Archive for the ‘Alan Shepard’ Category

Moon Shot, Alan Shepard & Deke Slayton

March 1, 2009

I admit I had high hopes of this book. Someone had told me it was their favourite book on the Apollo programme, and the identities of the two authors promised much. Perhaps my expectations were too high…

Moon Shot covers the entire Space Race, from Sputnik to the Apollo Soyuz Test Project. It is an accessible read, written by two astronauts, Alan B Shepard and Donald K Slayton, who were important to the American effort. With the help of journalists Jay Barbree and Howard Benedict.

But. This is non-fiction, it is documented history… so I fail to understand how the authors can know what the Soviet Ambassador to the US was actually thinking when he heard of the Apollo 1 fire. Throughout the book, the authors imagine themselves in the heads of various people. Such “fictionalisation” of real people and events may make Moon Shot easier to read, but it also undermines its authority. How can it be an accurate depiction of events if it makes things up?<

But then the prose-style itself also undermines the book’s authority. It reads like a bad Kevin J Anderson novel:

Flying backwards with their faces parallel to the silent and airless surface below, they glanced at the glowing numbers of their timers. They were minutes from the moment they would ignite the engine beneath their feet and descend to the moon’s surface. Time seemed to stretch endlessly.

They are about to land on the Moon – we know it is “airless”. And if it is airless, it must by definition be “silent” – sound, after all, cannot travel in a vacuum. And, “Time seemed to stretch endlessly”…? What does that mean? Moon Shot is rife with these meaningless sentences, which attempt to evoke mood but actually add nothing of verifiable substance to the story being told. It is possible to write readable gripping non-fiction without resorting to such cheap tricks.

This penny-dreadful style spoils what could have been an interesting history of Apollo and its precursors. Sadly, Moon Shot also offers very little to the documented history of the Space Race. There is very little technical detail, and remarkably few anecdotes which have not been used in other works on the same subject. It is not wholly devoid of insight, however, and some good points are made regarding various aspects of the US space programme. Of course, given its authors, it’s no surprise that Moon Shot privileges the astronauts and the role they played.

If anything, in fact, the book also has a tendency to whitewash its subjects. When Gordo Cooper‘s Mercury flight is almost given to Alan Shepard, there is no mention of Shepard’s behind-the-scenes politicking to make this happen. Some of the astronauts come out of Moon Shot considerably better than others – it’s easy to spot who Shepard and Slayton liked and admired, and who they had very little time for. Their own role in almost every aspect of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes is also inflated somewhat. As are the personal qualities of the astronauts. True enough, they were clever men. But they weren’t geniuses. If they had been they would have been Nobel Prize-winning scientists, not fighter pilots.

Throughout Moon Shot, Shepard and Slayton refer to themselves in the third person – unlike Stafford in his We Have Capture (see here) – which makes you wonder how much they contributed to the book. From the prose-style alone, I suspect Moon Shot was actually written by Barbree and Benedict. Shepard and Slayton likely added a participant’s dimension to what would have been a history written by observers. They may well also have provided much of the information – although both journalists have reported on space matters for decades – as well as approving the final text. And, of course, their names on the cover allowed the book to be subtitled “The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon”.

A disappointing read. There are better-written and more informative books available on the subject. Tom Stafford’s We Have Capture is a much better “inside story”, and Neal Thompson’s Light This Candle (see here) provides an excellent study of Alan Shepard and his career.

Moon Shot, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton (1994, Turner Publishing, ISBN 1-878685-54-6, 365pp + index)

Light This Candle, Neal Thompson

April 9, 2008

Of all the Mercury Seven astronauts, Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr always struck me as the most interesting. And not simply because he was the first American into space. Nor because he was the only Mercury astronaut to walk on the Moon. Shepard seemed to have the most interesting personality, switching unpredictably from the “Icy Commander” to the joker who loved mimicking Bill Dana‘s hapless Hispanic astronaut, José Jimenez. After being diagnosed with Ménière’s Disease and subsequently grounded, he hung in there at NASA until a new surgical technique allowed him to fly again. That suggests either a foolish optimism, a frighteningly grim level of determination, or an inhumanly stubborn inability to accept failure. The truth is probably a combination of all three, although heavily weighted in favour of the last.

