Book Review: At Home in Space
The Apollo/Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) was more than an afterthought mission or the subject of a postage stamp. The voyage was the first beachhead of cooperation between the United States and Soviet space programs in the 1970’s.
In his continuation of the series A History of Human Space Exploration, author Ben Evans has written a third brilliant volume. At Home In Space: The Late Seventies Into the Eighties covers the ASTP, Skylab, Salyut 5 and 6, space shuttle approach and landing tests, and the four orbital test flights of the shuttle.
Evans reviews the state of manned space exploration as President Nixon canceled Apollo 18, 19, and 20, and the Soviet program experienced tragedy in June 1971 when the Soyuz 11 crew died during re-entry due to spacecraft decompression. In 1969 NASA Administrator Tom Paine planted the seeds of a joint American and Soviet mission. Then in May 1972, Nixon and Soviet Ambassador Alexei Kosygin signed a space exploration agreement that contained the framework for ASTP. Astronauts and cosmonauts exchanged multiple training and touring trips to each other’s country. The Americans were greeted with a cold and secretive tone from the Soviets. When astronaut Tom Stafford asked “Where do you build your spacecraft?” he received the reply, “In one of our factories.” “That was the entire answer,” Stafford explained later.
ASTP began with the launch of Soyuz 19 on July 15, 1975 carrying Alexei Leonov and Valeri Kubasov. Apollo launched next carrying Stafford, Vance Brand, and Deke Slayton. The culmination of national cooperation came when Stafford opened the hatch to the multiple docking adapter and shook hands with Leonov. It is unfortunate that the détente between the two nations did not last as the cold war intensified and nuclear arms proliferated.
Evans also relives the thrills of the Skylab missions, which launched two years earlier on May 14, 1973. Only seconds into flight, Skylab’s telemetry indicated that the micrometeoroid shield and a solar array had prematurely deployed and were torn away by aerodynamic forces. In orbit it was overheating and low on electrical power. The first Skylab crew of Pete Conrad, Joe Kerwin, and Paul Weitz launched on May 25, 1973 with a plan to save the workshop. They deployed a parasol through an airlock to shade the damaged outer surface from the intense rays of the Sun. Then Conrad and Kerwin performed an extravehicular activity to release the remaining stuck solar array, which improved power generation and saved the space station. Two more crews visited Skylab, the last spending a record 84 days in space. Evans analyzes and laments NASA’s failure to re-boost Skylab into a higher orbit to preserve the multi-billion dollar science workshop. That failure led to its re-entry and destruction over Western Australia on July 12, 1979.
The Soviet space program continued with Salyut 5, a military space station, visited by four Soyuz crews. The Salyut 6 station, dedicated to scientific research, was launched on September 29, 1977. The station was occupied by numerous Soyuz crews including cosmonauts from Soviet-friendly countries. The first Progress resupply freighter docked with Salyut 6 on January 22, 1978, proving that an unmanned spacecraft could dock with, refuel, and resupply another spacecraft. The longest stay aboard Salyut 6 was completed on October 11, 1980 when Leonid Popov and Valeri Ryumin returned after 185 days in space.
Evans explains a new era of exploration, ushered in with the American Space Transportation System (STS) known as the space shuttle. The first approach and landing tests were conducted in 1977. They proved that the aerodynamic and landing characteristics of Space Shuttle Enterprise were sound. The incredible day of April 12, 1981 is relived as Space Shuttle Columbia climbed to orbit with John Young and Robert Crippen at the controls. The STS-1 mission was deemed a great success even though numerous protective heat tiles were lost. Joe Engle and Dick Truly put Columbia through its paces on STS-2 performing the first test of the Canadian-built remote manipulator system. Engle became the only astronaut to manually fly a shuttle throughout re-entry to landing, touching down at Edwards Air Force Base on November 14, 1981. The first time the shuttle launched with its memorable orange external tank was the STS-3 mission, crewed by Jack Lousma and Gordon Fullerton. The lack of paint saved about 270 kg of weight and $15,000. STS-3 also became the first and only shuttle to land at the White Sands, N.M. landing strip. The talcum-like gypsum sand saturated every part of Columbia. Astronauts observed that even after a painstaking cleaning process, the gypsum sand came out of everything for many missions to come. STS-4, flown by Ken Mattingly and Hank Hartsfield, completed the orbiter test flight process and made the first concrete runway landing. Columbia touched down and was greeted by President Ronald Reagan and patriotic celebrations on July 4, 1982.
The author has skillfully recounted each manned space mission of Salyut 5 and 6, Skylab, ASTP, and the first four space shuttle flights. The addition of color photographs in this third volume helps the reader feel as if they were present for amazing events like the last Saturn V launch taking Skylab to orbit, or the inauguration of the space shuttle era as Columbia powered skyward. What sets this book apart from other space histories is the description of each mission set in the political, economic, and social conditions of the time. Evans helps the reader understand the mission details and the world history that shaped them. Anyone interested in space should enjoy reading these chronicles, and like the space explorers of the seventies and early eighties, they may just feel At Home in Space.
© 2012 Stephen Adamczyk