A five-minute interview with Dr Brett A. Gooden,
author of ‘Spacesuit – A History Through Fact and Fiction’
From the age of eight when he insisted his mother take him to see the seminal science fiction film Destination Moon, Brett Gooden has had a fascination for the fact and fiction of human spaceflight. Now with publication of his latest book, Spacesuit – A History Through Fact and Fiction, by Tattered Flag Press, Brett has been able to tell the remarkable story of the spacesuit through its many and often astonishing developments. With an absorbing blend of drama and detail, this captivating, colourful and exciting book explains how a seemingly impossible dream evolved from the often unbelievable forms of the early 20th century into the complex suits of today and how the quest continues for the ‘Mars and Beyond’ suits of tomorrow.
We asked Brett to tell us about the book.
The Tattered Flag: Hello, Brett. Thanks for chatting with us. Perhaps we could start with asking what made you first interested in the development of the Spacesuit? What inspired you to write the book?
Brett Gooden: Well, I have always been curious about what makes things tick. At the end of the Second World War my mother desperately wanted to listen to Winston Churchill’s ‘Victory in Europe’ speech on the BBC overseas broadcast. We lived in South Australia. As I was a rather loquacious toddler she gave me an old alarm clock to keep me quiet. On conclusion of Churchill’s rousing speech, she went to retrieve the clock to find that it had devolved into a little pile of cogs and springs.
As an undergraduate in the early 1960s, a doctor of aviation medicine told me categorically, ‘They will never walk on the Moon’. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because they will never be able to design a suit flexible enough.’ Six years later Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. When I tried to find out how this suit had evolved, I could not find a book that satisfied my curiosity. So I decided to research the subject myself. I guess I am ‘A Little Red Hen’ of scientific writing.
TTF: What is it about your approach that makes this book different from other studies?
BG: As you have pointed out I have been interested in science fiction from a very early age. I have always been a ‘visual’ person. I was excited by artists’ visions of how man would conquer space. The ability to take contemporary scientific concepts and translate them into a vision of the future intrigued and excited me. I was influenced greatly by the wonderful images of Chesley Bonestell and his colleagues in the books Across the Space Frontier, Man on the Moon and The Exploration of Mars. Also I was fascinated by the brilliant artwork of Frank Hampson who created the UK space hero Dan Dare.
So I wanted to use this book as a platform to show how the dreams of science fiction artists ran in parallel with the scientific and engineering developments of the time. I wanted to show the cross-fertilization between art and science. In that way I believe this book is different and, I hope, exciting and rewarding for the reader.
TTF: How did you research for the book?
BG: As you can imagine I already have a considerable personal library of books on related subjects, but also I use the facilities of large libraries too. I have been an academic for a long time and am used to researching. These days much material is available on-line and this is a new avenue for me. Of course, great care must be exercised in the selection of on-line information. My research for my previous book ‘Projekt Natter’ taught me a great deal about the hazards of on-line material. Sometimes you just have to slog it out and pursue the original documentation as far as possible to uncover ‘the truth’. I find researching exciting. It is like spending years in the back-woods fossicking for gold and finally finding a nugget. That is what research is like. Looking for the nuggets of truth.
TTF: Is there any single personality whom you feel contributed more than anyone else to the story?
BG: That is a hard question. Like most advances in science and engineering each advance builds on the work of those who have gone before. I think it would be unfair to focus on any one individual. I include in my book many people who played important roles in the development of pressure and spacesuits along the road to success. I leave it to the readers to make their own value judgments.
TTF: So to what extent did ‘fiction’ influence ‘fact’?
BG: Well, for example, during the Second World War the famous science fiction writers, Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp, worked together at the Naval Air Experimental Station in Philadelphia (incredibly, Isaac Asimov was also there). Their science fiction concepts of what a spacesuit should look like significantly influenced the secret US project to develop a pressure suit for high-flying aircrew.
TTF: Have there been any classic or significant mistakes along the way?
BG: Yes. In the late 1800s writers like Jules Verne were beginning to imagine people floating in space and walking on the Moon. The artists who were contracted to draw the illustrations for these sci-fi tales used the idea of the diving suit which had been first developed in the mid-1800s. They dressed their space travellers in diving suits. The diving suit works fine under water as the pressure inside and outside the suit are the same. But in space there is a vacuum outside and the pressure inside the suit must allow our space adventurers to breathe. So diving suits would simply balloon rigidly into their natural shape and spreadeagle our intrepid space travellers like scarecrows, totally immobilizing them. The key to the spacesuit is to design joints that can bend with little or no resistance. That was a pivotal and hard battle for suit designers and a battle that is still being fought today.
TTF: Do you think there is still a long way to go with spacesuit development? Have we seen the full potential yet?
BG: Yes, there is still much to learn. Suits for Mars and beyond will require further developments on many fronts. They will need to be more mobile, light, hard-wearing, easy to clean and adaptable for a variety of roles in space and on planetary bodies. New ideas for skintight suits arebeing suggested but they can only work if they are comfortable to wear for considerable lengths of time and at the moment it is hard to see how this can be achieved. I wonder if in the far future we may be able to genetically engineer our own bodies to survive in space without the need for any suit at all. This sounds like science fiction but isn’t that what my book is all about, how the seemingly impossible dream became a reality. Only time will tell.
TTF: Do you have any other writing plans or projects?
BG: Scientific writing is a large part in my life. I enjoy the research that precedes the writing but I also love the creative component – not only the authoring but also the preparation of the illustrative material. Scientific writing is an art in itself. We hear a lot about authors of fiction, but I feel scientific authors deserve a much higher profile. I can spend up to ten years researching and meticulously crafting a book. A writer of romance novels may churn out a book a year or more. Scientific writers are not only creative writers but educators as well. Yes, I’m sure most authors are thinking ahead as they write a current book. I have never had a lack of ideas for new books. That’s never been a problem for me. Just 24 hours in a day, that’s the problem.
TTF: Many thanks, Brett. I’m sure our readers will find this most interesting.
BG: Thanks. It was fun talking with you.