Sunday, July 06, 2008

Book Review: Stages to Saturn

Roger Bilstein's Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo-Saturn Launch Vehicles has been around awhile (first published in 1979), but it is one of the standard textbooks found around Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. And for good reason: this is one of THE definitive histories of the development of the Saturn rockets that took human beings to the Moon, and it is a paean to the Huntsville team, and especially the work of Wernher von Braun and his team.

I read this book over the course of a weekend, despite its hefty size (450+ pages), but I won't lie to you--there's a reason it's a big hit at MSFC but isn't necessarily as popular as Chaikin's A Man on the Moon or some of the other Apollo histories--it is as advertised: a technological history. You have to have a real interest in the program background, the design history, the testing problems, and management and logistical processes that went into making America's (so far) largest rockets. If you are interested in the Apollo Command and Service Module, the Lunar Module, or the astronauts, this is not the book for you. This is a book about building very large rocket stages and engines.

I happened to have a need for this book: my job requires me to know both what's going on with the Ares Project, how rockets work in general, and also have some historical notion of how we did things the first time. In this, Stages to Saturn was very instructive. What was interesting to me, in fact, was how much the book reflects my daily life: in Huntsville, the work there is all about the launch vehicle. There are passing references to other things, like the payload (CSM, LM, astronauts), but that isn't the focus of MSFC. That's fine, as long as you're aware of the fact; but if you want to get a broader experience of what it was like to build the U.S. space program in the 1960s, you'll need to pick up a few more books, like the aforementioned A Man on the Moon, Angle of Attack: Harrison Storms and the Race to the Moon, Chariots for Apollo, and several others in the field.

So what does Bilstein offer us? Despite discussing technical issues and narrating some of the bureaucratic in-fighting that occurred in the build-up to Apollo, the author is careful not to give the reader a LOT of details that matter--for instance, the Russians and the Chinese, while they might find this book somewhat interesting, could not reverse-engineer Saturn based on its contents. Instead, Bilstein offers the reader rather general information about what sorts of thinking went into the design process, why some engines and propellants were chosen over others, what sorts of problems the engineers had during ground and flight testing, and some insight into how the National Aeronautics and Space Administration organized itself and its contractors to build, deliver, and launch the rockets.

Some of the more interesting parts for me included the remarkable similarities between Apollo and Ares, even given the 40-to-50-year time difference. Up through around 1963, for instance, the massive, 12-million-pounds-thrust Nova rocket, capable of direct launch to the Moon, was still "in play." There was also work being done on researching in-space nuclear rockets (Orion, NERVA, etc.) as possible backups to the Saturn vehicle that was eventually selected. Another area Bilstein covers well is the intellectual and design history of the powerplants, specifically the massive F-1 main engines that powered Saturn V's S-IC stage and the J-2 and RL-10 liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engines. One thing he makes clear--and this is something the Constellation doubters would do well to keep in mind--is that every serious rocket engine development program usually takes five to seven years to build. Even when the engine is derived from previously known technologies, like the F-1, the process of scaling up a known engine can create problems of its own.

And let there be no doubt: Saturn had problems. There's this halo effect around Apollo now, thanks to Apollo 8, Apollo 11, and the rest. We honor the memories of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, but those of us born after Apollo might not know of all the problems that the Saturn V program had before it finally launched for the first time in 1967. The Douglas Aircraft Company (later McDonnell-Douglas, later part of Boeing) had an S-IV third stage rupture on them. North American Aviation (later Rockwell North American, later Rockwell International, later part of Boeing) lost two S-II second stages before the von Braun team sent out a team led by General Phillips from the Air Force to investigate NAA's problems. The Phillips Report is mentioned briefly in From the Earth to the Moon as an exhibit Senator Walter Mondale used as proof that NASA wanted to replace NAA. NASA did not want to replace North American, but they made it quite clear that NAA needed to clean up its act, up to and including changing management structure and personnel.

One thing that will probably irk libertarians about Stages to Saturn is its uncritical view of government (especially MSFC's) interference in contractor operations and decision making. At one point Bilstein quotes a contractor complaining that NASA "wanted to be in your pants all the time." However, despite one or two references like this, Bilstein quickly backs off from any criticism of the von Braun team. He is quick to admire MSFC's desire to maintain control over its contractors as well as maintain its in-house knowledge.

This is a process Ares is repeating by going back to the "arsenal model" of management, where the government does most of the design and development work in-house and contractors are used to build only what the arsenal cannot. Von Braun's preference for maintaining in-house knowledge is not surprising, given his wartime experiences and later work with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA). It is obviously a workable model--Saturn's success speaks for itself--but it is not a model preferred by contractors, which had assumed more and more authority in the Shuttle program. Given the current friction between NASA and some folks in the private sector, it will be interesting to see which management model comes out on top.

In any case, Stages to Saturn is well worth reading. When you consider the fact that the Saturn guys were performing research and development in the midst of building a massive infrastructure and trying to meet a nine-year time line, you cannot help but think: given that NASA is building on much that they learned 45 years ago, we've got it easy. Bilstein's book makes that very clear.

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