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Review: A Bunch of Plumbers

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A Bunch of Plumbers
by John Newcomb
High Tide Publications, 2015
paperback, 298 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-692-45585-2

NASA planetary missions are most frequently associated with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but that isn’t always the case, now or in the past. Earlier in the agency’s history, its Langley Research Center in Virginia—usually associated with aeronautics work—led two major programs: the Lunar Orbiters and the Viking Mars missions, both major successes.

Not everyone, though, thought Langley was up to the task. Nobel laureate chemist Harold Urey, upon hearing in the 1960s that Langley was charged with running the Lunar Orbiter program, criticized the decision in a letter to the NASA administrator at the time, James Webb. “How in the world could the Langley Research Center, which is nothing more than a bunch of plumbers, manage this scientific program to the Moon?” Urey asked.

He turned down the job offer from Hughes for one simple reason: “We were going to the Moon!”

One of those “plumbers” was John Newcomb, who played key roles in both Lunar Orbiter and Viking. In his memoir A Bunch of Plumbers, he recounts his involvement in those programs and the challenges he and his colleagues had to overcome to make those missions successful.

Newcomb got involved in Lunar Orbiter as part of a small, independent analysis group at the center called upon to support the program. One of his first tasks was to demonstrate that a proposal for the orbiters submitted by Hughes, involving spin-stabilized spacecraft, would not work because it wasn’t possible for them to take images without smearing. Boeing, which submitted a three-axis-stabilized spacecraft, got the contract. Newcomb later got a call from a recruiter he surmised was working for Hughes, offering him a job at several times his current salary. He turned them down for one simple reason: “We were going to the Moon!”

Ultimately, all five Lunar Orbiter spacecraft were successful, and Newcomb was then drawn in to the Viking program, which also got assigned to Langley. This involved overcoming another set of technical and programmatic challenges in the development and launch of the two missions, and, later, setting the two Viking landers down on the surface of Mars successfully.

A Bunch of Plumbers is not a thorough program history of either Lunar Orbiter or Viking, but more of an anecdotal, personal one. Newcomb recounts his experiences with the program, including both dealing with problems and some humorous events, in vignettes sometimes just a page or two long. That makes for a fast-paced read, although it could have perhaps benefitted from a bit more editing to catch typos like calling Mike Collins the command module pilot of Apollo 12.

And what of Harold Urey’s assessment of Langley as being staffed by the titular bunch of plumbers? Newcomb notes that Urey was part of the science team for the Viking mission, so “we were evidently able to prove ourselves through the success of the Lunar Orbiter Project and the early days of Viking,” he writes. Not bad for a bunch of plumbers.