'Amazing Stories of the Space Age': Q&A with Author Rod Pyle

Manned Orbiting Laboratory
The Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) is one of the space missions discussed in Rod Pyle's new book, "Amazing Stories of the Space Age," now on sale. (Image credit: NASA)

A new book brings together tales of the most bizarre and incredible space missions ever conceived. The book's author (and regular Space.com contributor), Rod Pyle, talked with Space.com via email about these amazing space missions and what they can tell us about the future of spaceflight. 

The book, "Amazing Stories of the Space Age: True Tales of Nazis in Orbit, Soldiers on the Moon, Orphaned Martian Robots, and Other Fascinating Accounts from the Annals of Spaceflight," is now available in paperback and as an e-book. You can read an excerpt of the book here

"Amazing Stories of the Space Age: True Tales of Nazis in Orbit, Soldiers on the Moon, Orphaned Martian Robots, and Other Fascinating Accounts from the Annals of Spaceflight," by Rod Pyle. (Image credit: Nicole Sommer-Lecht/Prometheus Books)

Space.com: This book is a collection of stories about strange and amazing spaceflight missions and ideas for missions. To give our readers an idea of the kinds of things covered in the book, can you briefly describe one of your favorite "amazing stories," or one of the missions you find really fascinating?

Rod Pyle: I love them all, of course, but one that touches my heart is about the final days of the Viking 1 Mars lander. Two Viking spacecraft, each comprised of an orbiter and a lander, headed off to the Red Planet in 1975, arriving in 1976. After studying the surface from orbit, the flight controllers committed Viking 1 to a landing on July 20, 1976. They could only infer what the surface might be like from relatively low-resolution imaging, but they met with luck twice: first with this landing, and then with Viking 2 about six weeks. The folks at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) still marvel at the accomplishment. After a long and successful campaign of great science, one by one, the Vikings went dark, and by late 1982, only Viking 1 was still transmitting, sending daily weather reports to Earth. At six years into the mission, however, the lander was experiencing some battery issues similar to what had ended the Viking 2 lander’s mission. The programmer assigned to the mission wrote some new software to optimize the battery charging cycles and uplinked it to the lander, where it was dutifully recorded onto the computer’s tape-drive memory. Unfortunately, it overwrote an instruction set responsible for keeping the radio dish oriented toward the Earth, and the lander fell silent. JPL tried to regain contact for months, to no avail. The team was devastated. And because the lander had a nuclear power supply, we have no idea how long it waited for a final message that would never arrive…

Space.com: Some of these missions seem as though they would have left a very short paper trail, and some of them have just barely become declassified. How did you go about finding all of these?

Pyle: This is true in many cases. While it's simple to buy a copy of something like [rocket pioneer] Wernher von Braun’s "The Mars Project," getting more in-depth data on many of these programs was far more complicated. To add to the adventure, some have only been fully declassified in the past few years. For example, much of the material on the U.S. Air Force's Manned Orbiting Laboratory was posted in the National Reconnaissance Office's online archives in 2015. Other programs have been extensively studied in academic papers that are available. Still others exist only as documents from the era, or even as hearsay that must be vetted by sources familiar with the program and the time frame — the Soviet-era stories were the toughest. But this is in part what made it such a compelling book project."

Space.com: You've been a spaceflight historian for quite a while, so I imagine you've been collecting these stories for some time. When and why did you decide to put them all in a book?

Pyle: I've been writing books about spaceflight since 2003. Prior to that, I was working in documentary television, and would steer projects towards space-related subjects whenever possible. This book originated as a pitch to a cable network for a show called "Secrets of Space" in the early 2000s. We got close a few times but were never able to begin production. The pitch languished for some time, and I decided about five years ago to recast it as a book, which would allow for a much deeper dive into the subject matter — a huge plus. My agent made a deal with the good folks at Prometheus Books, and off we went. 

Space.com: Of all the stories in your book that stood out to me, I think perhaps the most incredible was the idea in the late 1950s that the U.S. would have a military base on the moon and would actually be fighting moon wars against Russian moon armies within a decade. You even mention in the book that this may sound incredible, but that's just a testament to how intense the Cold War was. Were most people really convinced that spaceflight would advance at such a rapid clip? When do you think people started to realize that wouldn't be the case?

