austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

I'm zero to 60 light-years in the blink of an alien eye

Regarding Homesteading Space, by David Hitt, Owen Garriott, and Joe Kerwin:

This is a history, as the title implies, of the Skylab missions, a subject that burned itself into my brain when at a young age the newspapers were full of talk about the space station falling and where would it land. The subject's never really gotten enough attention, since Apollo and Mercury were so much more exciting to start with, and the long fallow period after Skylab (and Apollo-Soyuz) and before the next United States astronaut flights didn't help. So while this is the strongest Skylab history that I've read, I have to confess it's not up against a huge field.

The focus is overwhelmingly on the three manned flights, as might be expected, and two unique strengths put it over the other histories written: the participation of two of the eight surviving Skylab astronauts, and the availability of Skylab 3/2 commander Al Bean's diary. The diary --- reprinted in the appendix --- isn't very long and many of the entries in it were written days after the fact, but it's still that most precious space history thing, the previously untapped relevant resource. The book also does a good bit of work putting perspective back into the rather overhyped Skylab Mutiny, the fascinating breakdown of management which affected the third crew early in its mission. That it's popularly (in the small universe of Skylab afficionados) called the Mutiny shows how overblown it is, although suggestions of conflict between Mission Control and the people in flight are probably always going to be interesting.

I can't say the book reaches the top tier of space history books, unfortunately. I'm not sure I could specify just what falls short, but it's possible the problem is that I'm familiar enough with the basic facts of the flights that the most interesting and compelling reading was on two of the side notes of Skylab. One of these was the Skylab Medical Experiments Altitude Test, a 56-day dry run on the ground with astronauts living in a mockup of the space station and seeing if the meals and medical equipment were usable for that duration. It was one of those necessary yet unglamorous tasks that the attention given it gave the book a fresh angle. Another was the attention put on the ultimately cancelled rescue mission begun when the Skylab 3/2 Apollo capsule seemed to be suffering possibly lethal failures in its reaction control system. For a while the Skylab Rescue flight began to move forward, although the slow pace of the needed rescue and that it was ultimately cancelled when the situation stabilized make it not quite the stuff of thrilling movies.

The focus, other than the SMEAT, Rescue, and controlled-reentry parts, is almost entirely on the three astronaut visits. I was disappointed that there wasn't more detailed discussion of how Skylab came to be designed just as it was, but that may reflect that Skylab's design history was so drawn out and marked by changes of plan and reversals and odd bits of economization that there's almost no way to draw out a compelling narrative thread from it. But that tangled history makes me the more frustrated that it's not more fully explained. For an example: as the book mentions, the airlock module's exterior door used for extravehicular activities was a Gemini spacecraft hatch (new, according to Henry Spencer, by the way, not a refurbishment). All right, but why put a Gemini hatch on? Well, it presumably made sense economically or logistically, but why? Perhaps it's not possible anymore to give a definitive answer --- one reasonable speculation is to note that McDonnel-Douglas built the Gemini capsules and the Airlock Module, while they didn't build Apollo capsules, so they stuck to the design they had that worked --- but the question was left hanging and I'd have liked even reasonable speculation.

But there are other interesting design choices not even mentioned. If the ``milkstool'', used to bring the Saturn I-B up so that the command modules for that would fit the Saturn V-designed launch gantries, is discussed I missed it. But this was distinctive and ingenious --- and required further ingenuities, such as finding a way to fuel the first stage of the Saturn I-B rockets when the fuel pumps for the Saturn V had far too high a flow rate to be usable --- and I feel the book's weakened for not talking about more of that, particularly when the dramatic repairs the first crew made were such defining elements of the project.

The book gives, among other things, the best feel for what-do-astronauts-do-all-day that I remember reading. And it is the leader of the pack of Skylab histories. I figure to rely on it for reference in future petty squabblings, for example.

Trivia: Fire burned down the Polo Grounds the night following 13 April 1911, Opening Day. One proposed solution for where the New York Giants were to play was to install lights in the Brooklyn Dodgers' Washington Park and play night games; the Giants instead shared the American League Highlanders' field. Source: The Old Ball Game: How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball, Frank Deford.

Currently Reading: The Space Station: An Idea Whose Time Has Come, Editor Theodore R Simpson. 1985 publication about how awesomely awesome the awesome American Space Station is going to be and how it's going to change just everything. You could probably form a game of Space Enthusiast Bingo using quotes like ``endless frontier'', ``national pride'', ``microgravity biology research'', ``new materials science techniques'', ``failure of imagination'', ``possibility of life on Mars'', ``T minus the future and holding'', ``crossroads'', and Kennedy's Lunar Challenge Speech. Though it also throws in Reagan's space-station-in-a-decade challenge, and isn't that just adorable?


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