Saturday, 6 October 2012

Astronyms, part 4: Project Apollo, Skylab and the last US Condoms

This is part of this series of posts on the history of spacecraft naming.

I found a bit of a kindred spirit in Curtis Peebles while writing this, as I stumbled over his 1978 summary of US astronyms. It's like a more concise (and outdated) version of what I'm trying to write here, but he does have a few factoids in there that no other source has been able to give me. It's surprising how little interest there is in Apollo vessel names after Eagle. He also gave me Ladybird to add to my Gemini names, plus a few clarifications of the intent behind some spacecraft names. See 'Astronyms, part 3' for those updates.

Apollo Command/Service Module and Apollo Lunar Module
(Space condoms, or arguably space condom and drop ship. In space service 11 October 1968 to 24 July 1975, and 3 March 1969 to 15 December 1972)
Apollo Command/Service Module
Apollo Lunar Module


Strictly two completely separate vehicles, it's pretty much impossible to discuss the spindly Apollo Lunar Module without discussing the Apollo Command/Service Module (a giant three-person Gemini) that always teamed up with it. Apollo CSMs flew a few missions without LMs, but never LMs without CSMs. You might even say they were designed that way. The Apollo CSM was also a new thing for NASA in that all the Mercuries had flown under Project Mercury and all the Geminis had flown under Project Gemini, (and all the Apollo LMs were flown under the Apollo Program), but the Apollo CSMs were put to use in three different projects, pairing up with different partner vessels in each.

The Apollo Command/Service Module was to the Gemini what the Gemini was to the Mercury: Bigger, more advanced, and with a crapload more stuff dangling off the butt in a jettisonable module. In Gemini, this was called the Equipment Module; in Apollo, it was the Service Module. Apart from just being bigger, it included a big go-forward rocket, in addition to all the little navigational thrusters, so that it could push itself back to Earth from the Moon. That, paired with the crewed bit known as the Command Module, was jointly called the Command/Service Module. Why Command? Because it was intended to be the mothership for the Lunar Module. The LM was also made up of two halves, a descent stage (all rockets and legs) that carried the whole vessel to a safe landing on the Moon, and an ascent stage (more rockets and astronauts and computers that are famously less powerful than even the most basic ones we ever use today) for flying away from the Moon's surface and back to the orbiting CSM. I'm undecided, based on my definitions, if this counts as a condom (because it's only useful for a single mission) or a drop ship (because within that mission, it does both land and launch again). I suppose it'll have to sit uncomfortably at the edge of one category or another until a more perfect scheme of categories is created. The LM was originally the LEM, or Lunar Excursion Module, but apparently NASA management felt that the word 'excursion' made it sound like a vehicle for going on Sunday picnics, and so quietly dropped it from the name. That's right, back in the '60s they dropped an E. Astronauts still pronounced LM as "lem" though, as it rolled off the tongue better.

Piloted Apollos were always paired up with the Saturn family of rockets, either the smaller Saturn IB or the enormous Saturn V. So, following established NASA naming, the missions got compound module-rocket names, i.e. Apollo-Saturn (though for some reason, they were also named the other way round in some contexts, as rocket-module, or Saturn-Apollo). To distinguish between the different Saturn variants, the mission number was lightly coded, with 1xx for Saturn Is (and the xx filled by a sequential launch number), 2yy for Saturn IBs and 5zz for Saturn Vs (where yy and zz are different sets of sequential numbers, not the mixed jumble of Project Mercury). Then there were also the simpler, more public mission names that were just Apollo 1, Apollo 2, etc., but these got a little confused by the Arabic numerals for the Project Mercury Missions and the Roman numerals for the Project Gemini missions, and so the Project Apollo missions were sometimes seen with either of the two types of numerals. Also, each CSM and LM had its own production number. So Apollo 10 (also written as Apollo X) was also AS-505 (or SA-505), which included CM-106 and SM-106 (jointly known as CSM-106, or Charlie Brown) and LM-4 (a.k.a. Snoopy). The individual bits of this bureaucratic coding system all mostly make sense when viewed in isolation, but together they do make quite a mess.

The name Apollo itself, after the complicated Greco-Roman god, was chosen to be impressive and commanding and dynamic, with visions of galloping horses and blazing suns (in summary, Blazing Saddles). It's kind of hard to impartially judge this choice any more, since it's become such an iconic name. Does it sound good because it is, or because it's so hard to imagine it being anything else? It's like trying to judge whether the Mona Lisa is a good painting or not; there are just too many preconceptions in the way.

