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Books on the History of Flight

Books on the History of Flight

January 13th, 2021

Purdue University Press has a fascinating collection of books on the history of flight, from the writings of eight early women aviators to stories on the lives of notable Hoosier pilots. Read through the list below, or check out the rest of our books on flight & space.


In Their Own Words: Forgotten Women Pilots of Early Aviation

by Fred Erisman

Amelia Earhart’s prominence in American aviation during the 1930s obscures a crucial point: she was but one of a closely knit community of women pilots. In Their Own Words takes up the writings of eight early women pilots—Harriet Quimby, Ruth Law, sisters Katherine and Marjorie Stinson, Amelia Earhart, Louise Thaden, Ruth Nichols, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh—as evidence of the ties between the growth of American aviation and the changing role of women.

Their writings confront issues relating to the developing technology and possibilities of aviation, the importance of assimilating aviation into daily life, and detail the part that women might—and should—play in advancing aviation. These writings also talk about how aviation may enhance women’s participation in contemporary American society.

 

British Imperial Air Power: The Royal Air Forces and the Defense of Australia and New Zealand Between the World Wars

by Alex M. Spencer

British Imperial Air Power examines the air defense of Australia and New Zealand during the interwar period. It also demonstrates the difficulty of applying new military aviation technology to the defense of the global Empire and provides insight into the nature of the political relationship between the Pacific Dominions and Britain.

 

IN THEIR OWN WORDS is out on January 15, 2020.

 

Cheerio and Best Wishes: Letters from a World War II Hoosier Pilot

by Ralph H. Schneck and Donald R. Schneck

Cheerio and Best Wishes is told entirely through letters written by a young Hoosier pilot to his family and friends during service in World War II. One hundred thirty-eight letters are presented in the book, curated by his family and recently rediscovered by his son, along with carefully created photograph albums.

The letters and pictures in this book offer a comprehensive story of how US airmen were prepared and trained for war, and detail the daily experience of a bomber pilot flying missions over Germany.

 

Flying the Beam: Navigating the Early US Airmail Airways, 1917–1941

by Henry R. Lehrer

The systems, regulations, and technologies of civil aviation that we use today are the product of decades of experimentation and political negotiation, much of it connected to the development of the airmail as the first commercially sustainable use of airplanes.

Flying the Beam draws on period documents, pilot memoirs, and firsthand investigation of surviving material remains to trace the development of aeronautical navigation of the US airmail airways from 1917 to 1941. From the lighted airways of the 1920s through the radio navigation system in place by the time of World War II, this book explores the conceptualization and ultimate construction of the initial US airways systems.

 

BRITISH IMPERIAL AIR POWER is written by Alex M. Spencer, who curates two collections at the National Air and Space Museum.

 

“Cap” Cornish, Indiana Pilot: Navigating the Century of Flight

by Ruth Ann Ingraham

“Cap” Cornish, Indiana Pilot tells the story of Clarence “Cap” Cornish, a Hoosier pilot whose life spanned all but five years of the Century of Flight. Dedicating his life to flight and its many ramifications, Cornish helped guide the sensible development of aviation as it grew from infancy to maturity. Through his many personal experiences, the story of flight nationally is played out.

Cornish’s many accomplishments include piloting a “Jenny” aircraft during World War I, serving as chief pilot for the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, monitoring and maintaining safe skies above the continental United States during World War II, and directing Indiana’s first Aeronautics Commission. In 1995, at the age of ninety-seven, he was recognized by Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest actively flying pilot


You can get 30% off all Purdue University Press titles by entering the code PURDUE30 at checkout on our website.


Recovering the Stories of Early Women Pilots: A Q&A with Fred Erisman

December 18th, 2020

We talked to Fred Erisman, the author of In Their Own Words: Forgotten Women Pilots of Early Aviation.

In Their Own Words takes up the writings of eight women pilots as evidence of the ties between the growth of American aviation and the changing role of women.


Q: What was your main goal in undertaking this project?

Fred Erisman: I’m aiming at recovering and calling attention to some largely unknown or little-examined documents of women’s history. The eight women I discuss are known to aviation historians, but, with the exception of Earhart and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, are otherwise invisible to the larger public. The writings they left behind – Journalism, autobiography, fiction, etc. – help to expand our understanding of the women’s movement throughout its twentieth­-century history. The works give a new window through which to examine the relationship of women and aviation, how women of five decades came to grips with recurring issues of women’s rights and abilities, and how women (as opposed to men) viewed aeronautical technology and the airplane.

In the case of Louise Thaden and Ruth Nichols, their forays into fiction give readers yet another way to see and reflect on how two notable women viewed aviation, the times, and the future. One created an aeronautical dystopia and the other an American aviation utopia, yet both embraced the belief that flight was a special, even purifying, endeavor.

 

Q: Which of these aviators were new to you? Were there any stories that were particularly surprising/impressive?

Erisman: I have to point to the two Ruths – Ruth Law and Ruth Nichols. The more I learned of them the more impressed I became. Ruth Law was among the earliest of the record-setters (1916), made her living as a pilot, expressed what I have to believe was a genuine desire to join the military, and took real pride in being allowed to wear the trousered uniform of the U.S. Army. (This was 20 years before Earhart’s penchant for trousers caused twittering among the public.) Her writings make a strong case for women’s being in the military and, more generally, their calls for being treated on an equal plane with men.

Ruth Nichols impressed me with her vision of an American aeronautical paradise as reflected in her unfinished novel, Sky Girl, and with her early recognition of space as the next “aeronautical” frontier confronting women. At age 58 she presented herself to the American space program and proceeded to blow away tests judging her tolerance for g-forces, weightlessness, and sensory deprivation. She was an outspoken supporter of women in space until shortly before her death, and gives readers a new slant on what constitutes the “right stuff.”

 

 

Q: Do you think the stories of these women and have the potential to ring true even now? Any in particular that you remember?

