Interview: former NASA scientist David Baker
We speak to former NASA scientist of the Apollo era David Baker about the space race and putting humans on the Moon.
The launch of Apollo 9 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in 1969.Image Credit: NASA
British engineer David Baker went to the US aged 19 to work for NASA, and became involved in the missions to put humans on the Moon.
His latest book, NASA Operations Manual: 1958 onwards, published by Haynes, reveals the history of the American space agency and its workings.
We spoke to David about his early days at NASA and what it was like working on the Apollo missions.
How did you come to work for NASA?
I was very lucky: I went to a school in Hertfordshire that was supporting what was originally a NATO programme of education for technical college opportunities in the United States.
I managed to get a scholarship to the US through a programme that was sponsored by then Senator Clinton Anderson.
He was a very great advocate of the emerging space programme.
In 1962 when I was 19 I went across to the United States as part of a big surge towards getting as many people as they could to support a wide range of programmes.
A lot of us came from Europe and also from Canada; in fact quite a lot of people came down from Canada after a number of aircraft projects had been cancelled there.
We were part of a vanguard that really helped put the American space project on the map.
We think of NASA as being a big all-American organisation, but of course the big rockets were built by the German rocket engineers that had built the V2 during second World War, and a very high percentage of the overall contribution to the American Space Programme came from many other countries.
When you consider how the launch of the Soviets’ Sputnik probe spurred NASA on, it can sometimes seem like NASA’s big projects were a reaction to the success of others.
I think that’s very much true.
NASA was formed in 1958 out of the reaction to Sputnik, but this continued with the Apollo programme, which was a result of embarrassment at Yuri Gagarin having been the first to orbit the Earth.
NASA’s first incarnation, the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), was formed because they were really behind the curve in aeronautics.
When the First World War broke out they got the hurry-up, but not a single American-designed aircraft flew in the First World War; all the American pilots that contributed used British and French aircraft.
In 1926 it was an American, Robert Goddard, who became the first to launch a liquid propellant rocket.
They are so much more efficient than solid propellant rockets, which really are like giant fireworks!
The amount of energy you can get out of combining liquids in a proper combustion chamber is infinitely greater, and was really needed in terms of getting into space.
But, again it was the Germans and Russians in the 1930s who got the lead.
In the 1920s, the US government thought rockets were a huge digression and had no real future, so it was the Russians who made huge progress.
But the Russians shot themselves in the foot during the Stalin purges of the 1930s, when they felt that the people working on rocket research were actually misusing government funds, because they were talking about space travel and the Communist system under Stalin felt this was a total irrelevance.
We think of President Kennedy’s ‘we choose to go to the Moon’ speech as being a reaction to the progress made by the Soviets in the space race.
Can you envisage what the course of NASA might have been had it not been for the Soviets’ successes?
It is very interesting to think about that.
Contrary to popular perception, Kennedy was not enthusiastic about space at all.
In fact the chronology of events is that he won the election in November 1960, but the Eisenhower administration that had succumb to national pressure and formed NASA out of the NACA, thought ‘job done’.
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They thought that was enough to show the American people that the US was slowly going forward with a modest programme, because this was very much Eisenhower’s way.
Nobody knew what advantages the space programme would have, and nobody knew what the physiological effects would be of putting human bodies into space.
His message was very much ‘let’s not rush into making rash decisions’, because the moment NASA was formed, a lot of space enthusiasts in the aerospace industry saw it as a wonderful opportunity to get the government and the people on their side to pay for the tremendous ideas they had.
Eisenhower warned of a giant rollercoaster of what he called the ‘military industrial complex’, and he made a great speech when he was leaving office and made some projections and warnings about the ramp-up of the Cold War and the consequences that would have for ordinary people.
And of the negative consequences of creating giant organisations out of fear: fear of being beaten, of somebody doing something first, fear of a military threat, fear even of terrorist actions.
Kennedy represented something different.
He would throw massive amounts of commitment after something without really knowing the consequences.
I think if Eisenhower had had his vice president win the election against Kennedy, the programme would have continued in a modest way.
There would not have been an Apollo programme: it would have gradually found its own buoyancy within the political arena.
We would have got some level of Earth-orbiting laboratory; we may even have had a space station 20 or 30 years earlier than we actually got one.
But it’s very doubtful we would have been on the Moon.
Nixon was terrified of the space programme.
When he came to power, he cancelled two of the last three Moon missions.
One had to be cancelled anyway to free up a Saturn V for the launch of Skylab in 1973, but when Nixon’s reelection came up in 1972, he ordered NASA to defer the launch of the last Apollo landing until after his presidential election for fear that rea
What was your role in the Apollo missions and what are your memories from that time?
I started out in the US as a lunar and planetary scientist and then I did a couple of engineering degrees because I wanted to get in to the nuts and bolts of working on manned space vehicles.