Apollo 1 never flew, the first mission NASA opted to completely skip as a sign of respect, after its crew were killed in a training accident. Heading that crew was Gus Grissom, who had named Liberty Bell 7 and the Molly Brown, so apart from all the real tragedy, it's a minor tragedy that we never got to see what he'd name a Moon mission vehicle. There were also no official Apollo 2 or Apollo 3, but these code number-only flights, along with Apollos 4 to 6, were used for unpiloted test flights. Then came Apollo 7 and 8, the first piloted missions, using only the CSM, to check that it would work at all. Apollo 8 became the first human vessel to orbit the Moon. Apollo 9 was the first mission for the LM, and this created a radio communications problem, since CSM and LM sounded too similar and risked identity confusion over a crackling radio, while their full names were too long and awkward, especially when you consider that every new bit of radio chatter was required to begin with "[receiver's callsign], [sender's callsign]", e.g.:
"Houston, Apollo 11. We're in process of maneuvering to P23 in desired attitude. It likes roll 8.37, pitch 61.33, and yaw 339.87. Over."
That was all good and well while the CSM and LM were docked and acting as a single unit, but as soon as they split up, you'd have to give them each different, practical callsigns. And so NASA was forced to drop the Molly Brown ban and unique vessel names returned, still chosen by the crew, but with some management oversight. And so Apollo 9's CSM and LM were respectively named Gumdrop and Spider, simple names pointing roughly to the shapes of each, which was not very sexy, but quite practical. The NASA PR people still weren't happy with this, but were overruled for practical reasons.

Apollo 10, as I've mentioned here before, was given a more lighthearted pair of names, CSM Charlie Brown and LM Snoopy, because NASA had a weird thing back in the late '60s for Peanuts. I love those names, but it's just occured to me how much more awful they would have made things if the mission had gone wrong. Imagine a newsreader having to report, "NASA today announced that it believes that Charlie Brown was destroyed in an as yet unexplained explosion during manuevers in lunar orbit. Snoopy remains missing, but may have been at a safe enough distance at the time. Even so, there remains no hope of bringing Snoopy home." The funny thing is, in reality, Snoopy's ascent stage probably remains the only one of its kind launched into space that still exists intact, in some unknown solar orbit. Those seen in museums today are all spares that were never launched (or replicas), while all of the other 8 active LM ascent stages were all crashed into either the Earth or Moon. Of course, the surface of the Moon is still home to the 6 used descent stages from the successful lunar landings.

Apollo 11's crew was originally going to go back to simple, descriptive names, Snowcone and Haystack, after NASA management decided that lighthearted was not a style they wanted to embrace. But then someone realised that, "The Haystack has landed," might not be a very good line to put in the history books, so more interesting but still serious names, Columbia and Eagle, were chosen instead. And from then on, NASA's unique vessel names were almost all kept serious and sombre, unfortunately. The official convention became that the command module pilot got to name his own CSM, while the other two crewmembers had to agree on a name for their LM; there does seem to have been a bit of inter-crew discussion and name sharing, so these wouldn't have been purely personal, unadulterated name choices. Allow me to go through the whole list of unique names and the reasons given for them.

  • Apollo 7 CSM: No name, but Phoenix was considered, refering to the mythological fire bird, before being ruled out as too stark a reminder of what had happened to the Apollo 1 crew.
  • Apollo 8: No name, but Jim Lovell had wanted to name their Saturn V rocket the Columbiad after the space gun that launched Verne's fictional lunar expedition. This would have been the first real spacecraft named after a science fiction one. The name was instead given to the Apollo 11 CSM.
  • Apollo 9 CSM: Gumdrop. Approximate shape of CSM.
  • Apollo 9 LM: Spider. Approximate shape of LM.
  • Apollo 10 CSM: Charlie Brown. Named after Charlie Brown, to go with LM Snoopy. Second spacecraft to be named after someone named Brown. (The only real spacecraft I've seen in person so far.)
  • Apollo 10 LM: Snoopy. Named after Snoopy, NASA safety mascot.
  • Apollo 11 CSM: Columbia. Named after the Columbiad space gun from the Verne story that Apollo 8 had considered using. This is not quite the same root as the shuttle Columbia's name, but I'd guess the -d was dropped from the end of Columbiad to bring it closer to the same Americany sense. I can't find any pre-shuttle claims that this CSM was named after the same sailing ship Columbia that the shuttle was, so I think that assertion may be an erroneous back-connection.
  • Apollo 11 LM: Eagle. Named after US national bird, the bald eagle. Oddly, the mission patch with the bald eagle was designed first, and the LM name taken from that. The module and the site it landed on were also subsequently named Tranquility Base, which Armstrong seems to have improvised, but which is now the official name of that place. This was not repeated with other LM landing sites.
  • Apollo 12 CSM: Yankee Clipper. Probably named after the type of sailing ship.
  • Apollo 12 LM: Intrepid. Probably named after one of the US Navy ships by that name.
  • Apollo 13 CSM: Odyssey. Named after the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • Apollo 13 LM: Aquarius. Named after the constellation and the song named after that.
  • Apollo 14 CSM: Kitty Hawk. Named after Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where the Wright brothers first flew.
  • Apollo 14 LM: Antares. Named after the star, which was a planned navigational aid for the mission.
  • Apollo 15 CSM: Endeavour. Named after HMS Endeavour, the ship commanded by James Cook. This is the same root as the shuttle Endeavour's name.
  • Apollo 15 LM: Falcon. Named after the mascot of the US Air Force Academy. Carried an actual falcon feather, as seen in this video.
  • Apollo 16 CSM: Casper. Named after the cartoon ghost, apparently chosen because Mattingly was reminded of that sort of cheesey ghost image by the white space suits they wore. I'm not sure how they snuck in another lighthearted name like this.
  • Apollo 16 LM: Orion. Named after the constellation.
  • Apollo 17 CSM: America. Probably named after the short version of the USA.
  • Apollo 17 LM: Challenger. Named after HMS Challenger and its Challenger Expedition. This is the same root as the shuttle Challenger's name.
  • Skylab 2 CSM: No name, see below.
  • Skylab 3 CSM: No name, see below.
  • Skylab 4 CSM: No name, see below.
  • Apollo 18 CSM: Apollo. The US half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, see below.