Erisman: Unquestionably. The stories of these eight pilots are stories of hope, aspiration, challenge, and competency – issues as applicable to the women of today as they are to those of the teens, 20s, or 30s. It just happens that these women chose to face the challenge of a new technology, a profession that had become male-dominated (by default as much as by design), and a society that almost daily was having to adapt to a changing world.

These are all “airplane” stories. Change the specifics, retain the challenges, and they are as pertinent for women of the twenty-first century as they were for those of the twentieth. There is very little distance between our admiring them for all they did, and our admiration for Tammie Jo Shults and the aviation skills that help her to pilot her southwest Airlines 737 to safety after its explosive decompression. The challenges of flying remain, whether in mastering the stick-and-wire craft of early aviation or the sophisticated craft flown by today’s commercial and military pilots.

 

 

Q: Few if any of these aviators identified with the feminist/suffragist movements of their time (you mention this in the introduction of the book), but they all seemed to take their own route advocating for women’s causes, why do you think this is?

Erisman: They were stout believers in the equality and ability of women, but were realists about the mechanisms of change. They all recognized that the profession they loved was male-dominated. They also recognized that it was an individualistic one, in which women could be as effective acting singly as they might be in groups. Aviation was an area where male-female equality could easily and visibly be established; it was much easier for a capable woman aviator to show competence in the cockpit than in business or politics. They chose to stick with the world they knew and demonstrate their capabilities there. A widely expressed goal among the women pilots of the 1920s was “eliminating sex from aviation.” They wanted to be judged as pilots who were women, rather than women pilots.

They had no quarrel with the established movements. Earhart gradually gave them her endorsement, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh became an outspoken women’s advocate late in her career. They simply believed that they could do as well – or better – by going their own way.

 

Q: So it seems aviation provided a unique opportunity for the advancement of women’s causes. Do you feel that these women were able to capitalize on that?

Erisman: Here, too, the answer is “undeniably.” The very novelty of the airplane worked to put the eight in the spotlight, but none of them was shy about using her association with flight to call attention to specific accomplishments or challenges. There were proud of their achievements as women – not necessarily because they were sticking a thumb in men’s eyes, but because they were advancing the public conception and understanding of their gender’s possibilities. That their work related to the larger picture of male/female relations was a bonus.

Harriet Quimby was a journalist, Earhart was married to a publicity genius, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh was married to a celebrity; all three had ready access to means of capitalizing on their deeds and emphasizing their role(s) as women. Without aviation, Katherine Stinson likely would have ended up a Mississippi piano teacher, Louise Thaden the manager of a Kansas coal­ distributing business, and Ruth Nichols a debutante fishing about for a “good marriage.” Each made much more of herself, solely and entirely through aviation.


Thank you to Fred! If you would like to know more about this book you order your own copy or request it from your local library.

You can get 30% off this title and any other order  by entering the code PURDUE30 when ordering from our website.


Recovering the Stories of Early Women Pilots: A Q&A with Fred Erisman

December 18th, 2020

We talked to Fred Erisman, the author of In Their Own Words: Forgotten Women Pilots of Early Aviation.

In Their Own Words takes up the writings of eight women pilots as evidence of the ties between the growth of American aviation and the changing role of women.


Q: What was your main goal in undertaking this project?

Fred Erisman: I’m aiming at recovering and calling attention to some largely unknown or little-examined documents of women’s history. The eight women I discuss are known to aviation historians, but, with the exception of Earhart and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, are otherwise invisible to the larger public. The writings they left behind – Journalism, autobiography, fiction, etc. – help to expand our understanding of the women’s movement throughout its twentieth­-century history. The works give a new window through which to examine the relationship of women and aviation, how women of five decades came to grips with recurring issues of women’s rights and abilities, and how women (as opposed to men) viewed aeronautical technology and the airplane.

In the case of Louise Thaden and Ruth Nichols, their forays into fiction give readers yet another way to see and reflect on how two notable women viewed aviation, the times, and the future. One created an aeronautical dystopia and the other an American aviation utopia, yet both embraced the belief that flight was a special, even purifying, endeavor.

 

Q: Which of these aviators were new to you? Were there any stories that were particularly surprising/impressive?

Erisman: I have to point to the two Ruths – Ruth Law and Ruth Nichols. The more I learned of them the more impressed I became. Ruth Law was among the earliest of the record-setters (1916), made her living as a pilot, expressed what I have to believe was a genuine desire to join the military, and took real pride in being allowed to wear the trousered uniform of the U.S. Army. (This was 20 years before Earhart’s penchant for trousers caused twittering among the public.) Her writings make a strong case for women’s being in the military and, more generally, their calls for being treated on an equal plane with men.

Ruth Nichols impressed me with her vision of an American aeronautical paradise as reflected in her unfinished novel, Sky Girl, and with her early recognition of space as the next “aeronautical” frontier confronting women. At age 58 she presented herself to the American space program and proceeded to blow away tests judging her tolerance for g-forces, weightlessness, and sensory deprivation. She was an outspoken supporter of women in space until shortly before her death, and gives readers a new slant on what constitutes the “right stuff.”

 

 

Q: Do you think the stories of these women and have the potential to ring true even now? Any in particular that you remember?

Erisman: Unquestionably. The stories of these eight pilots are stories of hope, aspiration, challenge, and competency – issues as applicable to the women of today as they are to those of the teens, 20s, or 30s. It just happens that these women chose to face the challenge of a new technology, a profession that had become male-dominated (by default as much as by design), and a society that almost daily was having to adapt to a changing world.

These are all “airplane” stories. Change the specifics, retain the challenges, and they are as pertinent for women of the twenty-first century as they were for those of the twentieth. There is very little distance between our admiring them for all they did, and our admiration for Tammie Jo Shults and the aviation skills that help her to pilot her southwest Airlines 737 to safety after its explosive decompression. The challenges of flying remain, whether in mastering the stick-and-wire craft of early aviation or the sophisticated craft flown by today’s commercial and military pilots.

