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Review: At Home In Space

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At Home In Space: The Late Seventies into the Eighties
by Ben Evans
Springer/Praxis 2012
softcover, 481 pp.
ISBN 978-1-4419-8809-6
US $39.95

Recent news coverage of the intense solar flare activity and accompanying photos harkens back to similar photos taken aboard America’s first space station, Skylab. That manned space program provided the United States a wealth of information, particularly regarding long-duration human missions, as well as a staggering amount of scientific data and extensive photography of both the Earth and other objects in our solar system.

Evans chose to look at the bigger picture regarding political, social, economic, and cultural influences on the two nations that changed almost with each new administration.

Several years ago, British aerospace historian Ben Evans launched an ambitious series of books for Springer/Praxis with the title “The History of Human Space Exploration”. The five volume series, which covers both American and Soviet programs, began with Escaping the Bonds of Earth: The Fifties and the Sixties published in 2009. It was followed by Foothold in the Heavens: The Seventies published late in 2010. This third volume, At Home In Space, picks up with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and describes the human spaceflight programs of both the United States and Russia amidst thawing and freezing relations between the two countries up to the completion of shuttle mission STS-4. When entire volumes have been written on individual US manned space programs (NASA’s own History Series of excellent books on Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo come to mind), it is clear author Evans had a daunting task of adequately covering all the significant programs and missions during the years this book spans. Consequently, this book should be read with the understanding it is an overview of the years covered.

Precisely because individual programs and missions have been written extensively before, Evans chose to look at the bigger picture regarding political, social, economic, and cultural influences on the two nations that changed almost with each new administration from the promising Apollo-Soyuz program to the time when President Ronald Reagan branded the Soviet Union as “the evil empire.” Despite the political machinations during this period, the human space programs themselves were marked primarily with success and few dramatic failures. For the United States, those failures would come later.

Evans devotes the first chapter—over 100 pages—to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. This includes the political impetus behind the program, the difficulties of not only coming to agreement between the two nations but how the language barrier was dealt with (the American crews did learn Russian and the Soviet cosmonauts learned English), the selection and training of the crews, and the preparations for the respective launch vehicles. The period the two spacecraft spent being docked to each other is covered, but Evans also covered the nine-day period the Apollo spacecraft remained in orbit to perform addition science studies and experiments. The crew of Deke Slayton, Vance Brand, and Tom Stafford reentered Earth’s atmosphere on July 24, 1975.

However, America had been involved in a far more ambitious human exploration program prior to Apollo-Soyuz. That program was Skylab, America’s first space station. Evans devotes Chapters 2 and 3 to the history of this program, beginning with early space station designs that NASA had studied even prior to the Apollo program. There were many fanciful, elaborate, and cost-prohibitive designs NASA explored. Dr. Werner von Braun at Marshall Space Flight Center was a supporter of such a program, but clearly Apollo consumed the majority of his time during the 1960s. Evans also discusses the concept of “wet workshops”, which were spent rocket stages that were joined in orbit and converted to living and working environments, concepts that were proposed as early as the late 1950s. The wet workshop approach was eventually discarded in place of a fully configured dry S-IVB Saturn third stage that would form the basis of Skylab.

The Skylab program had its own astronaut office, and it was directed by Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad. There would be three Skylab crews that would rotate throughout the three Skylab missions. Each Skylab crew was made up of three astronauts, since that was the maximum the Apollo capsule could carry. Evans discusses the crew selection process, the many months of training, the design of Skylab itself, and the evolution of the last Saturn V that would carry Skylab into orbit prior to arrival of the first crew. The launch of Skylab is covered and the disaster when one of the solar arrays was torn away during ascent and the other’s protective cover was damaged during ascent, which prevented its full deployment once Skylab was in orbit. Evans also discusses the loss of the micrometeoroid shield, and the steps that were taken to repair and protect the spacecraft to keep it habitable.

Evans examines the early years of the shuttle program to the launch of Columbia on STS-1, marking the beginning of the longest human spaceflight program in American history.

The many scientific experiments and solar and Earth studies are covered in condensed but sufficient degree involving Skylab 2 crew Pete Conrad, Paul Weitz, and Joe Kerwin; the Skylab 3 crew of Alan Bean, Jack Lousma, and Owen Garriott; and the Skylab 4 crew of Gerald Carr, William Pogue, and Edward Gibson. Evans does not overlook the problems experienced by the Apollo spacecraft and Skylab itself and the difficulties, illnesses, and even humorous moments the crews experienced. The third and final crew and its capsule splashed down February 8, 1974. Skylab itself finally reentered more than five years later on July 11, 1979.

Chapter 4 covers the Soviet human spaceflight efforts, picking up the story in 1976 with the launch of Salyut 5 space station and the four two-man cosmonaut crews that visited the station during the Soyuz 21 and Soyuz 23 missions. The eight-day Soyuz 22 mission is also covered briefly. The description of the near-tragic recovery of the Soyuz crew of Zudov and Rozhdestvensky in their descent module from the icy Lake Tengiz is gripping. Evans covers the follow-up Soyuz missions, and those aboard the Salyut 6 space station, helping to fill a void on Soviet human spaceflight. He also examines the political machinations that took place between the United States and the Soviet Union during the late 1970s and the early 1980s.

The last chapter is devoted to the early years of the shuttle program. In the history of the Space Transportation System, Enterprise is often overlooked because it was not an orbiter—it was the flight test vehicle used in tests launched from the back of the NASA 747 designed to transport the shuttle starting in 1977. Evans covers these early years up to the launch of Columbia with Capt. John Young and Robert Crippen for mission STS-1 launched on April 12, 1981, marking the beginning of the longest human spaceflight program in American history. Evans describes the four test flights of the shuttle program through STS-4, and includes a number of interesting events in the lives of those shuttle crews. At Home In Space is a worthy addition to the history of orbital space exploration.