I wanted to apply what I was learning about lunar geophysical studies to flight operations.
I got the opportunity to go to the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center).
It was very much a case of ‘stand there and don’t touch anything!’ so I could use the experience as a means to gain interest and work out what field I would like to go into.
NASA loved the fact that us Brits were getting in there and doing it, because they needed so much help to put as many brains onto the problems of the day.
Nobody knew how to do anything! Initially we didn’t even know how to go to the Moon.
It took over year after Kennedy’s commitment to even work out how we were going to get there.
So if you had the willing to stand up and say “I can do that!” even if you were quaking in your boots and not knowing how the heck you were going to do it, you were given the opportunity.
But you had to have that problem solved by the end of the day, otherwise somebody would be put in your place.
When you’re just out of your teens, and are crossing over into thinking “I am a man now” - even though you’re not - we thought we had a God-given right to change the world and we were given a blank cheque to do so.
It was 100 per cent excitement. I can feel that even now.
I was given the chance to move in to the mission planning and analysis division. This was where we brainstormed mission opportunities.
From about 1965 working with the Gemini programme, my job was to help shake out all the problems we would need to work on to get the crews to the Moon.
We talked of long-duration flights being anything from eight to 14 days, whereas now they’re staying up for six months at a time routinely; sometimes a year.
Astronauts were making a huge contribution themselves, helping to develop guidance and navigation computers.
David Scott, for example, who was on Gemini missions, Apollo 9 and was commander of Apollo 15, he did much of the grunt work.
These guys didn’t just turn up in their sports cars and climb into a spacecraft, they worked hard trying to develop the systems.
Nobody knew how to do it so we needed guys in there who were going to actually operate these things.
Eventually I got involved in working out how we could take the remaining missions and stretch them to make them work much harder.
If you look at Apollo 11, which was essentially a few hours out on the surface of the Moon, that was always going to be an engineering mission.
Apollo 12 was the matured mission that began to expand and exploit.
That pushed out to two EVAs (extra-vehicular activities) and very pinpoint landing.
Armstrong had been several kilometres of course; not of his own fault but because we were learning how to work the systems.
We wanted to land into very rocky, difficult areas so we knew we had to nail a pinpoint landing.
We got to tens of metres of where we were supposed to on Apollo 12, and that opened up the opportunities to develop the capabilities of landing in dangerous places, where we were coming over the tops of mountains 10-15km high.
We ended up with a lunar roaming vehicle on the final three Apollo missions, so we could roam across the surface.
Apollo 15 saw three days on the Moon, three sessions of between 7-8 hours on the surface, really working hard and producing huge quantities of material to bring back.
Were you involved in Apollo 13? What was that time like?
I was involved with the analysis of data and checking various figures, because we were running various options.
It was interesting to see how many simulated anomalies had been banked in the event that there was a mission experiencing compounding failures, which was the case with Apollo 13.
There was almost disbelief, because we had had a successful run with the Gemini missions and we were getting very cocky regarding what we could do.
Two months after the last Gemini mission we had the Apollo fire, and that was really a kick in the stomach.
From that we came back and nobody could believe the pace at which everything was ramped up.
But we knew that the Apollo system would have failures and felt we were dodging bullets all the time.
We felt that if Apollo 13 was the one that was going to get us, thank God it didn’t bring about the death of the crew.
We didn’t have time to deliberate over what was happening, we were nailed in focus completely and pulling together all the simulations we had gone through to work out how to deal with an emergency.
We boot-strapped several responses together and my job was to check the figures and to verify the options we had; whether to speed up and come home quickly or not.
We decided not to speed up because it would have put us at the dangerous end of the propulsive capacity we had.
It was thinking like that and holding our nerve that made the difference.
We knew that if we sped up, we would have to power the systems more, which would mean more water to cool the systems and more oxygen, so you learn to manipulate and control a situation, not simply to go for broke and try and get them back as quickly as possible.
Did you ever wonder whether you would have liked to become an astronaut yourself?
A lot of people felt that they wanted to apply to become an astronaut.
When the Shuttle programme began in the early 1970s, we still had some Apollo landings to go.
In fact, the design of the Shuttle began before Armstrong even landed on the Moon.
I eventually moved up into NASA headquarters in an advisory roll and Chris Kraft, who was the director of the Manned Spacecraft Center, which eventually became the Johnson Space Center, said to me “we’d like you to apply for the astronaut corps.
We need to get non-US citizens flying into space.”
There was a sense of developing the space programme outwards.
It was felt that if there was an opportunity to really weld the future of NASA to the fortunes of other nations, it would not be so easy for Congress to suddenly cancel a programme or turn funds down, because that would have an impact on relations with other great powers in the world.
