Monday, 8 August 2022

Book Review: Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space

By Bruce McCandless III

ISBN: 978-1-62634-865-3

Pages: 247

Price: $24.95, hardcover

As we enter the seventh decade of human space flight, there is a wealth of astronaut biographies available to interested readers. Most autobiographies and biographies of astronauts from the Moon race era have been written, and today we are seeing many biographies from many who flew aboard the Space Shuttle.

The career of Bruce McCandless II – a Group 5 astronaut who had to wait nearly eighteen years for his first ride into space after watching many others from his group fly to the Moon – is not unique, since other astronauts selected in his group and the two groups that followed had to wait nearly as long or even longer to go into space.

Nor is the new biography of McCandless, Wonders All Around, written by his son Bruce McCandless III, the only book written by an astronaut offspring.

But this book, written four years after the elder McCandless’ death, is an engaging read that tells the stories of the author and the subject in an honest fashion.

Bruce McCandless II was a member of the “Original Nineteen” group of astronauts selected in 1966 to fill out crews for Apollo and Skylab. Two of those 19 never flew, and three had to wait until the shuttle began flying in the 1980s to get into space.

McCandless will always be associated with NASA’s greatest moment, since he was the spacecraft communicator in mission control who conversed with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during their moonwalk on Apollo 11. His son argues that McCandless’ career suffered from that point onward because he apparently failed to transmit an order to Armstrong and Aldrin to cut their lunar excursion short, a claim this reviewer finds questionable.

When he did get to fly on board the shuttle, McCandless got two memorable and important flights. After having spent years working to develop astronaut maneuvering units for spacewalking astronauts, McCandless became the first person to make an untethered spacewalk when he tested a maneuvering unit on board the STS-41B mission in February 1984. The photos of his feat are amongst the most iconic images of the space shuttle era.

Six years later, McCandless was on the STS-31 mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope. In preparing for that mission, he and astronaut Kathy Sullivan developed tools and techniques that proved to be crucial in the work of repairing and maintaining Hubble during the five servicing missions that followed their deployment mission. Even as he retired as an astronaut following STS-31, McCandless played a key role in helping scientists decide how to restore Hubble after it was found that its main mirror had been ground to the wrong shape. The fact that Hubble still functions into its fourth decade owes much to the work of McCandless and Sullivan.

The younger McCandless gives an honest account of how his father’s personality, which could be described as so driven that it even stood out amongst his fellow astronauts, affected his career and his family life. The book also describes how the author’s mother, Bernice McCandless, coped with living with an astronaut and two spirited children who grew up in the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s.

In discussing his own life, the author provides fascinating details about growing up in the shadow of the Johnson Space Center, which wasn’t too far away from other less glamorous industries in the Houston area that polluted the air and provided teenagers from relatively hardscrabble backgrounds to the high school young McCandless attended.

For anyone interested in the astronauts of McCandless’ time and their families, this book is worthwhile reading.

Wednesday, 13 July 2022

The First Images From the James Webb Space Telescope

This week NASA released the long-awaited first images and scientific data from the James Webb Space Telescope. JWST's dramatically detailed images of a stellar nursery, a dying star, a cluster of galaxies, and JWST’s first ‘deep field’ follow on similar images from the Hubble Space Telescope over its 32-year run as the Earth’s premier space telescope. While this new release doesn’t represent a major leap in knowledge beyond what we have from HST and other telescopes, it promises that JWST will soon provide dramatic new findings about the history of our universe.

Starting in 1995, HST began a series of lengthy exposures into seemingly empty corners of the universe that revealed large numbers of galaxies billions of light years away. These images, known as Hubble Deep Fields, have taken us to within a billion years of the Big Bang that marked the beginnings of our universe about 13.8 billion years ago. Hubble’s cameras took exposures of roughly a week in length to obtain these revolutionary images, and more recent Deep Fields have exploited gravitational lensing, where galaxies bend light from objects that are behind them and farther away.

