First Aussie: Dr. Philip Chapman, Apollo’s Astronaut from “Down Under,” Part Two

Apollo’s Astronaut from “Down Under,” Part Two
This Space Available, by Emily Carney. In the last installment of This Space Available, the life and career of Dr. Philip Chapman, NASA’s first Australian-born astronaut, was discussed from the time he joined the exclusive cadre in 1967 to 1970, when he was doing his best to suggest scientific experiments to Stuart Roosa, Apollo 14’s command module pilot, to be performed as the latter astronaut orbited the Moon. However, Deke Slayton, the head of the astronaut office, was also doing his best in an effort to undermine Chapman’s suggestions at every turn.

This Space Available

By Emily Carney

In the last installment of This Space Available, the life and career of Dr. Philip Chapman, NASA’s first Australian-born astronaut, was discussed from the time he joined the exclusive cadre in 1967 to 1970, when he was doing his best to suggest scientific experiments to Stuart Roosa, Apollo 14’s command module pilot, to be performed as the latter astronaut orbited the Moon. However, Deke Slayton, the head of the astronaut office, was also doing his best in an effort to undermine Chapman’s suggestions at every turn.

As the early 1970s unfolded, Chapman’s understandable frustration with the astronaut office dynamic and the cancellation of a space station he hoped to homestead led to his leaving NASA, and returning to a career that, while it didn’t take him to space, still possessed richness and adventure. Here is Part Two of his story, which will take him from NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston to a return to the place that made him an early pioneer in otherworldly climates, Antarctica. In addition, the author contacted the actual Dr. Philip Chapman, who was more than happy to talk. Parts of our interview will be featured in this piece, and in future installments.

A Most Famous Apollo Experiment

After Chapman survived his less-than-satisfying Apollo 14 experience, being “the insubordinate Australian that I am,” he continued to challenge Slayton. For example, Colin Burgess’ book Shattered Dreams recounted how Slayton announced that no scientist-astronaut would fly on an Apollo lunar mission. Perceiving this slight as nothing more than petty prejudice in favor of pilot-astronauts, Chapman then prepared and stated his case for a scientist-astronaut on the Moon directly to then-NASA administrator Jim Fletcher. “I don’t know whether what I said influenced [Fletcher’s] decision, but in any case, Deke was overruled, and Jack Schmitt went to the moon on Apollo 17, the last Apollo mission,” Chapman reported in Shattered Dreams.

Whether Chapman had anything to do with Schmitt stepping on the surface of Taurus-Littrow, this would prove to be a Pyrrhic victory for him and other scientist-astronauts during that period; Skylab crews subsequently would fly only three scientists (inexplicably, each crew had two pilots), and as we will see, another Skylab wouldn’t make it off the ground.

The crew of Apollo 15, from left: CDR David R. Scott, CMP Alfred M. Worden, and LMP Jim Irwin. One of the most famous experiments to take place during this mission was arguably devised by Dr. Philip Chapman. Photo Credit: NASA

During this time, Apollo 15 was ramping up as the next big lunar mission, and Chapman’s mind turned to a famous experiment from a previous century. The italicized text is his, from our interview:

I recall commenting to [Apollo 15 support crew member and CAPCOM] Joe Allen that the Moon would be a great place to repeat Galileo’s famous demonstration at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, because the objects would fall slowly, and in vacuum. If I had thought about it seriously, I would have suggested it to Al Shepard on Apollo 14 – but perhaps he would have preferred his demonstration of golf on the Moon.

Joe thought about how to implement the idea and suggested it to Dave Scott, who liked it (possibly to upstage Shepard). He improved it by obtaining a falcon feather from the mascot of the Air Force Academy (even though he graduated from West Point, because the Academy was only established in 1953).

Chapman’s account of the origins of what was perhaps one of the most famous televised Apollo experiments differs considerably from popular accounts of who came up with the experiment. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, Joe Allen came up with the idea; however, the most popularly accepted account of the experiment’s origins is that Dave Scott himself came up with it, which the moonwalker ardently supports in his 2004 (admittedly less than transparent) joint autobiography with cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, Two Sides of the Moon. Scott wrote, “I wanted to prove the law, proposed more than three centuries ago by the Italian astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei, that all objects fall with equal speed in a vacuum.” Scott gives no credit to Chapman, although he does admit that Allen was in on it. At any rate, Chapman remains magnanimous about his role in this famous Apollo moment:

So I guess Dave and Joe and I share the origins of that demonstration. Dave was fortunate in that he managed to release the feather and the hammer almost simultaneously. If he had missed by a tenth of a second, they would not have landed together.

