As an industry, manned space travel has been in boom or bust for money and attention since the very beginning. In bust times workable ideas lack funding and projects often get to the testing phase or even implementation only to be cancelled before they reach their goals. Oddly enough, booms in funding often produce the same effect: so much money is floating around, and so much prestige is to be gained that many ideas are floated and get some effort put into them before one particular program becomes the focus and much else falls to the wayside.

Hi there. My name is Paul Drye and False Steps is my project blog for a history book of the same name (now published as an ebook!) which looks at the Space Race as it might have been. Beginning with what I think to be the very prehistoric beginning of manned space travel (the so-called Magdeburg rocket of 1932) I aim to trace the ways in which people tried to travel to space and came close to accomplishing it, all the way through Nazi German rocketry, the post-WWII fallow period, the crazy times of Sputnik through Apollo, the second down time of the 1970s, and the gradual revival of human space travel from then into the present day. The focus here is on conventional rocketry, which is to say that what I’ll be examining is near-mainstream as opposed to the more unusual approaches like, say, Project Orion. This is not least because I think the definitive history of that grand, mad enterprise has already been written. But have no fear: the salad days of the 60s and the desperate scramble for money in other times has produced plenty of weirdness even if we just stay on the fringes of what actually happened.

Chapters will be posted here as they’re written, so please feel free to subscribe if you want to read the pieces as they slot into place. Now strap in, make sure your helmet is sealed, and enjoy the ride.

Feel free to contact me by e-mail if you have any questions or suggestions.

18 thoughts on “About

  1. Paul: This looks a lot like my Beyond Apollo blog (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/beyondapollo/) over at WIRED. It’s the latest manifestation of similar blogs/webpages going back to 1996.

    Perhaps we can trade notes.

    I used an approach similar to the one you propose for writing your book when I wrote HUMANS TO MARS (2001). Thanks for including it in your bib.

    I’m doing a lot with the quest for a post-Apollo NASA goal at the moment, by the way, though I don’t let that stop me from looking at other mission plans.

    Anyway, pleased to make your acquaintance.

    • Hello David! Thanks for dropping by my little corner of the web.

      I became acquainted with your blog not long after starting this one, but I knew your work beforehand. I think the main difference between your focus and mine is my feeling that we’ve finally got enough out of the Russian archives to start talking meaningfully about “Beyond N-1” too; among others your MIR HARDWARE HERITAGE has been invaluable in understanding the complex road from Almaz to Salyut to Mir to ISS in the absence of anything like the NASA Technical Reports Server in the FSU.

      • Paul:

        Glad you’re tackling the Russian side of things. When I write about Russian stuff, it’s almost always in the context of U.S-Russian cooperation, not the Soviet/Russian program on its own. MHH was written in 1994 to give NASA people just starting out with the Russians some background. Not sure how much good it did, and it’s out of date now, though the broad outlines remain more or less accurate.

        I think that there might be another difference between our blogs – I try not to portray conceptual studies as “false steps.” Rather, they are steps in a progression, new colors on a palette, thought experiments that might yet produce results, even if those results are only through indirect influence or point the way not to go. This is not to argue that your approach is faulty – you’re doing really nifty work. Probably your approach is more realistic, actually.

        Speaking of nifty work, loved your GURPS TRAVELLER INTERSTELLAR WARS. You make the conquest of an ancient and enormous galactic empire by one tiny world of noobs seem entirely plausible, which is no mean feat!

        Again, pleased to make your acquaintance.


          • Paul:

            Gave it some thought, and I want to retract my “Your approach is more realistic” statement. This is not meant to be provocative. I really do think that the studies bring closer the day when, for example, humans will visit Mars. I also think we need to bear in mind that some studies aren’t really meant to be realized. I’m thinking of student and faculty design projects, such as Antaeus or Long Shot. Some studies are performed to give young engineers experience with performing studies, too. The first NASA MSC Mars study was like that, for example.

            So, my point is that there is no such thing as a “false step” in conceptual space mission planning. A caveat, however; if a plan gets to the point of cutting metal and then gets sacked, that’s different. It doesn’t say that the plan in question is faulty, nor does it say that the plan contributes nothing. But it does indicate a reverse for the organization and individuals involved.

            Sometimes such reverses can be, uh, reversed. Thinking of Magellan here, which started life as VOIR, was cancelled, and then descoped and flown with great success.

            Not so much a GURPS fan as a Traveller fan. I’m not a gamer – I read the game books as I do SF novels. GURPS Traveller is great because no one saw fit to demolish the Third Imperium.



            • I generally agree, and I think an analogous idea from theoretical science might be handy here: knowing what isn’t so is as potentially useful as what is (though it’s harder to get grant money that way). Where I think the “false” is coming in for some of what I’ve posted, like the MOLAB or MTFF/Columbus, is that they would have been good ideas but didn’t go ahead for reasons outside of their usefulness — the dreaded politics and funds. The original idea I had for the name of the blog was “Roads Not Taken”, which does encapsulate my attitude a little better.

              To be honest, I’m not sure that I even intended “false” to be at all disparaging! I’m generally terrible at coming up with titles for things — when I was writing a regular column for Steve Jackson Games’ house organ I usually had a polished 3000-4500 word article in front of me and still nothing in the heading — so when something that echoed Armstrong’s lines and also fit my theme popped into my head, I ran over to the computer and registered it on WordPress in sudden fear that it wouldn’t be available. Hmmm, what was it Bismarck said about politics and sausages? It may apply here….