JWST is designed to look farther out in distance and farther back in time than HST by observing in infrared wavelengths. Objects that are moving away from us at high speeds, such as distant galaxies and other objects, are found at infrared wavelengths because of their movement away from us. (HST observes mainly in optical wavelengths familiar to humans.)

The JWST Deep Field image released this week is similar to Hubble Deep Field images, but it required only a few hours of exposure because of its much larger light gathering capability compared to Hubble. That means we will soon be contemplating JWST Deep Fields that go well beyond the Hubble Deep Fields and this week’s JWST Deep Field. We will see how our universe evolved very early in our history, learning about the processes that amongst other things led to our own creation.

Along with four dramatic images, the scientists running JWST released a chart that shows evidence of water in the atmosphere of a planet known as WASP-96 orbiting a star 1,150 light years away. While WASP-96 is too hot and located too close to its star to host any form of life, the precision and wealth of information JWST gathered about its atmosphere shows that JWST will be able to advance the search for habitable planets by observing smaller planets in locations more friendly for life.

The instrument used to find this data is JWST's Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) which was built by Canadian scientists and engineers with the support of the Canadian Space Agency. This week’s first release of data from NIRISS marks a major step forward for Canadian astronomy.

While Canadian astronomers have made observations with HST and other space telescopes, Canada was not a formal partner in HST, which was built by NASA and the European Space Agency. With its contribution of NIRISS and JWST’s Fine Guidance Sensors, which aim the telescope and also provide scientific data of their own, Canada has taken a central role in the most ambitious space astronomy program of this century.

Most astronomers do not rely on images to explore the cosmos. Spectrographs such as NIRISS take the 'fingerprints' of stars, planets, nebulae and other objects, providing information about their chemical makeup, temperature, mass and distance, amongst other things. JWST’s gigantic segmented mirror will allow JWST to provide more precise information about more objects in space than any other instrument. While there are larger telescopes on Earth, our atmosphere blocks many wavelengths of light, which is why astronomers get more information from space telescopes.

While writing my book about Hubble, Not Yet Imagined, I often traveled to the HST control centre at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington D.C. There I was also able to follow the construction of JWST before it was moved to the launch pad.

Although Hubble is nearing the end of its lifetime, it is far from being replaced by JWST. In fact in the coming months, JWST and HST will work in tandem with each other to produce coordinated sets of observations that will cover wide ranges of wavelengths.

Planning for JWST began more than 30 years ago, even before Hubble was launched. It took 20 years to build, and cost more than US $10 billion. Along the way, JWST encountered many problems that nearly led to its cancellation. But it was finally launched into space last Christmas Day, and in the weeks that followed, it successfully unfolded and aligned its 18 mirror segments and its tennis-court-sized sunshield that helps chill JWST’s instruments to operate at the low temperatures required to find infrared light. This week JWST's scientific payoff began.

HST and other telescopes of its time turned humanity’s understanding of our universe on its head, and raised as many questions as they answered. This week we learned that JWST has the technological chops to further revolutionize astronomy. Stay tuned for some major scientific surprises.

Friday, 24 June 2022

Book Review: Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age

By Lori Garver
Diversion Books, 2022
ISBN: 9781635767735

This review appears in issue 29:2 of Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly.

Spaceflight and particularly human spaceflight have gone through some major changes in this third decade of the 21st century. In 2020, the first crews flew aboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and the Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station, and since then Dragon’s flight manifest has included the first purely private flights of humans into space.

The rise of SpaceX to its commanding position in the space business of course owes a great deal to the drive and vision of Elon Musk and the team he assembled, but it also got a crucial assist from NASA when it overcame its traditional way of doing business by putting the private sector at its heart.

Arguably the person at the center of this major change at NASA is a woman who wasn’t even born when the first American rocketed into space in 1961, Lori Garver. After serving for nine years as the executive director of the National Space Society, Garver went to NASA in 1998, serving for three years as Associate Administrator under Administrator Daniel Goldin and President Bill Clinton.