 

 

Q: Few if any of these aviators identified with the feminist/suffragist movements of their time (you mention this in the introduction of the book), but they all seemed to take their own route advocating for women’s causes, why do you think this is?

Erisman: They were stout believers in the equality and ability of women, but were realists about the mechanisms of change. They all recognized that the profession they loved was male-dominated. They also recognized that it was an individualistic one, in which women could be as effective acting singly as they might be in groups. Aviation was an area where male-female equality could easily and visibly be established; it was much easier for a capable woman aviator to show competence in the cockpit than in business or politics. They chose to stick with the world they knew and demonstrate their capabilities there. A widely expressed goal among the women pilots of the 1920s was “eliminating sex from aviation.” They wanted to be judged as pilots who were women, rather than women pilots.

They had no quarrel with the established movements. Earhart gradually gave them her endorsement, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh became an outspoken women’s advocate late in her career. They simply believed that they could do as well – or better – by going their own way.

 

Q: So it seems aviation provided a unique opportunity for the advancement of women’s causes. Do you feel that these women were able to capitalize on that?

Erisman: Here, too, the answer is “undeniably.” The very novelty of the airplane worked to put the eight in the spotlight, but none of them was shy about using her association with flight to call attention to specific accomplishments or challenges. There were proud of their achievements as women – not necessarily because they were sticking a thumb in men’s eyes, but because they were advancing the public conception and understanding of their gender’s possibilities. That their work related to the larger picture of male/female relations was a bonus.

Harriet Quimby was a journalist, Earhart was married to a publicity genius, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh was married to a celebrity; all three had ready access to means of capitalizing on their deeds and emphasizing their role(s) as women. Without aviation, Katherine Stinson likely would have ended up a Mississippi piano teacher, Louise Thaden the manager of a Kansas coal­ distributing business, and Ruth Nichols a debutante fishing about for a “good marriage.” Each made much more of herself, solely and entirely through aviation.


Thank you to Fred! If you would like to know more about this book you order your own copy or request it from your local library.

You can get 30% off this title and any other order  by entering the code PURDUE30 when ordering from our website.


British Imperial Air Power: A Q&A with Alex M. Spencer

June 18th, 2020

We talked to Alex M. Spencer, the author of British Imperial Air Power: The Royal Air Forces and the Defense of Australia and New Zealand Between the World Wars.

British Imperial Air Power examines the air defense of Australia and New Zealand during the interwar period. It also demonstrates the difficulty of applying new military aviation technology to the defense of the global Empire and provides insight into the nature of the political relationship between the Pacific Dominions and Britain.


 

Q: What motivated you to take on this project?

Spencer: Distilled down from the book’s introduction:

The inspiration of this work comes out of my interest in the Royal Navy during the interwar period. The terrible loss of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse to waves of Japanese torpedo bombers on December 10, 1941 and the surrender of 84,000 British and Commonwealth troops resulted in many books about the failed “Fleet to Singapore” strategy conceived by Fleet Admiral John Jellicoe in 1919. After my arrival at the National Air and Space Museum, my interests turned to aviation and I wanted to discover why the Royal Air Force was equipped with inadequate aircraft at Singapore and why this topic tended to receive less treatment by historians. After reading the studies about Singapore, I began to wonder if the RAF was making similar efforts, concerning the defense of the Pacific Empire. The answer was yes in an almost forgotten survey by Group Captain Arthur Bettington. Like Jellicoe, Bettington toured the Pacific Dominions in the immediate post World War I period and made recommendations concerning the future of aerial defenses of the Dominions. With century passed since these events, I’ve became more interested in the Royal Air Force during the interwar period and wanted to trace its defense planning for the Empire.

 

Q: Air combat was relatively novel in WWI, what are some things that may help us understand how different things were at that time?

Spencer: One aspect that I found interesting about aviation technology during World War I was how aircraft made dramatic advances in speed, performance and increased armament. Throughout the war, airmen on both had to invent tactics and strategies for this new technology. Even though there were demonstrations on the potential of aircraft they still remained inadequate to perform the tasks that the airmen envisioned. It was not until the middle of the 1930s when new all metal aircraft with powerful engines and resulted in higher performance and the ability for aircraft to carry heavier payloads. With new specialized designs, aircraft at the opening of the new World War could actually deliver upon the promises made by the air power advocates.

 

A picture of the book British Imperial Air Power

 

Q: What are some of the principle conclusions of this project?

Spencer: The RAF designed their interwar air strategies to help maintain the long-established British foreign policy goals of a balance of power on the European continent and protect the vital trade routes throughout the Empire. The air services spent the entire interwar period attempting to create a strategy in the face of considerable economic restrictions.

The RAF answer to its limitations was an air strategy centered on the concept “air mobility.” Successful operations throughout the Middle East from 1919 to 1924 encouraged the Air Ministry assertions that air mobility offered an economical imperial defense. By 1928, air mobility became the cornerstone imperial air defense plans.

By the end of the 1920s, it was clear that the budget cuts were having a detrimental impact upon the operational capabilities of the RAF Even if increased funding were committed to the service it likely would not have improved its condition. Throughout the interwar period, military service remained unpopular and service in the RAF did not appeal to the public. As long as the international situation remained calm, the military economies did not seem detrimental to the security of the Empire.

As Germany, Italy, and Japan began their military preparation and expansions in the 1930s, the effects of economizing and disarmament became evident. The British government understood the danger that these three powers represented and by 1934, a new program of rearmament and expansion of the military industrial infrastructure began as well as renewed efforts to strengthen the bonds of the RAF, RAAF, and the RNZAF.

Central to the story of the Royal Air Force during the Interwar period is how this infant military service had to fight to maintain its independence and its very existence. The Air Force created by the unification of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service during the First World War faced a battle against the two senior services to reclaim their air assets. The air defense of the Empire gave the RAF justification for its continued independence. The defense of Australian and New Zealand, Britain’s most distant imperial partners, was the most daunting test for the fledgling service. To survive the Empire’s military air services presented themselves as a viable and economical third option in the defense of Britain’s global Empire. The imperial air forces had to navigate the political and economic difficulties of the interwar period that forced their leaders to muddle through. During the war they achieved great victories and suffered humiliating defeats but by the end of the war they were larger and stronger than any prewar strategist could have imagined.