Pyle: Project Horizon was a 1959 U.S. Army study for a militarized moon base. It was pretty much [dead on arrival] when it was submitted, since things were moving in another direction by then — NASA was a new civil space agency, and von Braun, who had worked on the Project Horizon study, had transferred there from the Army. When reading the Project Horizon proposal, I had to chuckle at some of the assumptions made — the Redstone Arsenal [what is now ;NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama] was just developing the Saturn I rocket and the flight rates and amount of cargo needed to build the Horizon base would have been staggering — on the order of 150+ boosters, including spares. 

All this would need to be transported to Christmas Island [also known as Kiritimati, part of the Republic of Kiribati] in the central Pacific, where the equatorially based launch site would be, and everything would have to go perfectly to be anywhere near their scheduled time of completion, about 1965 to 1966. The budgeted cost was about $6 billion in 1959 dollars. Later, as NASA began to look hard at their manned lunar mission options, especially direct ascent versus Earth orbit rendezvous, it began to sink in just how difficult this could all be. Of course, Project Horizon was a filing-cabinet item by then; it was, to my knowledge, not taken seriously after being submitted in 1959, and von Braun, as mentioned, had moved on.

Today, when you look at all 363 feet [111 meters] of a Saturn V moon rocket, and realize that only the last 13 feet [4 m] of it returned home from the moon, plans like Horizon feel like studies in technological hubris. But it would have been magnificent, had it worked, and one must admire the determination of the planners.

Space.com: On that same point, your book is a great illustration that some of the biggest leaps of spaceflight tech have come along because they had military motivations. Would you say it's true that the greatest spaceflight accomplishments of the 20th century were motivated by war and world dominance? Do you think that can change — or is changing — in the 21st century?

Pyle: Most of the unflown mission designs in the book were of military or quasi-military origins, with the one major exception being Project Orion, the atomic rocket. The late 1940s and early 1950s were a time of great paranoia and increasing fear. The United States had exited World War II as the sole power possessing nuclear weapons — a comfortable position to be in at the time. Within a handful of years, thanks to clever physicists and good espionage, the Soviet Union had developed and tested both atomic and hydrogen bombs. At the time — say, through the mid-1950s — the only way to deliver such weapons was with lumbering, slow bomber aircraft. But what if some clever folks built rockets big enough to fling them across the globe at ballistic speeds, or placed them in an orbiting station that could drop them on U.S. targets at will? This was a huge concern. 

So the plans for the Horizon lunar base, the Air Force's Lunex base, von Braun's inflatable "wheel" space station, the Dyna-Soar rocket plane and many others were based, at least in part, on this paranoia and the desire to seize the "high ground," however each branch of the military perceived that. And, of course, although Apollo was a civilian program, we know that it was born of geopolitics and the Kennedy administration's desire to find a pursuit in space in which we could assure a win over the Soviet Union — something that would demonstrate the superiority of our technology, our political system and our people. A crewed lunar landing was the answer. This program, called Project Apollo, was almost curtailed many times, and it continues to astound me that it all worked, and within the decade. 

I see great promise for a different outcome in the 21st century, a blending of international collaboration, commercial/government partnerships and private competition (mostly in the U.S. for the next decade) in space exploration and development. 

Space.com: There are also some stories in your book about projections in the 1960s that humans would visit other planets by the 1980s. The fact that those estimates were wildly off target makes me feel nervous about NASA's current plans to get humans to Mars by the 2030s. Does learning about the history of humanity trying to get past the moon make you feel hopeful for future solar system exploration, or does it mostly inspire caution?

Pyle: What an interesting question! It was all so much simpler when von Braun penned "The Mars Project" in 1953 … We thought that Mars might have a sufficiently dense atmosphere to support a gliding landing of his huge space-shuttle-like landing craft, that we could cross the gulf between Earth and Mars with a 10-ship armada of taxpayer-funded behemoths, and it would all proceed much like a submarine journey under the North Pole (which occurred in 1958). 

But we soon learned that Mars was much more hostile than we had suspected, that Venus was a hell planet and that the moon, while far closer than either, was still a tremendous challenge. And as we continue to study the deep-space environment and microgravity, we find that we, the frail beings who evolved to live perfectly on the surface of our planet and nowhere else, are at great peril when journeying in space for extended periods. So, during the space race we learned much about spaceflight and the associated engineering and scientific issues involved, but this was the low-hanging fruit. 