Out of office in 2001 and 2002, Garver gained public attention from her attempt to become the world’s first “Soccer Mom” to fly to the ISS, an effort that ultimately fell short. During that decade, she advised the John Kerry, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama presidential campaigns on space issues. Under President Obama, she served as Deputy Administrator of NASA from 2009 to 2013.

During those four years, Garver championed private sector solutions to the difficult spot NASA found itself in as the Space Shuttle program neared the end of its run. That left the agency without a viable replacement to get astronauts into space and back home aside from hitching rides aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

SpaceX had been saved from financial ruin by short-term support from NASA in the final days of the George W. Bush administration, but Garver moved to strengthen this support through a Commercial Crew Program that was opposed by many in NASA and in the old-line aerospace contractors that had lost their way under inefficient and expensive cost-plus contracts.

In contrast to the growing library of books on Elon Musk and the rise of SpaceX and other new firms, very little has been written about the NASA side of this story until the recent publication of Garver’s memoir, Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age. Like the author, this book will inspire a whole variety of reactions among readers, depending on their viewpoints.

The recent successes of the new commercial spaceflight providers such as SpaceX and Blue Origin have inspired many people to take credit for these advances, including some unlikely candidates who are more strongly associated with longtime military and NASA contractors. Garver’s account gains credibility from the controversy that followed her in the days when the successes of today were far from assured.

Garver is not afraid to call out people with whom she locked horns, including the Obama era NASA administrator she served under, former astronaut Charlie Bolden, and today’s NASA administrator, former senator Bill Nelson. In spite of her association with Democratic administrations, I found that her account handed out both praise and criticism on a bipartisan basis.

Once the urgency of Apollo had passed, Garver accurately argues that NASA had become focused on preserving jobs in favored congressional districts at the expense of exploring space in an efficient manner. Many national defense programs suffer from the same problems that have troubled NASA, she says, and so taxpayers get little security for their money. Other social priorities such as public health suffer while the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned of continues to grow.

“Government policies should incentivize individuals, nonprofit organizations, and corporations of all sizes to drive innovations that will respond to today’s challenges, instead of spending massive public resources to prop up outdated infrastructure and weapons systems aimed at fighting past enemies,” Garver concludes.

I found this book to be especially valuable because so little has been written about the political history of U.S. space programs since the beginning of the Clinton administration. Many of Garver’s assertions will spark controversy and disagreement, but this reviewer hopes that they will inspire others – including the targets of Garver’s criticisms – to write about the policy initiatives of the last 30 years that have transformed today’s space programs.

Lori Garver (NASA)

Thursday, 5 May 2022

Russian Space Program Another Casualty of War on Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at Vostochny Cosmodrome in 2016. (Wikimedia)

To mark this year’s Cosmonautics Day on the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight into space on April 12, 1961, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the newly built Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s far east.

The visit came during the seventh week of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which has seen the European Space Agency, other western countries and many companies break ties with the Russian space program.

“Each one of us is experiencing extraordinary feelings today: it’s genuine pride for generations that have accomplished this epic technological breakthrough and simultaneously faith in the future, in our power and in our progressive development. Confidence in that we will definitely achieve the goals that we have set,” Putin told workers at Vostochny. “I am certain that this will be the case.”

Despite Putin’s optimism that day, he was speaking at a time when it was already becoming clear to most people that the Russian space program was becoming one of the casualties of his invasion of Ukraine.

Since the invasion began on February 24, the Russians have pulled out of the Soyuz rocket launch operation at Kourou, and the ESA quickly cancelled the planned launch from Russia later this year of the ExoMars mission, along with other joint projects with Russia. Communications satellites that the British-Indian company OneWeb had planned for Russian launch vehicles have been shifted to other suppliers.

The Ukrainian invasion has meant the end of exports of Russian engines for use on U.S. launch vehicles. Now the remaining arena of Russian-American cooperation is the International Space Station, where U.S., Russian and other astronauts continue to work together as they have for more than 20 years. Despite tweeted threats to do otherwise, the Russians brought U.S. astronaut Mark Vande Hei back to Earth on March 30 without incident from his U.S. record breaking 355 days on the ISS.