I had all the medical checks and was good to go in terms of making a formal entry, but then the whole programme began to change.
Elements of the Shuttle programme began to fall away.
When I looked at the amount of time this would take out of my life, I worked out that I would be surrendering control of my life for several years and probably decades.
It wasn’t enough to tempt me to commit and take everything else out of my life.
I knew that once I surrendered control over my professional destiny, and my desire to get into history and record and communicate, to lecture and talk, I wouldn’t be able to do that.
So I had to make a decision and I elected not to.
I hadn’t actually gone through the training, so I’m sure it would have been a long shot.
But I’m pleased I chose the path I did, being able to communicate and inspire.
It is my belief that we get the young people we deserve, and that if we criticise their failures then we’re criticising our own failures because we have not created the opportunities for them.
I could not have done what I did, had I not been encouraged and supported and given the vision that I could do anything I wanted.
Rather than being constrained by limits, we were told we could do anything.
If you give young people that propulsion, they will do great things and will make extraordinary contributions.
Below is an excerpt from David Baker's new book, NASA: 1958 and Onwards, published by Haynes.
Since long before the formation of NASA, humans dreamed of travelling to Mars.
That has become the coveted goal of space-faring nations around the world.
Notwithstanding the dramatic change in understanding about Mars, now revealed as a seemingly barren world probably devoid of ever having supported life, it still beckons as a benchmark for technological achievement and satisfies the human urge to explore and seek the summit of the next hill.
That desire has sustained Mars exploration using robotic spacecraft and has kept alive the hopes and dreams of advocates for a human presence on the Red Planet.
Until the inauguration of President Trump in January 2017 NASA was holding fast to a roadmap approved by the previous administration, which essentially had not decided upon a mission goal for the SLS/Orion programme instigated by Congress.
Options included a rendezvous with an asteroid to retrieve samples for analysis back on Earth or a circumlunar mission to dock with an asteroid previously retrieved by an unmanned spacecraft and transferred to the vicinity of the Moon.
To a degree these were seen as vanity missions accomplishing nothing other than brandishing the capabilities of the new heavy-lift/deep-space capability of the evolved hardware.
Early in 2018 President Trump approved a plan to extend the international partnership formed through the ISS programme and provide a meaningful goal for SLS/Orion by focusing on a set of sequential steps toward the longterm objective of getting astronauts to Mars.
Agreement has been reached for Russia, ESA and Japan to join NASA in developing a mini-ISS in lunar orbit, assembly of which will begin in the mid-2020s.
Orion will be the means of moving astronauts between Earth and this Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) which will incorporate elements provided by all the partners.
The plan is to use this platform to place astronauts down on the surface of the Moon and to also exploit its deep-space location to test and evaluate various systems essential to getting to Mars, not least an electric propulsion system capable of moving large payloads across the solar system.
But the core value of the Gateway will be to have astronauts remain in lunar orbit for extended periods to study the physiological consequences on the human body of prolonged
exposure to space and radiation outside the protective envelope of the Earth’s magnetosphere.
Any trip to Mars will require humans to remain in this unprotected environment for up to two years and there is a complete lack of knowledge about how the body will respond to these conditions.
The ISS is unlikely to remain active beyond the 2020s, although some commercial exploitation may be possible as private companies and corporations take over more of the fundamental support infrastructure for long-term maintenance of existing facilities.
Such leasing arrangements began on Earth with NASA facilities when it first formed, extended into space through support for the ISS.
NASA sees such a commercial support structure for maintaining the Gateway and eventually, several decades in the future, of maintaining a permanent presence on Mars.
But the accomplishments of the past 60 years and the achievements of the world’s first civilian space agency have been outstanding as NASA extended its reach throughout the solar system.
Ever since the first successful fly-by of Venus in 1962 and the first successful fly-by of Mars in 1965, NASA has led the way right out across the solar system, visiting Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune and passing close by the dominant minor planet of the Kuiper Belt – Pluto – on 14 July 2015.
NASA has successfully sent 17 spacecraft to Mars, of which three conducted fly-bys, seven went into orbit, three landed and four more wandered around on the surface.
Since October 2000, humans have had a sustained presence off Earth at the International Space Station; at no time since then has there not been at least two humans in orbit.
Humans have begun to migrate from Earth to the near reaches of the solar system and eventually to a permanent presence on other worlds – first the Moon perhaps and then Mars.
It is a capability which speaks to the very best in the human condition: groups working peacefully together, sharing a journey through time toward a distant goal of leaving this solar system behind and starting a migration to other planetary systems in the galaxy.
And NASA will be there – all the way.
This extract appears courtesy of Haynes Publishing.
Iain Todd is BBC Sky at Night Magazine's Content Editor. He fell in love with the night sky when he caught his first glimpse of Orion, aged 10.