Admittedly, Shepard does not fare particularly well in Philip Kaufman’s film of The Right Stuff. Played by Scott Glenn, he comes across chiefly as an arrogant joker – and his jokes, his impressions of José Jimenez, seem pretty crude stuff to a modern viewer. Clearly there was more to Shepard than the movie showed. The same is true of the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon (Shepard is played by Ted Levine, better known as Lieutenant Stottlemeyer in Monk). Strangely, there are few books about Alan Shepard – in fact, in the prologue to Light This Candle Neal Thompson writes, “A quick Internet search told me that, except for a thin 1962 young-adult book, no biography existed on America’s first astronaut”. Happily, Thompson decided to rectify this oversight himself.

Light This Candle, subtitled “The Life and Times of Alan Shepard, America’s First Spaceman”, opens with Shepard’s childhood in rural New Hampshire. If there’s a common factor becoming apparent in the biographies of astronauts, it’s that they all exhibited an early interest in aeroplanes. An early pivotal event for most seems to have been a ride in an aircraft as a child, followed by spending time at the local aerodrome and then taking flying lessons. This is certainly what led Shepard to become a naval aviator. His career in the US Navy did not start spectacularly – he was initially an ordinary student at Annapolis, and nearly flunked. But he appeared to undergo some sort of sea-change, and from that moment on was almost fanatically driven – in sport, in his career, even in his pursuit of the woman who became his wife.

Throughout the book, Shepard is repeatedly quoted as saying that his ambition was always “to be first”. It characterised his time in the Navy – mastering a skill such as landing on a carrier at night at a much younger age than his contemporaries, for example. It was his driving need to be first that led Shepard to Project Mercury and, ultimately, put him in the capsule of Freedom 7 on May 5 1961. It’s not that Shepard was the best at everything, as Thompson makes clear, but that he used every weapon in his considerable armoury to make sure he got what he wanted. He was known as a charmer, a ladies’ man, a back-stabber, a consummate politician, fierce in training, and definitely at the top of his profession (as all the Mercury astronauts were). If he was not the best, he certainly made sure that those who counted thought he was. That’s one aspect of the man that The Right Stuff movie doesn’t really get across. In the film, his choice as the first American into space seems more the result of luck than hard work and careful politicking.

Shepard’s ambition is clear in every incident recounted in Light This Candle. The time, for example, when he almost had Gordon Cooper bumped from his Mercury flight, Faith 7, and the flight assigned to himself… But then Shepard was diagnosed with Ménière’s Disease, a condition where fluid builds up in the inner ear, and so grounded. His astronaut career was over. His Gemini flight with Tom Stafford was given to Gus Grissom and John Young. Most people, having the career for which they had fought so hard come crashing down about their ears, would have tried to put as much distance between it and themselves. Not so Shepard. He became the Chief of the Astronaut Office, responsible for astronaut training, availability, readiness; and supplying pilot evaluations of equipment. I can’t imagine what that would have been like. It might well have been the hardest thing Shepard ever did. And he did it for five years.

Happily, a new surgical technique corrected Shepard’s Ménière’s Disease, and he was returned to full flight status. He promptly politicked himself into command of Apollo 13. If Shepard had been unpopular before as the “Icy Commander” of the Astronaut Office, he was even less so after that. But he and his crew – Edgar Mitchell and Stuart Roosa – needed more time to train and so were bumped to Apollo 14. Did Shepard deserve an Apollo mission? He was the oldest of the Apollo astronauts, and had not flown at all during Gemini. In fact, his only flight had been a 15-minute sub-orbital hop. Thompson doesn’t really get to grips with this question, although he does recount how Cooper was furious – especially since Shepard’s Apollo career happened at Cooper’s expense.

Thompson is a journalist and Light This Candle is written in a journalistic style with simple, assertive prose. Thompson does give direct quotes, and even thoughts, by those who feature in his book, but each of these is referenced by an endnote. He has clearly done his homework. Light This Candle is an easy and informative read. Thompson is not afraid to describe Shepard’s faults and flaws – this is no hagiography, but a book which attempts to understand its subject. And once Thompson has dealt with Shepard’s childhood and his pre-NASA career, he really begins to get a grip on Shepard. But perhaps that’s only a reflection of the amount of information available on those respective parts of Shepard’s life.

Shepard was clearly a complex man, and probably not a very nice one. Thompson has written an honest biography of Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. And of the few astronaut biographies I have read so far, Light This Candle is easily the best. Recommended.

Light This Candle, Neal Thompson (2004, Crown Publishers, ISBN 0-609-61001-5, 399 pp)


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