The widespread anger unleashed against Russia by its unprovoked attack on Ukraine has thrown the future of the ISS into question. Russia is committed to continue its work on the ISS until 2024, and the U.S. and other partners until 2030. NASA is already supporting firms planning to create successor space stations to follow the ISS.

Like Putin, many people remember the Soviet space spectaculars starting with Sputnik in 1957 through Gagarin and other flights that provoked the United States to send the first humans to the Moon in Apollo. The Soviet space program continued in the 1970s and 1980s with space stations and feats such as landings on Venus.

The decline of Russia’s space program began in earnest 30 years ago in the economic turbulence that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, which was so bad that the U.S. government felt compelled to prop up the cash-strapped Russian space program to discourage Russian missile experts from moving to adversary nations such as Iran or North Korea.

In the 1990s Russian launch vehicles, previously forbidden, became a popular and inexpensive means of sending payloads into space. That ended in the last decade with the rise of SpaceX, when its low-cost Falcon 9 launch vehicles came to dominate low-cost space launch market.

In 2014 when Putin invaded and illegally annexed Crimea and backed up separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine, sanctions imposed at that time began to bite into Russia’s space business along with other parts of its economy. It also undermined parts of the former Soviet space industry that had been based in Ukraine.

Many people failed to take notice of the decline of Russia’s space industry at the time because it was supplying the only available rides for American and other space travellers to the ISS following the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011. Now that SpaceX is taking passengers to the station, that part of Russia’s business is also disappearing.

Since the latest invasion of Ukraine, much more serious sanctions are undermining Russia space service providers in world markets, along with other parts of the Russian economy. It is important to note that even before the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, Russia hardly had the economy of a superpower: Its gross domestic product was one-sixth that of the U.S.

The latest sanctions mean that foreign sales will not be available for the foreseeable future to prop up Russian space ventures. Growing social and military demands on the Russian government will limit its ability to prop up space ventures.

As well, many of the experts who kept Russian rockets and satellites flying are retiring or fleeing Russia along with other educated workers with marketable skills.

U.S. space ventures are on the rise thanks to its new space firms, and China is putting together an impressive list of achievements in space. Russia, which led the way into space with Sputnik, Vostok and other programs sixty years ago, is now on the brink of being consigned to the second rank of space faring nations, possibly in a partnership with China.

Russia’s fall from dominance in human spaceflight was well underway before the first Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. The outcome of its war with Ukraine cannot be foreseen at the time of writing, but it is very likely to accelerate the decline of Russia’s place in space.

Vladimir Putin’s war appears to be dealing a final blow to Russia’s front rank position in space exploration, which it occupied for more than six decades. Along with the rise of America’s commercial space ventures, Russia’s backward step means that the future of spaceflight promises to be different from its past.

Friday, 15 April 2022

Bjarni Tryggvason, Canadian astronaut, 1945-2022

Bjarni Tryggvason aboard the shuttle Discovery during the STS-85 mission in 1997 (NASA)

By Chris Gainor

Special to the Globe and Mail

April 15, 2022

When Bjarni Tryggvason was 12 years old and living in Kitimat, B.C., the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite of the Earth, captured his imagination. Forty years later, after a series of setbacks, he made it into space himself, as a payload specialist aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1997.

He had already earned impressive credentials, having acquired his airline transport pilot’s licence and worked as a flight instructor at Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Airport, when the Canadian government announced it was hiring astronauts in July 1983. But it was his training as an engineer specializing in fluid dynamics that earned Mr. Tryggvason the job.

His engineering and science background exactly matched the qualifications set out for Canada’s space program, for which flying experience was listed only as an “asset.” Mr. Tryggvason was one of six people chosen out of nearly 4,400 applicants for Canada’s first team of astronauts.

He died suddenly in London, Ont., on April 5 at the age of 76.