 


Thank you to Alex for his time! If you would like to know more about the book you can get your own copy or request it from your local library.

You can get 30% off British Imperial Air Power and any other Purdue University Press book by ordering from our website and using the code PURDUE30 at checkout.


Through Astronaut Eyes: A Q&A with Jennifer Levasseur

May 20th, 2020

We talked to Jennifer Levasseur, a museum curator in the Department of Space History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC and the author of Through Astronaut Eyes: Photographing Early Human Spaceflight.

Through Astronaut Eyes explores the origins and impact of astronaut still photography from 1962 to 1972, the period when human spaceflight first captured the imagination of people around the world. Featuring over seventy images from the heroic age of space exploration, the book presents the story of how human daring along with technological ingenuity allowed people to see the Earth and stars as they never had before.


 

Q: How did this project start?

Jennifer Levasseur: As a graduate student intern at the National Portrait Gallery, I cataloged photographic portraits of notable figures, learning how to describe them in words for digital records. A few years later, I took over responsibility for the human spaceflight camera collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. That meant caring for material culture from human spaceflight, and it overlapped with thinking about the visual products and interpreting the messages in images. My questions began to include how astronauts, our representatives in space exploration, also had to capture what they saw to tell us stories. The cameras tell a technological story, but the images tell sublime stories also defined by the people who took them – people who defined themselves as pilots, engineers, or scientists, but not photographers. The reality of spaceflight complicated a narrative of exploration photography seen for almost a century prior to the 1960s, so that brought more intensity to how we remember that time, even if we weren’t alive.

 

Q: Is there any single photograph, or even a couple, that you think encapsulate the unique and interesting subject that is astronaut photography?

Levasseur: Some images captured by astronauts hold special meaning because they’ve permeated our culture so deeply, they’re now almost part of our everyday lives. Most books still use the image of the whole Earth from Apollo 17 as the image of our planet even though it’s almost 50 years old. Or how we still think of the Buzz Aldrin image “Moonman” as the quintessential astronaut image. Those serve as the iconic, but I always love looking through those that seem mundane and yet reveal something new upon each viewing. Like a favorite movie you’ve seen hundreds of time, it’s awesome to look for something you haven’t caught before. I think Earth-facing photography can be that since our planet is incredibly diverse. But for the era my book examines, everything leading up to the end of the Apollo program, the image Michael Collins took looking towards Earth with the lunar module in the foreground is just beyond words in its sublimity. Sometimes called the “loneliest man” image because Collins is the only human in all of history to that point not captured in the photograph, the perspective is unique and almost unimaginable. That one really captures the story of the missions, the people, and our planet all in one frame.

 

Q: Given the stakes of traveling in space, what do you think is the best defense for time spent on astronaut photography, something that may not seem pertinent to mission success?

Levasseur: Astronauts opinions overall hovered at lukewarm on adding photography to their mission duties, with some very supportive and invested in the final products, and others preferring to mostly ignore it or find other tasks where they could specialize. But few of them could deny the privileged position it put them in, to see something just over 500 humans have ever seen even today. From that position, they can all contribute to seeing space to understand it better, and photographs are critical to that narrative. Astronauts tell stories in interviews, and have for decades after their missions, but that same message can be conveyed with a simple image. It brings the story to life, and inspires, and prompting new generations with that inspiration was a key factor in NASA’s mission, really their directive from Congress, to share with everyone what was learned through their work. NASA had that cultural/educational component from day one, so things like artwork, films, photographs, and eventually displays in museums were critical to fulfilling that part of their mission.

 

Q: Are there astronauts that are historically considered good or bad “space photographers”?

Levasseur: Two astronauts were significant contributors to showing the intent of the person behind the lens. Alan Bean was an artist and conceived of his photographs more like a professional photographer than any other astronaut of his generation. His photographs of Pete Conrad next to Surveyor 3 on the Moon with the lunar module in the background are particularly sublime. Much later, on the last servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009, John Grunsfeld took a photo of his reflection in Hubble that serves as a book-end of the images of Bean, showing a path from very classic landscape photography, thoughtful and considered, to something almost abstract and modern art-like. Astronauts really evolved as thoughtful participants in photography from the day of just pointing and shooting out the window.

 

Q: Why you think astronaut photography is so important for the public’s feelings towards space travel?

Levasseur: We can see space and our world and our universe through many eyes: described by astronauts from memories of what they saw, in photographs they took with cameras, and through telescopes directed at things we cannot see with our own eyes. The visible world around us, as seen through photographs, offers a sense of our place in it. When the languages of math or science are too complicated for some of us, the visual language of images simplifies that information and makes it possible for almost anyone to grasp. Knowing a person was on the other side of a camera lens, we connect to that event through that person. Their story is intertwined with what is seen in the images. The astronauts are part of the portal through which we see and understand the image content, and they can’t and shouldn’t be removed from the stories we tell about those images. In a time when the isolating experiences of being an astronaut seem more understandable than ever to the rest of us, the photographs they’ve captured prompt new thinking about their value to understanding the big picture of human life on Earth.

 


Thank you so much to Jennifer for her time! If you would like to know more about the book you can get your own copy or request it from your local library.

You can get 40% off Through Astronaut Eyes and any other Purdue University Press book by ordering from our website and using the code PURDUE40 at checkout.


The Impact of a Monograph: Overlapping Memories of Vietnam and Apollo

April 28th, 2020

Scholarly books have long been the backbone of academia, but too often these books do not get the attention they deserve. In this series, we ask our authors which academic works have had a lasting influence on them. Follow this link to see the rest of the series.

This post was written by Jennifer Levasseur, PhD, a Museum Curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and author of Through Astronaut Eyes: Photographing Early Human Spaceflight.