Chapman’s Final Days at NASA

In 1972, two things happened that would seal Chapman’s fate within the confines of NASA: the Space Shuttle program would be approved during President Nixon’s administration, and Skylab B, a planned successor to Skylab A (which would ultimately be launched on May 14, 1973), was outright canceled to free up funds for the nascent Shuttle program. The cancellation of Skylab B was an especially low blow for Chapman because he was still in the process of devising experiments with his alma mater MIT to fly aboard this space station, which had been slated to fly in 1975. In Shattered Dreams, Chapman admitted he felt that Slayton didn’t defend the presence of a space station because “it just sat there in orbit,” and involved little real flying.

Skylab B is now a part of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and visitors can view it and its interiors as a museum piece. This brings Chapman no joy; again, from Shattered Dreams: “The Skylab in which I had hoped to live is now a tourist attraction…I sometimes visit it when I am in Washington, but it is very sad to see it wasted.”

In our interview, Chapman gave historical context to emphasize the factors that he felt informed these decisions:

The Space Shuttle was originally designed by NASA to attract USAF support. The payload bay was sized to hold the Big Bird [HEXAGON] reconnaissance satellite, which took pictures on film and then ejected them to come down to Earth on a parachute, which was snagged by an aircraft. The limited film capacity meant that they had to fly frequently. The shuttle was also intended to make once-around recce flights from Vandenberg over the USSR; the Earth would turn about 22 degrees during the single orbit, and the wings were meant to enable a hypersonic turn in the upper atmosphere to land back at Vandenberg. Both of these capabilities became obsolete when the digital camera was invented at Bell Labs in 1969, because it meant that reconnaissance satellites could stay up indefinitely, beaming images of any desired resolution back to Earth.

In January 1972, Nixon decided to build the shuttle and to cancel the second Skylab workshop. (I have a personal bias here, because my old lab at MIT was building experiments that I hoped to conduct on Skylab B.) The digital camera was highly classified, but Nixon had to know about it because his Science Advisor, Ed David, had been Director of Research at Bell Labs when it was invented.

Nixon’s explicit reason for choosing the shuttle, discussed in the Nixon tapes, was that he was paranoid about the 1972 election. The shuttle would be built at North American in LA, while Skylab B would be built at McDonnell in St. Louis. It was more important to make jobs in LA, because, he said, “California has more Electoral College votes than Missouri.” Moreover, NASA could not be allowed to redesign the shuttle, because that would not make many jobs before the November election.

The USAF was no longer interested, because of the new technology. Big Bird never flew in the shuttle, and the wings were simply a crippling dead weight to be hauled to orbit and back again. They were never used except to flare for the landing in the final 2000 feet of a flight.

NASA tried to make the best of Nixon’s appalling decision by generating a traffic model that was optimistic to the point of fraudulence, based on 60 flights per year (60!). In fact, Chris Kraft once told me to quit bitching about the Skylab B space station, because the shuttle would be so cheap to fly that astronauts could commute to work in orbit every morning and return home in the evening. In fact, the average payload cost to LEO (in 2020 dollars) was about $20,000/kg, compared to $5,000/kg for the Atlas and $3,000/kg for the Falcon 9.

A major defect of the shuttle was that the orbiter could not be on the nose of the booster because it would be aerodynamically unstable (like mounting feathers on the nose of an arrow). That meant there was no escape for Challenger when the booster blew up. In the case of Columbia, during boost ice or insulation fell from the booster and damaged a wing, so that it broke up on re-entry. Thus the side mount of the orbiter was directly responsible for the deaths of 14 astronauts.

To be fair, Chapman was, by far, not the only astronaut or spaceflight personality to be critical of the Space Shuttle program during its developmental years, and the very idea that NASA could launch the shuttle every two weeks “routinely” like an airliner, which was popularly bandied about during the 1970s, is now seen as laughable. But for Chapman, NASA’s commitment to a program limited only to Low Earth Orbit with noted safety issues, along with the Skylab B cancellation, cemented his decision to resign his NASA post in July 1972. No astronaut from his group would fly until late 1982, when Joe Allen and Bill Lenoir would fly on STS-5. Chapman wouldn’t be the last astronaut-scientist from the “Excess Eleven” to resign his post; in September 1973, Donald Holmquest would leave the fray (Anthony England had departed in 1972 to work with the U.S. Geological Survey, but magically was allowed to return in 1979, and even made one Shuttle flight).