Bjarni Valdimar Tryggvason was known to blaze his own path, beginning with his birth on Sept. 21, 1945, in Reykjavik, Iceland. When he was seven, he and his family immigrated to Canada.

Young Bjarni attended primary school in Nova Scotia before his family relocated to Kitimat, B.C., and later to Richmond, B.C. In 1972 he obtained a Bachelor of Applied Science degree in engineering physics from the University of British Columbia, and he went on to do graduate work in engineering, specializing in applied mathematics and fluid dynamics at the University of Western Ontario.

After conducting research in Japan and Australia and working as a meteorologist, Mr. Tryggvason was hired as a research officer at Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa in 1982, where he explored the effects of very high winds on buildings and was involved in probing the causes of the Ocean Ranger disaster that year. In 1983, the NRC was charged with hiring Canada’s first group of astronauts after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the U.S. invited Canada to fly its own astronauts on board the shuttle, and Mr. Tryggvason was involved in the negotiations between the two agencies.

In December 1983, the NRC revealed Canada’s first group of astronauts: physicians Roberta Bondar and Robert Thirsk, physiologist Ken Money, and engineers Marc Garneau, Steve MacLean and Mr. Tryggvason.

In the days before the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) was created in 1989 and established its modern headquarters in Longueuil, Que., life for the newly designated astronauts was far from glamorous, as recounted by author Lydia Dotto. The six shared a suite of three small offices in the back of an out-of-the-way NRC building in Ottawa. Mr. Tryggvason acted as a flying instructor for three of his colleagues who didn’t have pilot experience as the Canadians prepared to work with U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronauts who were experienced flyers. The four astronauts purchased a Cessna 172 for the lessons.

The NRC’s plans for an orderly sequence of Canadian astronaut flights were broken during the astronauts’ first month on the job in January 1984, when NASA announced that a Canadian would have a seat on the shuttle much earlier than anticipated. Mr. Garneau became the first Canadian to fly in space that October. Late in 1985, Mr. Tryggvason was named as the backup for Mr. MacLean for a shuttle mission scheduled for 1987.

A few weeks later, however, the loss of the shuttle Challenger and its crew on Jan. 28, 1986, grounded the shuttle fleet for nearly three years and the Canadian astronaut team for twice that long. Mr. Tryggvason spent the hiatus conducting research and continuing preparations for Mr. MacLean’s flight, which finally took place in 1992. During that time, Mr. Tryggvason and his wife, Lilyanna Zmijak had a son, Michael, and a daughter, Lauren. Mr. Tryggvason was known as a proud father until the end of his life.

These were years of uncertainty for Mr. Tryggvason, because he didn’t know whether the CSA would fund a flight for him. Most astronauts flew on the shuttle as mission specialists who had two years of NASA astronaut training. Canada’s astronauts were classed as payload specialists who had less training, and payload specialists were being phased out after the Challenger disaster. As time went on, Mr. Tryggvason had to look on as his colleagues received mission specialist training, including Chris Hadfield, who joined the Canadian astronaut team in 1992 and flew three years later, and Mr. Garneau, who made a second flight in 1996.

A few months later, when Mr. Tryggvason was named to the crew of the STS-85 shuttle mission, he told reporters: “It’s about time, eh?” Along with five NASA astronauts, Mr. Tryggvason lifted off aboard Discovery Aug. 7, 1997. The launch ended his wait of more than 13 years for a flight. He became Canada’s sixth astronaut in space.

His shuttle launch was also celebrated in Iceland, the land of his birth.

During the mission, Mr. Tryggvason conducted experiments with the Microgravity Isolation Mount, which he and UBC engineering professor Tim Salcudean designed to create perfect conditions for microgravity materials experiments free of the shaking and vibrations caused by astronauts, machinery and thrusters aboard spacecraft. Their device also flew aboard the Russian Mir Space Station and later on the International Space Station (ISS).

The STS-85 crew studied changes in the Earth’s atmosphere with the assistance of a free-flying payload, and tested equipment for the ISS during a mission that lasted 11 days and 20 hours over 185 orbits of the Earth covering 7.6 million kilometres.