From here on out, the exploration of the solar system gets much harder. And a few hardy U.S.-based billionaires aside, our greatest enemy seems to be a lack of cohesive direction and the dogged determination to forge ahead, in my opinion. As [retired NASA Flight Director] Gene Kranz said to me at the end of an interview a few years back, as he fixed me with that steely eyed missile-man stare, "What America will dare, America can do." I think he's right, and for more than just America. Today, I might rephrase it as, "We know what we can do. What will we dare?"

Space.com: In Chapter 4, you talk about General Atomics, which was a commercial company that wanted to build a brand-new kind of rocket to get humans into space. Would you call this company a predecessor to companies like SpaceX? (While private companies have been involved in spaceflight since its inception, I'm asking if there's a similarity, because most of those companies contribute to existing human spaceflight missions rather than trying to initiate their own.)

Pyle: The idea of nuclear-pulse propulsion originated from Los Alamos [National Laboratory] in 1947 as a paper outlining an unmanned spacecraft. It was then restarted at General Atomics in 1958 on a slim budget, funded internally. It soon became clear that this was going to require more resources, and federal dollars became involved. It did begin in a fashion not entirely dissimilar from efforts such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, but without sexy billionaires at the helm — it was a corporate decision. 

Later that same year, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, (DARPA's predecessor) committed to spending a million dollars per year on the project, and soon, the Air Force took over funding, seeing military potential in the program. The studies continued with more engineers and physicists involved, and the plan was to launch a giant crewed spacecraft — ranging from 10,000 to a million tons, from Nevada, using nuclear explosions. [Theoretical physicist and mathematician] Freeman Dyson calculated that only a few lives would be lost per launch from fallout, far less than a week of automotive accident deaths in the U.S. The idea was tested with small-scale models called "putt-putts" and appeared to work, but ultimately, the scale of the project and the politics of raw nuclear pollution resulting from the launches doomed it. 

NASA did later look hard at launching a far smaller version of Orion on a Saturn V, which would initiate atomic explosions only after it had left the atmosphere. But by then, the Apollo program was front and center, and Project Orion was discontinued. I'll add that Dyson's motto was "Mars by 1965, Saturn by 1970" — a spectacular notion. It could have changed the course of human space exploration!

Space.com: Your book takes a look back at 20th century spaceflight and highlights some of the really grand, inspiring visions that people had for missions and technologies. Those people weren't cranks, either; even if Project Orion or some of von Braun's grander visions never got off the ground, the community still did amazing things. So do you think people are still dreaming at the same scale that they were in the first few decades of spaceflight? Is there room to dream up things like Project Orion and military bases on the moon?

Pyle: Is there ever! And we are, thankfully, somewhat less focused on the military aspect, though defense projects are still quietly well-funded. When I heard Elon Musk's talk at Guadalajara last September, when he announced SpaceX's plans to go to Mars, I was thrilled. I had expected something along those general lines, but the sheer scale of it, and the raw will and determination behind it, gives me great hope. He may never pull it off at the scale he outlined (though I, for one, would never bet against him), but the mere fact that he is willing to put this grand, almost utopian vision out there, and use his own money to seed it, is wonderful. 

Ditto Jeff Bezos and his colonization plans for space, along with smaller companies like Bigelow, Sierra Nevada and all the rest. And, of course, other countries' programs — the European Space Agency's Moon Village, China’s ambitious plans for human flights to the moon and Mars, and other national space efforts are inspiring. It will be a wonderful time in space exploration and development — the forward-looking visions of the 20th century may come true, in some form, at last.

Follow Calla Cofield @callacofield. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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Calla Cofield
Senior Writer

Calla Cofield joined Space.com's crew in October 2014. She enjoys writing about black holes, exploding stars, ripples in space-time, science in comic books, and all the mysteries of the cosmos. Prior to joining Space.com Calla worked as a freelance writer, with her work appearing in APS News, Symmetry magazine, Scientific American, Nature News, Physics World, and others. From 2010 to 2014 she was a producer for The Physics Central Podcast. Previously, Calla worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City (hands down the best office building ever) and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California. Calla studied physics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and is originally from Sandy, Utah. In 2018, Calla left Space.com to join NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory media team where she oversees astronomy, physics, exoplanets and the Cold Atom Lab mission. She has been underground at three of the largest particle accelerators in the world and would really like to know what the heck dark matter is. Contact Calla via: E-Mail – Twitter