              Everything above notwithstanding, it will take a lot to convince me that the Manned Venus Flyby was a good idea…much as I salute the sheer majesty of their madness.

              • Paul:

                Your title is fine – don’t mean to pick nits. If someone wanted to get picky, Beyond Apollo is wrong. Many things it covers are before Apollo either in terms of chronology or capability (or both). But it sounds good, I think. That seems to count for a lot.

                I expect you mean manned Venus flybys for their own sake – not gravity assists. (Talk about picking nits!) I like the piloted flyby missions, and you may have just summed up why as succinctly as anyone has. Piloted Venus flybys that *only* fly by Venus are a waste, but piloted Venus flybys that also fly by Mars could have some value, in my view. I like to think of piloted flybys as space stations that orbit the Sun. They can be viewed as part of an evolutionary progression.

                Of course, the old justification – that robots needed caretakers to ensure that they got where they were going – never made any sense.

                Cool Russian moon program post, by the way.


                • Thanks! I can say the same about your Gemini station one earlier today. That sound you hear is me gnashing my teeth that the NASA Technical Reports Server doesn’t have the reports you cited *or* anything juicy about MORL. Do they *mean* to torment me?

                  The weird thing to me about the MVF mission was that, while they did eventually come up with a Mars flyby as part of it, it was a Mars *flyby* — the Apollo hardware wasn’t getting anyone down to the surface no-how. Can you imagine? All that time in transit, you get to someplace where you can actually step out for a bit, and you’re stuck on a near-hyperbolic trajectory. If there’s such a thing as “Space Madness” it would hit right about then, I think.

                  For similar reasons some of the proposed long-stay AAP missions to the Moon — LESA and the like — make me wonder as well. The contractors always spend a lot of time discussing how the astronauts are going to be able to spend thirty or sixty days on the surface and seem to fail to realize that they’re leaving another guy in lunar orbit, by himself, for the same amount of time.

                  • Sorry for the delay in replying. In some cases they left the CSM on autopilot, landed all three astronauts, tho that didn’t seem to be anyone’s favorite option. Other times, they had the lone CSM pilot return to Earth after dropping off the crew. A second lone CSM pilot would do the retrieval flight. Again, not a fave option.

                    I think the piloted flybys and similar mission plans have a lot to recommend them as stepping stones, a la Apollos 7-10. One can also think of them as space stations that go someplace. So, not so arduous as all that, perhaps – a strong sense of purpose – bringing nearer the day when humans would step out onto Mars – would go a long way toward keeping crews healthy and happy.


  2. I have been reading David Portree’s Beyond Apollo blog for a long time and thought he was the only space historian blogging about the many possibilities found in the past that could have been. I was fortunate to find your blog when doing a search for something related to my area of personal interest, Dr. Wernher von Braun. I have found your posts to be very illuminating, fascinating and downright entertaining which is a rare pleasure on the World Wide Web. My MA thesis was on the von Braun Team so I don’t have that many people to chat with who are interested in my little corner of the past. I currently volunteer at the National World War II Museum here in New Orleans which allows me to interact with others interested in history. Okay, it isn’t space history but it is as close as I can get in the metro area and it happens to be a darn fine museum. So I now have your blog and David’s to enjoy and that is something to be thankful for in this brief existence. I look forward to your future posts and to your book.

  3. Robert & Paul:

    I’m delighted that someone else is tackling this stuff on a regular basis now. There’s so much to cover, and of course more workers means more interpretations. A chance to argue about this stuff – what could be better?

    Fascinating that there’s a National World War II Museum in NOLA. Not the place I would have expected such a thing to be located. I’ve only been to New Orleans once, c. 1995. Did the museum exist then?


  4. Hi Paul,

    Enjoy your website… keep up the great work. I read David’s site as well (an amazing source of information). Another space “what if” website is Scott Lowther’s “The Unwanted Blog”. Scott publishes Aerospace Projects Review, which is simply one of a kind. And finally… if you have the chance, check out the “Secret Projects UK” website. Lots of very interesting aerospace info there.






  5. Just wanted to say that I just got through binging on the entire blog. Definitely going to be adding this to my list of blogs to check back on. It’s very informative. It’s interesting to see both the good ideas that sadly didn’t make it and the bad ideas that thankfully didn’t

  6. Congratulations for this very informative blog, which is also pleasant to read. Warn me when it becomes a book! Will you delve on the most recent “false step” by NASA, i.e. the Constellation program?
    I hope that you will also find time to comment on the *current* NASA programs, i.e. SLS-Orion on one side and CCDev projects on the other side. It seems to me that your “historical” perspective could shed useful light on some questions, such as: what are the actual differences between Ares V and SLS? Does it make sense to develop simultaneously 3 different capsule systems at once (Orion,CST-100,DragonRider)? Why did NASA CCDeV award 620.9 M$ to Boeing for a conservative design with limited abilities (CST-100) versus 362.1 M$ to Sierra Nevada for the much more ambitious DreamChaser?

  7. I miss your blog! It is refreshingly international, i.e. it is not purely US-centric as most english-language websites on the topic. Your blog also explains wonderfully well the political and historical context around these technological projects. Finally I appreciate a lot the sections “What happened to make it fail” and “What was necessary for it to succeed” at the end of each abandoned project: you do not only report on long-forgotten ideas, but you also take the risk to deliver your personal (and well-informed) opionions about them.
    I am now reading a similar blog on Wired: “Beyond Apollo”. It has many common points but the qualities that I just listed really make your blog unique. So I hope that you will find again some time to bring it back to life !

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