 

As a high school student, I thought it terribly unfair that my history classes never reached the historical moments of interest to me—and my teachers were sympathetic to my concerns. Events just outside of my living memory, the majority of the Cold War, really, eluded me in school, but were referenced on television and in my home. As a substitute for school lessons, I watched John Wayne movies and PBS documentaries with my dad. Unless I skipped ahead in the textbooks when the teacher wasn’t looking, I felt cheated without some grounding in a period clearly influential on my daily life as child of the late Cold War. As an undergrad and then a graduate student, I vowed to learn those stories, and to understand why the 1960s held such weight in the hearts of my parents and their friends. I took what courses I could, catching myself up on the basics of the US side of the story and finally taking a Vietnam War class with Dr. Meredith Lair during my PhD coursework at George Mason University. It was a fulfillment of that craving I’d had since the fall of the Berlin Wall (when I was twelve).

My curiosity did not end with a single class. I wanted to see these places, to know the story from another side. If I had learned anything in my training as a historian, it was the complicated and subjective nature of narratives about the recent past. By the early 2000s, my scholarly attention was on this same period, only in terms of human spaceflight. The war in Vietnam obviously overlapped with my thinking about how photography plays a role in developing shared cultural memories. I felt the best way to reconcile memory-making of the two connected—but vastly dissimilar—events was to go there, see their museums, and read about Vietnam and memory from a Vietnamese perspective. During a three-week cruise in November 2018 from Hong Kong to Singapore, which included three stops in Vietnam, I read a book Dr. Lair suggested, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard University Press, 2016). My own manuscript was in process, so this had some symmetry with how I was considering the same period from a completely different perspective.

Nguyen, just a few years older than me but a child refugee born in Vietnam and raised in the United States, presents his story as one of confusion, complication, inconsistency, and the real messiness of the era. His presentation of ethics, industries, aesthetics, and memory felt familiar to me while incredibly complicated to decipher—not as grounded in textual evidence as most scholars of this era. His story and my own are of the intangible emotions and memories, fleeting things grounded in the material and visual culture that surrounds us. It is those ethereal qualities of perception that most certainly delayed my education on Vietnam, but thanks to Nguyen, it all makes more sense now.


The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings: Q&A with William F. Causey

February 19th, 2020

In this interview, we talk with author William F. Causey about his forthcoming book John Houbolt: The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings.

John Houbolt tells the story of NASA engineer John Houbolt, and his advocacy for Lunar Orbit Rendevous (LOR) as the preferred method for getting American astronauts to the moon and back.


 

Q: What piqued your interest into the story of John Houbolt and the LOR decision?

William F. Causey: Beginning with the 15-minute Mercury flight of Alan Shepard in May 1961, through all the Apollo moon landings and then with the thrilling robotic landings on Mars and probes to the outer planets, I have been fascinated with our space program. As a youngster I followed every flight and read every book on space flight. In 1995, I read Jim Hansen’s Spaceflight Revolution, his book on the history of the Langley Research Center, and I became enthralled with the chapter on John Houbolt and the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) decision. I wanted to learn more, but there was not much material on Houbolt or how the LOR decision was made. I began to compile my own research, and during one summer, I examined Houbolt’s voluminous papers that he had donated to the University of Illinois. Upon my return to Washington, I wrote him a letter (before the days of email) asking if I could meet and interview him. To my surprise, Houbolt invited my wife and me to Maine where John and his wife Mary were retired. We had a marvelous weekend talking about NASA and John’s role in the LOR decision. I had the good fortune to talk with John several times before his death in 2014 at the age of 95. I realized from these discussions that the LOR decision brought together all the amazing management and engineering talent that was at the core of the great adventure we call Apollo, and that it was largely this mid-level engineer from Langley who eventually convinced everyone that LOR was the only way to land astronauts on the moon and return them safely to earth by the end of the decade. I decided that Houbolt’s role in the LOR story needed a more complete examination, and my book tells that amazing story.

 

Q: Why do you think it took so long for this story to get told in full?

Causey: The Apollo story – perhaps the greatest adventure and achievement in human history – was told largely through the eyes of the astronauts, the people who took the journeys, which we as a nation followed with awe and wonder. Our collective experience in space involved watching dramatic launches and looking at captivating colorful photographs of the earth from space and of the gray and black “desolation” of the lunar surface. Very little attention was devoted during Apollo to the thousands of men and women who worked behind the scenes to make Apollo a successful endeavor.

The John Houbolt story of lunar orbit rendezvous took place during the early days of Project Mercury – indeed, Americans had been in space a total of six and one-half hours when NASA adopted the LOR lunar mode in July 1962. At that time, space rendezvous and docking were still years in the future. Although many people, primarily at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, contributed to the development of the LOR concept, John Houbolt was the Langley engineer who perhaps knew the most about orbital rendezvous. He became the person to promote LOR to a skeptical and at times hostile NASA management. While we understand today that thousands of people built the space hardware and software, manned the control and tracking stations, and worked with the astronauts during the training and flights, we did not know at the time that the idea of how to land men on the moon and return them safely to earth largely was the result of the persistence and tenacity of one person.

The Houbolt story was not widely known outside NASA until Jim Hansen’s book Spaceflight Revolution, published in 1995, about the history of the Langley Research Center. Hansen’s book contained only one short chapter on Houbolt and the the LOR story. My book attempts to expand on Hansen’s excellent chapter and provides the historical foundation for how NASA made the LOR decision that produced the astonishing feats of the Apollo program.

 

Q: How does telling Houbolt’s story affect the legacy of the Apollo program as a whole?

Causey: The lasting legacy of the Apollo program was that this nation could accomplish a seemingly insurmountable but truly momentous undertaking when the minds and resources of the country focused with laser precision on that one national goal. My book shows how dozens of truly remarkable and brilliant people fought hard to achieve the objective of getting a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. John Houbolt was one of many great minds who participated in that thrilling adventure, but it was his tenacity and persistence in promoting the LOR idea, at first against enormous opposition and even open hostility, that finally provided NASA with the direction to get to the moon.