But are there any nice patterns in there? Not really. A bit of US nationalism (watered down a bit by the ones named after British vessels) and a few unrelated astronomy names. A stray mention of a real place on Earth. A few fictional characters and one fictional spacecraft. Charlie Brown and Snoopy were the only pair given names that work together well as an obvious, themed pair, which seems like a missed opportunity to me. Yankee Clipper and Intrepid both refer to boats, since they had an all-Navy crew, but that's a much thinner connection. Odyssey and Aquarius were both movie references, but slightly disguised. Apparently one possible pair of names considered for Apollo 11 was Romeo and Juliet, which might have set an interesting precedent.

After the Moon program was ended early, the station Skylab (see below) was launched using a modified Saturn V, and Apollo CSMs were used to ferry crews up to it, in much the same way that Soyuzes ferried cosmonauts to and from Soviet space stations. Skylab itself was considered the Skylab 1 mission and the three Apollo CSMs that flew up to it were designated Skylabs 2 to 4. They had no unique names, as the station and the CSMs would only ever be occupied in space one at a time, so there could be no radio miscommunication. They were also known erroneously as Skylab I, Skylab II and Skylab 3, both numbered incorrectly and with the return of the annoying mix of Roman and Arabic numerals.

Finally, the very last Apollo CSM to fly was the US half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which was much condemned by scientists and engineers who would have prefered to use it as Skylab 5 instead, but which was an important political statement that helped end the Cold War and laid the technical and political foundations for subsequent US-Russian cooperation on Mir and the International Space Station. This CSM, officially but very rarely called the Apollo 18 mission, simply went by the name Apollo (no numbers or anything) and docked with the Soyuz 7K-TM (a variant customised specifically for this mission) that was officially Soyuz 19, but which also went by the plain callsign of Soyuz (making it arguably the first piloted Soviet space condom to receive a proper unique name). And with the end of that mission, the US completely stopped using space condoms for decades.

15 crewed Apollo Command/Service Modules were launched into space, flying once each. All were successful, except for Odyssey (Apollo 13), which had its famous fuck-up, but which was still non-fatal.

9 crewed Apollo Lunar Modules were launched into space, and all were successful. 6 successfully landed on the Moon, with only Aquarius (Apollo 13) failing to do so as planned, but only because of the failure of Odyssey.

Skylab
(Space station. In space service 26 May 1973 to 8 February 1974)
Skylab docked with Apollo CSM

Skylab was, for all practical, engineering purposes, part of the Apollo family. The Americans' first space station was itself made out of a converted Saturn IVB rocket stage, a left-over from cancelled Moon missions, its hollow tube providing lots of room inside for people and gear. It was launched on the last Saturn V to fly and it was serviced, as noted above, exclusively by spare Apollo Command/Service Modules, docking with the station the same way they would with an Apollo Lunar Module. All of this meant that ground staff and astronauts needed little conversion training. Even so, Skylab had its share of technical problems, almost failing to get started at all and then killing itself off faster than necessary. It's interesting to think what might have been if it had stayed up long enough to become a regular shuttle destination. It did get some good science done, though, and showed the Americans the value of a long-term space presence over short hops.

Sadly, the name Skylab marks NASA's turn towards the dullest, most literal sort of naming, where there's no creativity, no subtlety and nothing interesting about the names. As it happens, I'm ok with the name Skylab, as it's at least an attempt to make a new word, and Sky- isn't quite as literal as the Space- in the later Spacelab shuttle modules. But they could still have done much better. The silly thing is, there'd been a whole name-making committee to find a name for the station, which the name-choosing committee completely ignored.

Skylab operated well enough until it was finally de-orbited and fell to Earth in pieces, not in the Indian Ocean just south of South Africa, as planned, but in Western Australia. A second Skylab was built but never launched.