A year later, Mr. Tryggvason joined Mr. Thirsk and NASA’s 17th group of astronauts to begin two years of mission specialist training at NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center, which qualified him to fly again on the shuttle and the ISS. But the opportunity never arose before he retired from the CSA in 2008 after 25 years as an astronaut. He became a visiting professor at Western University in London, Ont.

Mr. Tryggvason continued flying airplanes. To mark the centennial of the first flight by a powered aircraft in Canada, he flew a replica of that biplane, Alexander Graham Bell’s Silver Dart, from the ice on Bras d’Or Lake near Baddeck, N.S. The flight took place a day early, on Feb. 22, 2009, in the face of an unfavourable weather forecast for the anniversary day.

He enjoyed flying many types of planes, including acrobatic aircraft with his son, Michael, and he recently served as a technical adviser for the 2022 feature film Moonfall. Among his many honours was being named an associate member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and a member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.

Mr. Tryggvason leaves Ms. Zmijak and his children, Michael and Lauren Tryggvason.

Known for his mischievous sense of humour, Mr. Tryggvason could speak bluntly when confronted with substandard work. “He was the smartest engineer I ever met and a supremely skilled pilot,” Mr. Garneau, now a member of Parliament, recalled. Mr. Hadfield called him a “kind, funny, original man.”

Among the first to mourn his death was the President of Iceland, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, who posted his condolences on Twitter, noting that Mr. Tryggvason was “the first and only Iceland-born person in space.”

Bjarni Tryggvason with Chris Gainor in Toronto in 2009

Monday, 28 February 2022

Putin's War Returns Nuclear Weapons to Centre Stage

The outrage generated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is matched by frustration over the limited nature of the outside world’s response to this serious breach of international norms.

Many countries have modulated their response to the Russian invasion to protect their own economic interests, but above all they are mindful of Russia’s possession of a gigantic nuclear arsenal, second only to that of the United States.

In case anyone missed the point, Putin reminded the world when he put his nuclear forces on alert in a move that recalls superpower confrontations of the Cold War, especially the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which is analyzed in my book The Bomb and America's Missile Age.

The Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, especially the coup that temporarily displaced Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, was a nervous time as the world wondered how those changes would affect the control and use of Soviet nuclear forces. Happily, the weapons went unused and Russia agreed to reduce its nuclear forces. The newly independent Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons on its territory.

In the euphoria that accompanied the end of the Cold War, the continuing danger posed by nuclear weapons faded from prominence, although the efforts of countries like North Korea and Iran to develop nuclear arsenals generated occasional headlines. U.S. President George W. Bush pulled the U.S. out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a cornerstone of nuclear weapons control, and gave Putin an excuse to reinvigorate his nuclear forces.

Three decades after the end of the Soviet Union, the nuclear worries that surrounded that event have suddenly returned to life as Putin tries to reconstitute the Soviet Union by propping up friendly dictators in Belarus and Kazakhstan, and now by invading Ukraine.

The creation of the first nuclear weapons in World War II and their spread since that time means the world faces grave danger whenever change or conflict involves the world’s nine nuclear powers. As we know, that includes Russia, but even the United States is a matter of concern because of its deepening political divisions. Nuclear weapons are present in the Middle East and are also held by India and Pakistan, both adversaries with shaky democracies. North Korea possesses nuclear weapons as a personal life insurance policy for its mercurial leader, Kim Jong-un. Iran’s troubled regime is developing them as well.

Following the Ukraine crisis with great interest is the world’s third largest nuclear power, China, whose president Xi Jinping harbours imperialist ambitions of his own, notably in Taiwan.

Efforts to limit proliferation of nuclear weapons have had limited success. South Africa gave up nuclear weapons after the fall of the apartheid regime that created them. Ukraine gave up the Soviet nuclear weapons left on its soil, but the Russian attacks on Ukraine will unfortunately serve as a warning to any country that contemplates giving up their nuclear bombs and delivery systems.