 

Q: Do you feel the fate of the program would be different without Houbolt’s persistence? Were any of the other methods truly viable?

Causey: When President Kennedy proposed in May 1961 that America should achieve the goal, before the end of the decade, of landing a man on the moon and returning him to earth, NASA had no idea how to do that. Although NASA considered two landing options, called Direct Ascent and Earth Orbit Rendezvous, it became apparent that neither plan was technically feasible. Several engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center, led by John Houbolt, proposed a third option, called Lunar Orbit Rendezvous. The LOR mode involved sending two crafts to the moon. The smaller, lighter spacecraft, called the lunar module, would take two astronauts to the lunar surface while the third astronaut stayed in lunar orbit in the larger command module. The two astronauts would take off from the moon and rendezvous in lunar orbit with the third astronaut before all three would return to earth in the command module. At first NASA flatly rejected Houbolt’s LOR idea, with several NASA planning committees even refusing to consider the concept. But after Houbolt wrote two letters to NASA management that placed his career in jeopardy, and after spirited internal debate involving the clash of powerful egos, NASA finally adopted Houbolt’s LOR idea in July 1962. And, of course, the United States landed men on the moon in 1969.

It is virtually certain that America would not have landed astronauts on the moon by the end of the 1960s if NASA had not adopted the LOR concept. There would not have been enough time to build and test the lunar lander and Saturn V rocket, perfect orbital rendezvous and docking techniques, conduct long-duration flights in the Gemini program, and master the mathematics of trajectory to and from the moon. Although it is likely that the United States would have eventually landed on the moon given enough time and money using Direct Ascent or Earth Orbit Rendezvous, what makes the Houbolt story so compelling is that without his persistence, Apollo 11 surely would not have landed on the moon and returned safely to earth in July 1969.

 

Q: It seems in the process of getting to the moon it took some pretty big pushes (e.g., John Houbolt’s persistence, the Apollo 1 tragedy), to get NASA going in the correct direction. It’s been quite some time since the US has been to the moon. Do you think the country is missing that push now?

Causey: The Apollo program was a huge undertaking that began months before President Kennedy committed the nation to a manned lunar landing. Engineers and scientists began seriously thinking of sending men to the moon years before NASA was created in 1958. But once President Kennedy proposed a manned lunar landing in May 1961, NASA had to quickly agree on a way to get to the moon. Fortunately, the idea of landing a man on the moon captured the imagination of Congress as well as the public, and there was more than adequate public funding and private initiative to get Apollo started and underway. As my book shows, the LOR decision –a major aspect of getting to the moon and back – was not an easy decision for numerous technical and managerial reasons. The significant events that led to the ultimate success of the Apollo moon landings, such as the accomplishments of Projects Mercury and Gemini, the development of the Saturn V rocket, remarkable advancements in computer technology, and a largely workable but expensive partnership between government and private industry, enabled the United States to land a man on the moon by July 1969.

To be sure, there were major delays, disappointments, and tragedies along the way as well. The March 1966 aborted Gemini 8 flight that almost took the lives of the crew made NASA appreciate with greater acuity the dangers of space flight. The Apollo 1 fire in January 1967 that took the lives of the crew on the test pad was a major setback that demonstrated the poor design and shoddy workmanship of the Apollo command module, but that resulted in a much-improved spacecraft. The long delays in the development of the lunar lander that led to the bold but risky flight of Apollo 8, and the delays in the development of the Saturn V booster that required an expedited all-ups testing schedule, helped NASA come together and overcome the tragedy of Apollo 1. Indeed, one of the central threads of the remarkable Apollo story is how NASA adapted to the vagaries of the program to meet the end-of-the decade deadline.

Humans have not walked on the moon since December 1972 – a span of almost five decades. Although the United States has expressed a desire to return to the moon by 2024, it is unlikely that that will happen. To begin with, we need to have the same collective national will that we had in 1961, and it does not appear that such collective will exists at this time. Returning men – and women – to the moon will be an expensive and complex project that will equal or surpass the Apollo program. And returning humans to the moon will have to compete with the less expensive and safer means of space exploration with robotics. In all likelihood, NASA will have to partner with the existing private space industry, and the United States will have to partner with other nations such as China, Russia, India, and Japan, to share the cost and risk of future human space travel. Returning to the moon will have to be a global undertaking in all respects.

Yet, we can be certain that one day people will walk on the moon again, and journey to Mars and the asteroids, just as we knew in the 1950s that humans would travel beyond the bounds of earth. It is an adventure worth pursuing.


 

Thank you to William Causey for taking the time to answer our questions! If you would like to learn more about the book, you can find him at Politics & Prose on Sunday, March 15 from 1-2 pm.

You can get 30% off John Houbolt and any other Purdue University Press books by ordering from our website and using the discount code PURDUE30.


The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings

February 7th, 2020

A new book from Purdue University Press, John Houbolt: The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings by William F. Causey, tells the story of John Houbolt’s advocacy for “LOR” (Lunar Orbit Rendezvous) as the preferred method for getting American astronauts to the moon and back.

In May 1961, President Kennedy announced that the United States would attempt to land a man on the moon and return him safely before the end of that decade. At this point, NASA did not have a specific plan for how to accomplish that goal. Over the next fourteen months, several options were vigorously debated. At first, the consensus was to send one big rocket with several astronauts to the moon, land and explore, and then take off and return in the same vehicle. Another involved launching several smaller Saturn V rockets into the earth orbit, where a lander would be assembled and fueled before sending the crew to the moon.

A small group of engineers led by John Houbolt advocated for a new plan called “LOR”. This plan, they believed, was not only faster, cheaper, and more reliable, but the only viable option by which they could make it to the moon by the end of the decade. Initially, LOR was ignored, criticized, and dismissed by many NASA officials, but in the face of overwhelming opposition, and at the risk of his career and reputation, John Houbolt persisted. LOR prevailed, and NASA made it to the moon before the end of the decade.

