were not erased from the history books, they have sadly been almost completely forgotten.

There were numerous near disasters. The Vostok 1 service module didn’t detach from the reentry module in time, sending the spacecraft into a spin. Grissom’s Mercury capsule hatch malfunctioned at splashdown, nearly drowning him. Voshkod 2, Gemini 8, Soyuz 5, and Apollo 12 all had failures or near disasters during their mission.

Even Apollo 11, in which US astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, had a failure of the navigation and guidance computer during the lunar descent. Armstrong landed the lunar module (LM) manually. Aldrin accidently broke the circuit breaker for the main liftoff engine, which might have stranded the astronauts on the lunar surface, but the astronauts were able to flip the switch using a felt-tip pen. On the return flight, the Guam tracking station failed, jeopardizing communication during the final stages of the return flight.


Although the United States officially “won” the space race with Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, there would be five more missions to the Moon, during four of which astronauts walked on the lunar surface. The exception was Apollo 13, the seventh manned mission in the program.

About Apollo 13, more next week…