586. Slogging Toward Space

One of the things I have to offer is a viewpoint that reaches back half way through the twentieth century. That can be a problem, actually. I don’t want to talk about the good old days. Fortunately, I never thought the good old days were all that good. They were, however, both exciting and hard.

It has become almost cliché to point out how little computing power the Apollo 11 computer had, but there are a thousand other instruments which we take for granted now, which were also not available during the early space program. I used a few of them myself, early on.

Some of these instruments became fossilized into early science fiction, as in Slip-stick Libby, one of Heinlein’s regular characters. Slip-stick was a slang term for a slide rule, an instrument of sliding scales which was used in computation. It was only good for estimating to about three significant figures. I learned to use one in high school in 1966. Early Texas Instrument portable calculators made them obsolete a few years later, although you will still see them in use at Mission Control when things began to go bad in the movie Apollo 13.

Another nearly obsolete instrument from the Apollo era is the theodolite. I learned to use one in the same class. We took it out to the back lot of the school for some practical examples of the uses of trigonometry. We didn’t call it a theodolite, however. We called it a transit, which is somewhat less accurate. Real surveyors called it a gun.

A transit measures elevations and angles. You level the instrument on its tripod and align it to true north, then you look through a telescopic sight, with crosshairs, at a distant target, usually a rod with red and white inch markings.

(We’re talking sixties here — everything in America was in inches, feet, and miles.)

This instrument was used in surveying everything from house foundations to radar installations before lasers replaced them. It gave you direction. It didn’t give you distance. For that you walked, dragging a measuring device called a chain.

The dictionary will tell you that a chain is a unit of length equal to 66 feet, subdivided into 100 links. It may not tell you that a chain (of length) was represented by a heavy, physical, steel chain that the rod man dragged behind him — for thousands of miles during a career.

Today, laser radar does it all.

An alidade or plane table worked like a transit except that it was attached to a narrow steel plate which moved freely on a plywood table. It was used for mapping. You would slide the alidade around on the table, over a sheet of paper, take your sightings, and use the edge of its base as a ruler. It allowed you to  draw a map as you went. I used one of them two years after high school at an archaeological site in Bay City, Michigan.

To fully understand what a tremendous undertaking the space program was, you should remember that a line of radio/radar stations was built all around the world to track spacecraft in orbit. At the same time, the same Russian missiles which scared American into the space race had to be watched for. A line of radar installations (the DEW — distant early warning — line) was built across Canada for that purpose.

The building of these two sets of installations was an immense undertaking. Even before the first foundation was laid, the positioning of these instruments had to be determined to the highest possible tolerances. This was done by survey engineers working with transits and doing their calculations by hand, with rod men dragging chains. A slide rule might provide estimates, but after that it was paper, pencil, and mathematical tables — which had themselves been calculated by hand.

The word calculator first meant a person who calculated such tables. By hand.

These engineers didn’t all come from Harvard, or other prestige colleges. There were thousands of them, possibly tens of thousands, and they came from every college in America. Bear that in mind as we contemplate the present college entry cheating scandals.

Speaking of which — prestige colleges my &#^$%!  Math is math, whether you learn it at USC or Palomar Junior College.


I want to introduce you to a survey engineer you have never heard of. He is a distant in-law, a fine man I only met once. I ran across a decades old newspaper clipping of his obituary the other day, and it triggered this post.

I’m appending a copy of that clipping, minus family matters, to give you an idea of how the space race, and the missile defense of America, looked from the mud below. The gentleman’s name was William Mussetter.


Mr. Mussetter graduated from Willmington College in 1917 and also attended Haverford College in Haverford, Pa. He retired after working 40 years in government service as an astronomical geodetic engineer. He served with the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, Army Map Services, InterAmerican Geodetic Survey United States Department of Foreign Services where he worked in many different countries.

Mr. Mussetter was a veteran of World War I, serving as a second lieutenant. In World War II he served as a captain and taught artillery.

At the end of the World War II, Mussetter received a call from Washington, D. C. He was assigned to head a survey group to be based in Panama and to work in south America, principally on the west coast of Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia to Venezuela. This project lasted four years.

The Mussetters came home to Wilmington and he worked with the Ohio State University doing contract research for the U.S. Air Force. There was a need to connect the continents of the world, locating them with respect to each other, then to lay out guided missile courses from Cape Canaveral to the Bahamas. [This means during the early testing of IRBMs and ICBMs, before they began to be used to launch space vehicles. The same tracks were used through Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. See 578. That Odd Spiral.]

In 1953, he transferred to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to define the Earth’s parameters, its diameters, flatness at the Poles and other data. [We are talking about building the DEW line here.]

He worked with a survey team measuring the arc of the Meridian at 30 degrees East Longitude from the Mediterranean Sea at Egypt to South Africa, down through Egypt, the Sudan, Uganda, Belgian Congo, Tanganyika, and into North Rhodesia; 4800 miles. [Many of these names no longer exist.] He also did some survey work for the Aswan Dam on the Nile River.

In 1964 he was sent to Antarctica, to Byrd Station, and the South Pole.

He had retired in 1964, but during the last four months of 1964, he worked in Peru, S. A. on a contract for a hydro-electric project; and in 1966 he was sent back to Afghanistan for three months, to inspect the work that was begun in 1961, and complete the Tri-lateration of Afghanistan.


All this without a computer. Imagine that.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s