This book fills a gap in the history of America’s path to the moon, and finally gives John Houbolt his due.

 

“The choice of how to get to the moon was critical to meeting President Kennedy’s goal of a lunar landing ‘before this decade is out.’ Bill Causey’s deeply researched and clearly written book depicts how the persistence of one man, NASA engineer John Houbolt, decisively influenced the tortuous and contentious process of making that choice. The book nicely fills a glaring gap in the history of America’s journey to the moon, and reminds us that the lunar journey was far from straightforward.”

—John M. Logsdon, Professor Emeritus, Space Policy Institute, The George Washington University

 

John Houbolt: The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings

by William F. Causey

ISBN: 9781557539465, Hardcover, $29.99

374 pages, 31 black and white images

 

Founded in 1960, Purdue University Press is dedicated to the dissemination of scholarly and professional information. We publish books in several key subject areas including Purdue & Indiana, Aeronautics/Astronautics, the Human-Animal Bond, Central European Studies, Jewish Studies, and other select disciplines.


 

You can get 30% off John Houbolt and any other Purdue University Press books by ordering from our website and using the discount code PURDUE30.


Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

July 12th, 2019

From July 18-20, Purdue University will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing with a variety of campus events, including a talk by Apollo 11 flight director Gene Kranz, a showing of a new “Armstrong” documentary, and a book signing/meet and greet with Purdue University Press authors.

Purdue University Press is proud to publish in space and flight with our book series, Purdue Studies in Aeronautics and Astronautics edited by James R. Hansen. Our books build on Purdue’s leadership in aeronautic and astronautic engineering, as well as the historic accomplishments of many of Purdue’s luminary alums.

The stories that can be told in connection with Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon are innumerable. Stories of those who sacrificed it all for us to get there, stories of the men and women working behind the scenes, and stories of the men and women inspired by the moon landing, continuing to their own “giant leaps”. Read on to hear more about these stories.


Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom

by George Leopold

On January 27, 1967, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee lost their lives in a fire during a launch pad test of the Apollo 1 spacecraft.

Gus Grissom, a Purdue University alumnus and one of the “Mercury Seven”, was a fixture of the early Space Race. There was a point in time when many thought NASA would eventually select Grissom as the first man to walk on the moon. Most now remember him for the tragedy that took his life.

“One of the cruel ironies, the central paradox of the Space Race, was that a launch pad fire actually saved the Apollo program,” notes George Leopold, Gus Grissom’s biographer, in a blog post earlier this year. “The reason was the evidence of what had been overlooked in Grissom’s ship—the faulty wiring, the leaking coolant, the lack of flame-retardant materials in the spacecraft, the clumsy, inward-opening hatch, and most important of all, NASA’s misguided engineering decision to use pure oxygen under pressure on the launch pad—all of it was there for the investigators to sift through.”

What NASA was able to learn from this tragedy helped lay the groundwork for the missions that put men on the moon.

 

 

Piercing the Horizon: The Story of Visionary NASA Chief Tom Paine

by Sunny Tsiao

Tom Paine was the administrator of NASA when man took their first steps on the lunar surface on the Apollo 11 mission.

Named acting administrator on October 8, 1968, and confirmed by the Senate as administrator on March 20, 1969, he was tasked with getting the program back on track following the Apollo 1 disaster, and stewarded the program through the first seven manned Apollo missions.

In the Foreword of Piercing the Horizon, James R. Hansen calls Paine “one of America’s greatest spaceflight visionaries”.

 

 

Spacewalker: My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA’s Record-Setting Frequent Flyer

by Jerry L. Ross with John Norberg

“On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 launched toward the Moon to attempt the first manned lunar landing. I read everything I could get my hands on about the mission. Any time there was information about the mission on TV, and I wasn’t working, I was there. I didn’t care if the coverage was just a shot of Mission control in Houston with no one talking. I loved what they were doing, how they were doing it, the suspense, and the technology.”

Jerry Ross, a Purdue University alumnus and Indiana native, shares the record for most spaceflights. Ross spent 1,393 hours in space, including 58 hours and 18 minutes on nine space walks.

Ross was a student at Purdue when he was inspired by Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Ross collaborated with Susan G. Gunderson to write an illustrated children’s version of his biography called Becoming a Spacewalker: My Journey to the Stars.

 

 

Wings of Their Dreams: Purdue in Flight, Second Edition

by John Norberg

“Every day you’re reminded that not only did Neil Armstrong walk these paths around Purdue, going to class every day, but so did Gus (Grissom), and so did a whole lot of others.”

Often referred to as “the cradle of astronauts”, Purdue University is inseparable with the history of manned spaceflight.

Wings of Their Dreams is the story of the human spirit taking flight, entwined with Purdue’s legacy in aviation’s history and its horizons. Author John Norberg reminds readers that the first and last men to land on the moon first trekked across the West Lafayette, Indiana campus on their journeys into the heavens and history.

Second Edition out October 15, 2019

 

 

Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind

by James R. Hansen

Today, some 75,000 letters written to Neil Armstrong are preserved in the Purdue University Archives and Special Collections.

Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind publishes a careful sampling of these letters—roughly 400—reflecting the various kinds of correspondence that Armstrong received along with representative samples of his replies.


Get 30% off any of these books when you order through the Purdue University Press website with the discount code PURDUE30.


Q&A with Author George Leopold, Biographer of Gus Grissom

September 14th, 2018

A revised and expanded paperback edition of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Time of Gus Grissom by George Leopold will be released on September 15th. In preparation for the release, the press interviewed Leopold to find out more behind his inspiration in writing the book, some thoughts on the book’s subject, and more.


 

Q: What inspired you to write a book? How did you come across Gus Grissom as a subject?

