Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Who's a Space Flight Fan?

I’ve been enthralled with space since learning about the planets in second grade. I subscribed to Space Shuttle magazine while it lasted, and collected space patches. So I was eager to read the new book Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Men Who Flew Her by Rowland White.


Based on interviews, NASA oral histories, and recently declassified material, Into the Black charts the saga of the Columbia’s first mission and the people who dedicated themselves to help the United States succeed in the age of space exploration.

The Air Force began planning its own Manned Orbiting Laboratory in 1963. Many military test pilots opted for the MOL, believing they’d have a better chance to fly with the Air Force than NASA. When the MOL program was cancelled in 1969, the MOL astronauts were restricted in where and what they could do next because of the classified intel they’d learned. Serving in Vietnam was out of the question, should they be shot down.
Someone suggested calling NASA, but they didn’t need more astronauts. They already had a lot. And if they did join NASA, no flights would be available for a decade, at least.
NASA required Air Force support to get the shuttle. The Air Force was happy using reliable, relatively affordable, expendable Titan rockets launched at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. They didn’t need a shuttle to carry their payloads into orbit. Both the Air Force and the CIA offered no more than reluctant commitment to the shuttle. Their satellites weren’t compatible with the shuttle.
Since 1959, an Air Force test group in Hawaii had been retrieving film recovery capsules ejected from orbiting US reconnaissance satellites as they descended by parachute to the Pacific. As the film descending, an AF plane snagged it in a net.
Nixon okayed the space shuttle, saying, “Spaceflight is here to stay… and we’d best be part of it.” In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, “We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it, but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.” It was Nixon who named the new space transportation system “Space shuttle.”

The missing solar panel and "parasol" sun shield are seen here, repairs performed by the astronauts.

When Skylab was damaged during launch in 1973, NASA had no idea whether astronauts could repair it, or what tools they might need. An Air Force spy satellite took photos of the space station. Men in dark suits arrived at NASA, and showed the engineers photos showing the damage. On taking the pictures away with them, they told the engineers, “You never saw these photos and we we’ve never been here.”
It had taken days to the photos to be recovered, developed, and taken to NASA. Real-time intervention might have been possible if the Air Force had been allowed to have its Manned Orbiting Laboratory.

NASA engineer John Kiker got the idea for the shuttle carrier aircraft using a 747 or an Air Force C-5 Galaxy plane. His boss’s reaction? “That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” In the mid-1970s, the oil crisis forced a downturn in commercial aviation. NASA bought a nearly new 747 from American Airlines for the bargain price of 16 million.
The shuttle’s journey from design to working spacecraft was long and potholed. The engines and the heat shield tiles bedeviled engineers for years. Impatient to move the shuttle along, NASA was inclined to skip redundant testing. NASA’s impatience would crop up again in management’s careless launch of Challenger in freezing temperatures in 1985. Eighteen years later, NASA’s unwillingness to ask for a spy satellite photo to inspect Columbia for damage condemned the shuttle and its crew of seven.

Columbia’s first flight in 1981 saw hot plasma gas seep into the starboard main landing gear door through gaps in the tiles during reentry. The aluminum skin of the door structure softened and buckled, but did not affect the orbiter’s landing.
Did you want to ride in the space shuttles?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Difficult Teen Years of Audrey Hepburn

Holland’s neutrality had been honored by Germany in the First World War. Baroness Ella van Heemstra believed Germany would again honor Dutch neutrality in the war that began in 1939. She took her daughter back to her native home from England, where ten-year-old Audrey attended boarding school. They lived in Arnhem with the baroness’ father, Baron Aarnoud van Heemstra, former mayor of Arnhem.
In May of 1940, the Germans invaded Holland. They confiscated much of Audrey’s grandfather’s wealth. Her mother, fearing Audrey’s English name would attract unwanted attention from the occupiers, had her go by the name Edda van Heemstra, and cautioned her never to speak English outside of their home.
In England, Audrey had discovered a love for dancing. Her mother enrolled her in dance classes at the Arnhem Conservatory. Dancing gave her a dream in their austere life.