Despite his sometimes less-than-happy circumstances during his five years at NASA, Chapman appears to have no lasting bitterness about his time there. As mentioned in Part One, he took to flying T-38s easily, and discussed his enthusiasm about flying the zippy jets in our interview, considering his exposure to them a highlight of the job:

In retrospect, touring the US in a T-38 was one of my more remarkable experiences. Maintaining proficiency required flying a minimum number of hours every month, so I checked out a T-38 whenever I could find the time. It didn’t matter where I went in [the contiguous United States]. Sometimes I was on NASA business, attending meetings or making speeches, but in others I was just sight-seeing from the air, looking at the Grand Canyon or the Grand Tetons. I often flew to Los Angeles so that I could listen to weekly talks by Dick Feynman at Hughes Research Lab in Malibu. Sometimes two of us would go out to dinner in New Orleans or San Francisco or wherever, and then fly back to Houston.

Brushes with Gerard K. O’Neill

After leaving NASA, Chapman set to work at the Avco Everett Research Laboratory in Massachusetts, working on laser propulsion. During the mid-1970s, he became involved in the L5 Society, one of the first space advocacy groups centered around the space settlement ideas of Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill, a subject of an ongoing This Space Available series, eventually becoming its president. In addition, Chapman’s career intersected O’Neill’s in another key way; like O’Neill, he worked extensively with Dr. Peter Glaser, who is regarded as the father of solar power satellites. In our interview, Chapman discussed his impressions of O’Neill and the older scientist’s ideas, and why he thinks O’Neill was not selected to the 1967 astronaut class despite making it to the pool of finalists:

In 1967, astronaut candidates were supposed to have been born after August 1, 1930. Gerry O’Neill was more than three years older than that, which was probably a factor in his rejection. However, NASA waived that limit for Karl Henize, who was actually a few months older than Gerry.

I don’t think I met Gerry until about 1973. When I left the astronaut office, I went to work (on laser propulsion) for Arthur Kantrowitz at AVCO Everett in Massachusetts. Arthur and I became advisors to a student organization at MIT called the Space Habitat Study Group (which later morphed into Elf Hive). When NASA sponsored the summer study at Stanford in 1975, it was initially restricted to faculty, but we persuaded NASA to include a few of the MIT students. I went out to Stanford briefly that summer, to talk about the subject.

I thought Gerry was both charismatic and brilliant, but perhaps too imaginative for his own good. I remember attending a Congressional hearing where Gerry talked about his ideas. The chairman of the Committee expressed his deep thanks to Gerry – because, he said, he had been considering an item about space colonization in the NASA budget, and he was now persuaded that funding could be postponed for a century or two.

Actually, in a few centuries I think that there will be more people living off Earth than on it. [If that seems implausible, consider what the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1620 would have reacted if told about America in 2020.] Most of them will be living in some kind of O’Neill habitat, not on Mars or the Moon, so I think Gerry’s wild ideas will be vindicated. Can you not hear the children cry, “Don’t go down the gravity well, Daddy!”

In sharp contrast, Chapman did not continue a relationship with Dr. Brian O’Leary, his former Excess Eleven colleague:

My original impression of Brian O’Leary was that he was not serious about becoming an astronaut. I was not surprised (nor sorry) when he dropped out. His later career as a professional flake has been well documented.

Don’t miss the next installment of This Space Available’s Dr. Philip Chapman series, in which we revisit a place that informed many of his scientific interests, and perhaps made him the first astronaut to endure a Mars analogue mission, even though he likely did not think that at the time: the Antarctic.

Many thanks to Colin Burgess and Francis French for assistance with research for this story.

Featured Photo Credit: Dr. Philip Chapman awaits the launch of Apollo 11, July 16, 1969. Photo supplied by David Chudwin, author of I Was a Teenage Space Reporter, used with permission.


Emily Carney is a writer, space enthusiast, and creator of the This Space Available space blog, published since 2010. In January 2019, Emily’s This Space Available blog was incorporated into the National Space Society’s blog. The content of Emily’s blog can be accessed via the This Space Available blog category.

Note: The views expressed in This Space Available are those of the author and should not be considered as representing the positions or views of the National Space Society.


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Emily Carney

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