Angle of Attack: The engineering side of the space race


Just finished reading a fascinating book on Project Apollo, one of a collection of books on the U. S. manned space program that my wife gave me.

Angle of Attack by Mike Gray, published by Penguin in 1992, tells the story of the effort to reach the moon as it was lived by Harrison Storms, who led North American Aviation's efforts to build the Apollo command and service module and the second stage of the Saturn V. The astronauts would not have been able to do their heroic and historic tasks had it not been for hundreds of thousands of engineers, machinists, technicians, program managers, and professional worry-warts who solved thousands of problems that no one had ever solved before. Those problems weren't just about strength of materials and vibration and magnetic fields, but even more about managing incredible complexity and turning all these individual efforts into a final working product. Since Apollo was a government program, there's plenty here about managing expectations and playing politics well enough so you can get the engineering job done.

You might think a book about engineering and problem-solving would be dry and dull, but Gray keeps the reader's interest page after page. I finished the book in two days, despite the fact that it mainly deals with aspects of engineering that I know little about. Gray explains his approach in an author's note:

Along with everybody else in the country, I watched those heart-pounding early launches that proved so conclusively that Grissom and Company had the Right Stuff. But even then I suspected that the real story was not up in the cockpit, but back in the hangar where the thing was built.

Unfortunately, the men who built Apollo, like the stonemasons of Europe's great cathedrals, spoke an indecipherable language, and their work -- though almost certainly heroic -- remained shrouded in mystery. The spotlight focused on the astronauts because the bravery of the test pilot was stark and comprehensible.

A few years later, while doing background research for The China Syndrome, I discovered that engineering gobbledegook could be quite easily translated into common English. Engineers, like short order cooks and basketball coaches, talk in shorthand, and if you force them to explain every single abbreviation, what they say begins to make sense.

From the bibliography, you see that the book depends heavily on his interviews, mainly done in the late '70s and early '80s, of key North American and NASA personnel, as well as NASA interviews from the '60s and '70s. Gray weaves together all these different perspectives into a seamless single narrative.

The book even gives us something new to dislike about Walter Mondale.

In the aftermath of the Apollo 1 fire (ultimately caused by several bad NASA decisions -- including mandating a pure oxygen environment and overpressuring the capsule during the on-ground test -- Mondale saw the deaths of three astronauts as a ticket to higher office:

[NASA Administrator Jim] Webb decided to confront the lion in his den. He went over to Mondale's office with a couple of his aides to see if they could make peace. Pleading for understanding, Webb was practically on his knees. He reminded Mondale that they were both Democrats. "In all due humility, Senator, what have we done wrong? Why are you so down on us?"

According to one witness, Mondale leaned back in his chair and said that he intended to ride this disaster for every nickel's worth of political mileage he could get out of it and he told Webb he didn't give a hoot in hell about him or the space program.

It's a fascinating story, and I hope to say more about it in days to come.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on January 11, 2005 12:04 AM.

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