The next five years grew progressively worse for the people of Holland. The Germans requisitioned whatever they needed―coffee, oil, gasoline, textiles―for their military or civilians in Germany. As the standard of living sank, poverty and disease rose. Audrey’s half-brother Alex was captured when the Dutch forces surrendered, but he escaped and went into hiding to avoid being pressed into forced labor. Ian wasn’t so lucky; he was sent to Germany in 1942 to work in a munitions factory.
Audrey and some of her dance classmates performed private recitals to collect money for the underground. At times, they were given slips of paper to hide in their shoes and deliver to resistance workers. Children were unsuspected of aiding the underground.
After the Dutch Underground attempted to destroy a German train, the Germans retaliated by lining up several Dutch against a wall and executing them. Included were Audrey’s uncle, a judge, and a cousin, an adjutant at court.
In September, 1944, the Allies launched Operation Market Garden. When the shooting in Arnhem and the surrounding area ceased, the Dutch emerged from hiding to discover they had not been liberated. The Allies had failed to wrest Arnhem from German control. The Germans ordered all residents out of Arnhem.
The van Heemstras moved to the baron’s country home in Velp. They offered shelter to forty refugees, but had barely enough food for themselves. Because the Dutch railway workers had gone on strike to paralyze the German transportation system during Operation Market Garden, the Germans retaliated by cutting the bread ration and prohibited the civilian use of electricity.
Audrey and her mother had no food at all some days. For a long time, they had nothing but tulip bulbs to eat. Audrey drank gallons of water to fill full and convinced herself she wasn’t hungry. During her career as a chorus-line dancer and later as an actress, she would use the same technique to keep her weight down. She never weighed more than 110 pounds except during pregnancy.
On May 5, 1945, the Canadian 1st Army liberated Holland, the day after Audrey’s 16th birthday. On the brink of starvation, she weighed ninety pounds at five feet six inches tall, and suffered from anemia, asthma, and jaundice.
Truckloads of food arrived, and the next day, Audrey devoured her first meal. It was too rich for her digestive system and she became violently ill.
In 1959, she was offered a leading movie role in The Diary of Anne Frank. She found it too distressing, not only for the heartbreaking story, but because it revived her own harrowing experiences under German occupation.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Spider and the Sparrow

May 1915. Frenchman Julian Olivier will do anything to get out of the trenches. When British Intelligence recruits him to spy behind enemy lines, he jumps at the opportunity. Just before he begins, however, he has a chance encounter with a young French woman who leaves his heart marked for the remainder of the war—and he doesn’t even know her name.
Warren Flynn is a Canadian airborne hero, and dogfights with the Germans are all in a day’s work. Second only to his love of flying is his fascination with Claire Donovan, the daughter of an American munitions manufacturer living in Paris. Warren flies Julian into Germany and soon receives orders to post the Allies’ newest operative—an attractive French peasant woman named Evette—in Claire’s home.
As a dangerous ring of spies and saboteurs threatens to turn the war against the Allies, Julian discovers goodness in his enemies’ hearts. But even if he survives, will he ever be reunited with the woman whose memory he can’t erase? Will Warren survive the war, and will Evette unearth the infiltrator in her own territory before it’s too late?

I loved this novel! It provides a stark look at World War I with emphasis on the enlisted men. Men on both sides comment they don't hate the enemy in the opposite trenches; they're both fighting a war they don't want to be a part of. The officers don't care how many are killed as long as they can stand in a progress report.
I liked how the characters were willing to pray. A common response is, I never prayed before; I can't now. Here they prayed because they had nothing to lose.
Author A.L. Sowards joins us now for a visit.

Did you watch any WWI films, like Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory, to get a feel for the war?
I can’t think of any WWI movies I watched while writing the book, but I convinced my husband to watch two documentary series with me. One was called WWI: The War to End all Wars. Honestly, it was a little dry overall, but it had interviews with veterans and film footage of the time period, and that was cool. The other series wasn’t technically a documentary, it was a series of 36 half-hour lectures by Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius available through The Great Courses Company. Most of my research was from nonfiction history books and memoirs. I ended up reading 27 of them and skimming a few others!