Regardless of how Putin’s gamble in Ukraine plays out, it is a major step backward for a world that desperately needs to unite to deal with the challenges of climate change. The nuclear bombs and the missiles, aircraft and submarines that carry them are often held to fight regional disputes or prop up contested governments. Questions exist about Putin’s mental state, not the first time such concerns have been raised during nuclear confrontations.

In the 77 years since the first atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, efforts to limit or reverse the spread of these weapons have always fallen short, particularly in the last three decades where the nuclear danger was forgotten or believed to have receded.

Now Putin has put the threat of annihilation from nuclear weapons back on centre stage. The first step to renewing the fight against this existential danger is greater awareness of the dangers these weapons pose, even when they are not being actively used.

Tuesday, 28 December 2021

Will I be Writing a Book About JWST?

With Dr. Robert W. Smith (l) in 2011.

Since the successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on December 25, a few people have asked if I will be a writing a book about JWST to follow my recently published book, Not Yet Imagined: A Study of Hubble Space Telescope Operations (NASA, 2021).

The answer is no, and there is a story behind that ‘no.’

There is an excellent book on JWST being written by Dr. Robert W. Smith, who also wrote the classic study of how Hubble was conceived and built, a process that also took decades. His book on Hubble, The Space Telescope, A study of NASA, science, technology and politics, was first published in 1989, before Hubble was launched, and an updated paperback version was published in 1993.

His book contains many insights on how astronomers overcame divisions within their ranks to win government approval for Hubble, and then it outlines the work that went into building this space observatory.

Since it explained one of the most prominent space programs of its time, I purchased Dr. Smith’s book for my library when it came out and read it with great interest. Dr. Smith was based at the National Air and Space Museum and Johns Hopkins University when he wrote that book, and he later moved to Edmonton, Alberta, where he became chair of the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.

As the new century began, I had written my first book of space history, Arrows to the Moon: Avro’s Engineers and the Space Race (Apogee Books, 2001), and I decided to earn a master’s degree in space studies at the University of North Dakota. When I completed that degree I decided to pursue further studies, and a promising avenue appeared at the University of Alberta.

I visited Dr. Smith in 2003 to inquire about studying the history of technology with him as my faculty advisor. I remember that he encouraged me to pursue studies for a Ph.D. That day we also discussed plans for a gigantic new space telescope that had just been named after the late NASA administrator, James Webb.

I spent the next few years on my Ph.D. studies, benefitting from Dr. Smith’s guidance and the many insights he had gained about Big Science projects such as the Hubble Space Telescope. By then, Dr. Smith had begun closely following the development of JWST, and I occasionally helped him with that work as graduate students often do.

My own Ph.D. studies focused on the years between World War II and the beginnings of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. That resulted in my dissertation, which became a book, The Bomb and America’s Missile Age (Johns Hopkins, 2018).

After I completed my dissertation, NASA was looking for someone to write a history of Hubble operations. Since Dr. Smith was working on his JWST book, he was unavailable for that project. Although I had not previously thought of writing a book about Hubble, I was available. With Dr. Smith's encouragement, I competed for that job and was selected in 2014 to write the book that covers the first three decades of HST operations. While writing that book, I received a great deal of helpful advice from Dr. Smith.

While at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center as I conducted research for my Hubble book, I regularly looked in on JWST, which was being assembled in a gigantic cleanroom there. JWST appears in my book, and scientists hope to coordinate obervations between the two space telescopes once JWST begins operations.

Both the Hubble and Webb telescopes are highly expensive and complicated, and both underwent challenging development processes before they got to their launch pads. The pre-launch history of JWST goes back more than two decades, so Dr. Smith’s upcoming book will be a substantial one. I don’t know the title yet, but I am looking forward to reading it when it is published.

I hope to write at least one more book to add to the six I have already written. I haven’t settled on a topic, but I have been keeping busy during the pandemic writing papers on the history of space astronomy in Canada.

Looking over JWST from the viewing room at Goddard Space Flight Center, 2016.