Leopold: The standard narrative of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union is divided into two parts: before and after what came to be known simply as The Fire, the catastrophe that killed Gus Grissom and his Apollo 1 crew. After NASA recovered, the contributions of Gus Grissom were mostly forgotten—misremembered, really, when Tom Wolfe published The Right Stuff. Wolfe’s depiction of Grissom in his book and especially in the film version is a cartoon character. Wolfe got it wrong.

This struck me and many others as unjust. I determined to correct the record by writing a biography of Gus Grissom that places his life and career in the context of history of manned spaceflight.

I resolved to write his biography while standing before Gus Grissom’s grave in a lonely section of Arlington National Cemetery.

It only me took seven years.

Q: You have mentioned in previous interviews that you feel Grissom is underappreciated. Given his importance to early space exploration, how do you feel this happened?

Leopold: Part of its was Grissom’s unwillingness to toot his own horn. Gus always said the pre-flight press conferences were harder than the actual space missions. Another factor was the serendipitous nature of the early Project Mercury crew assignments. Most remember Alan Shepard’s first flight and John Glenn’s orbital flight. Grissom was remembered mostly for losing his first spacecraft.

And there was little reward or notoriety outside of his own peer group for the long hours at the factory doing the tedious testing required to get the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft into orbit. Grissom was engineering test pilot by training. All he really wanted to do was to go faster and higher—all the way to the moon and back. He cared not a whit about personal prestige, but he worked tirelessly to ensure the United States was first on the moon. Without Grissom’s contributions, I’m convinced we would not have made it by the end of the 1960s as we so declared.

Q: What do you imagine the space program would look like today if the Apollo 1 mission had been a success?

Leopold: It’s hard to say. Space exploration is a deadly business. If the Apollo 1 fire had not occurred on the launch pad, an accident in space would have been worse because investigators would know next to nothing about the precise cause(s). One of the cruel ironies, the central paradox of the Space Race, was that a launch pad fire actually saved the Apollo program. The reason was the evidence of what had been overlooked in Grissom’s ship—the faulty wiring, the leaking coolant, the lack of flame-retardant materials in the spacecraft, the clumsy inward opening hatch and, most important of all, NASA’s misguided engineering decision to use pure oxygen under pressure on the launch pad—all of it was there for the investigators to sift through.

To its credit, NASA rose from the ashes and built a great machine that took 24 humans to the moon.

Q: What are some things you believe the average person would be most surprised to know about the early age of space exploration?

Leopold: What a risky enterprise this was and the price the astronauts’ families paid. That, and the fact that Grissom and the early astronauts were test pilots who did not fly by the seat of their pants. They accepted risks, but they always sought to minimize them and come back alive. Gus Grissom is widely quoted as saying the rewards outweighed the risks (I never did track down the precise origin of Grissom’s iconic “worth the risk” quote, but he did say something close to this.) Hence, my thesis is that Grissom calculated those risks, dangers that every astronaut had to accept, and determined to proceed.

That decision cost him and his Apollo crew their lives, and shattered their families.

Q: What were some of the changes made for the new edition of the book? What makes it worthwhile for the person who has already read the original?

Leopold: For starters, the new Afterword describes how NASA finally provided a measure of closure for the Grissom, White, and Chaffee families. It’s an account of the 50th anniversary observance of the Apollo 1 fire. Gus Grissom’s brother Lowell did me the honor of an invitation to attend the ceremonies at Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA at long last did right by the crew, mounting a permanent Apollo 1 exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center that includes the scorched hatches. The NASA exhibit also includes photos of Gus Grissom first published in Calculated Risk.

I and others have long argued that some part of the spacecraft should be displayed in a dignified way to remind future generations of the sacrifices of the early astronauts. NASA did just that. The exhibit was long overdue.

Further, we believe the updated version is more readable, and benefited from the kind of crowdsourcing that occurs when a book on an important subject is published. A scholarly peer review process, enabled by social media, identified a few areas for improvement. The result, we firmly believe, is the authoritative account of Gus Grissom’s life and career.

Q: You have spent countless hours researching and interviewing for this book. What is your favorite story that didn’t make it in?

Leopold: Not left out, merely overlooked until recently. When the Apollo 1 crew assignment was announced during a press conference in Houston in March 1966, a reporter asked about the protocol for deciding which two astronauts on each three-man crew would land and walk on the lunar surface during later Apollo missions. A NASA manager started in with a long technical answer.

Grissom listened for a moment, smiled and jumped in—getting right to the point: “If it was this crew, it would be me and somebody else!”

Q: Do you think that Grissom’s reputation has improved? Are there steps you would like to see taken to ensure his place in space history?

Leopold: I’d venture to say Gus Grissom is beloved, especially by those who knew him and understood his competence, dedication, and willingness to work and sacrifice. Those contributions to manned space exploration are certainly more appreciated now than, say, the late 1970s and early 1980s when The Right Stuff narrative held sway. The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, for which the release of this biography was timed, also contributed to greater appreciation of Grissom’s central role.

My subject would undoubtedly be amused by all the fuss….

I am currently working with a group seeking to place a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery to honor the Apollo 1 crew. Gus Grissom and his crew mate and fellow Purdue alumnus Roger Chaffee are buried at Arlington. Surprisingly, there is no monument there commemorating the crew’s sacrifice—as there are for the astronauts lost in the two Space Shuttle accidents. The Apollo 1 memorial at Arlington National Cemetery was authorized by Congress, and we hope to have one in place during a future NASA Day of Remembrance for the Apollo 1 and shuttle crews.

Q: If you could ask Gus Grissom himself one question, what would it be?

Leopold: I would ask about his state of mind in the last weeks of his life, which must have been hell. He knew he had a faulty spacecraft on his hands, but he and the others figured they could fix it as they had done before. In that respect, Gus Grissom was a fatalist.

 


George Leopold is a veteran technology journalist and science writer who has covered the nexus between technology and policy for over thirty years. Leopold has written extensively about U.S. manned spaceflight, including the Apollo and space shuttle programs. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Scientist, and a variety of other science and technology publications. He resides in Reston, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter!

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