You state on your website, “I’ll let the characters in my books have all the adventures.” What’s an adventure that you’ve had? Did you ever try out for the Olympic swim team?
One year I made the time qualifications to go to Olympic Trials, but that was in 2001, so I was a year late! (I wouldn’t have made the Olympic team anyway, because I wasn’t that fast, but it would have been cool to say I went.) I swam competitively in college for BYU, and one year we went to Jordan, and that was amazing. We got to see Petra, Mount Nebo, Amman, Jerash, and the Dead Sea. We even had a small international swim meet. If I remember right, I won the 400 individual medley. And I still love hummus, pita bread, and tabbouleh.

You’ve written several WWII books. What do you see as the biggest difference in mindset between WWI and WWII?
I think a lot of the nations going into WWI didn’t know what to expect. They had no idea how long, how costly, and how horrific total war would be. When WWII started, people were more aware of how devastating another war might be. I think this was especially true of the French. At the start of WWI, the French military was eager to avenge their loss in the Franco-Prussian war, and believed good morale would triumph. But it didn’t, and the war nearly broke the French nation. Going into WWII, I think there was an underlying feeling that even though they won WWI, that victory had been more costly than their defeat in 1870-1, and that (and a lot of other factors) may have influenced what happened with France in 1940. There’s this quote by French resistance writer Jean Dutourd: “War is less costly than servitude. In the end, the choice is always between Verdun and Dachau.” Of course, in 1940, the French didn’t know about Dachau, and I wonder if they saw the choice as being between Sedan and Verdun, and who would want to repeat Verdun?

Verdun makes it easy to understand why so many favored appeasement. No one would want to go through that again. Thank you for joining us.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Don't Forget to Flush!

If you’ve ever watched a World War II German submarine movie, you know the U-boats had two toilets for crews of about fifty men. And at the start of a voyage, one may have been unusable because it was filled with provisions.

The German toilets didn’t have holding tanks. Rather, they discharged directly into the sea. This could only be done when the sub was at or near the surface. Otherwise, the pressure on the hull would be too great for flushing. As you may imagine, collecting waste until it could be flushed out added to the stench of diesel fumes and body odor.
U-boat 1206 was a late model sub that began its first patrol on April 6, 1945, one month before the end of the war in Europe. It sailed from Kristiansand, Norway, to seek and destroy Allied ships in the North Atlantic.
U-1206 featured new, improved plumbing. Its high pressure toilets could be operated at greater depths. They were extremely complicated, however, complete with instruction manuals, and designated crewmembers were trained in their operation.
Eight days into the patrol, the sub commander (supposedly) tried to use the toilet without the help of a toilet specialist. He did something wrong, and then summoned a specialist. The trained man misunderstood the situation and opened the outer valve while the inner valve was open. Sea water flooded in.
Directly underneath the toilet were the batteries. The seawater combined with battery acid, producing chlorine gas that spread throughout the U-boat. The commander had no choice but to surface and blow the gas.
The commander's official report is a little different:

In April 1945 U-1206 was in the North Sea targeting British Convoys. The diesel engines had broken down. We were therefore unable to charge batteries by snorkelling and they were depleted.  In order to repair the diesel we dived to 70 metres about 8 to 10 miles off the British coast, un-molested by British forces. Diesel repairs were taking place, I was in the engine-room when a water leak occurred in the bows.  As I later learned, a mechanic had tried to repair the forward toilet and water had leaked through the outboard valve. I would say - although I do not have any proof -  that presumably the outboard vent gauge either gave false readings or was incorrectly installed. The Chief Engineer, who at the time of flooding was in the control room, then used all the compressed-air to surface the boat despite the strong influx of water.  However the batteries were now full of seawater and chlorine gas fillled the boat. We were by then completely incapable of moving or diving. As by this time we could be discovered by British aircraft and guards, I let the boat sink. The crew then succeded in reaching the Scottish coast in rubber boats. Tragically, in an attempt to climb the dangerous steep cliffs, three crew members were drowned. Several men were taken onboard a British sloop.

In any case, U-1206 was eight to ten miles off the coast of Peterhead, Scotland. The sub was quickly spotted and came under attack. Extensive damage prevented the sub from diving, and the commander ordered Abandon Ship and scuttled the submarine. One crewman was killed in the attack and three others drowned; the other 46 were captured. In the eight days of its patrol, U-1206 caused no harm to Allied ships. Instead, it has the notoriety of being sunk because of its toilet.