Archive for the ‘Mercury’ Category

Leap of Faith, Gordon Cooper

September 26, 2011

Only three men served in all three space programmes – Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. They were Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom, L Gordon Cooper and Walter M Schirra. All three flew both  Mercury and Gemini flights, but only Schirra flew in Apollo. Grissom was commander of Apollo 1 and died in the fire during its plugs-out test. Cooper was commander of the back-up crew for Apollo 10, and should have been given command of Apollo 13. But Alan B Shepard had by then returned to flight status after surgery to cure his Ménière’s Disease and, since he was in charge of crew assignments, he gave himself the mission. (His crew was later swapped with Apollo 14’s due to insufficient time for training.) Cooper did not take being passed over for command well, and resigned from NASA shortly afterwards.

Leap of Faith is Cooper’s autobiography. The title is a pun on his Mercury flight – he called his spacecraft Faith 7 to “symbolize [his] faith in the launch team, [his] faith in all the hardware that had been so carefully tested, [his] faith in myself, and [his] faith in God” (p 37). Those beliefs, however, take up very little space in the book. The first half recounts his experiences during the Mercury programme, focusing chiefly on his flight. This is hardly surprising – it was a record-breaker at the time, the longest and most complex of the Mercury flights. Also, a total power failure after his twenty-first orbit resulted in Cooper having to manually pilot his spacecraft out of orbit and through re-entry, something which had not been done before.

So far so typical. The original astronauts were a breed very much aware of their achievements, and in their autobiographies they usually claim credit for almost anything that happened during the Space Race. Cooper, for example, writes that he and Pete Conrad came up with idea of having mission patches for space flights since they wanted one for their Gemini 5 flight. They successfully persuaded NASA Administrator James Webb to allow the practice – which has continued ever since and, according to Cooper, was named the “Cooper patch” in a memo by Webb.

In many respects, Cooper’s childhood differed little from those of the other Mercury astronauts – born in the late 1920s, an early introduction to aeroplanes and flying – but his family were more aviation-minded than his peers and, in fact, he knew a number of the flying pioneers of the day. Both Wiley Post and Pancho Barnes (of the Happy Bottom Riding Club) were family friends. He even met Amelia Earhart. The Cooper family owned their own plane, which he learned to fly at a young age; and they often used it to visit family or their holiday cabin:

We’d take off and follow the highways, most of them gravel in those days. When we need gas, we did what was common practice among pilots then: kept an eye open for a gas station. when one came along, we’d land on the road, taxi up to the pump, and say “Fill ‘er up”. (p 95)

The final third of Leap of Faith, however, is completely unexpected. Cooper had witnessed several UFO sightings while serving with the USAF in Germany, and during the 1970s seems to have come under the influence of con artists claiming telepathic contact with aliens. He is quick to point out that he never saw a UFO during his Mercury or Gemini flights, and the only such sighting he knows of by an astronaut in orbit was James McDivitt‘s during Gemini 4, which remains unexplained to this day. Nonetheless, Cooper was a firm believer in flying saucers, and one point became involved with a group which tried to sell technology based upon advances telepathically given them by aliens. Cooper was clearly impressed by the group’s leader, Valerie Ransone, although she does not appear especially convincing in the book. Another member of this group, Dan Fry, allegedly gained his doctorate at St Andrew’s College, London. But the only St Andrew’s College in London is a private college for overseas students which doesn’t offer doctorates, and doesn’t appear to have existed before the millennium…

Perhaps Cooper simply got the details wrong. There are other areas in Leap of Faith where he seems to have been confused. For example, when he first met Alexey Leonov at the 16th International Astronautical Congress (October 1965), he describes the cosmonaut as “the first, and up to then only, man to go EVA” (p 134). But the Congress took place after Gemini 5 (August 1965), and Ed White had gone EVA in Gemini 4 (June 1965). Yet elsewhere in the book, Cooper’s command of detail appears quite strong. His accounts of his Mercury and Gemini flights are detailed and interesting. The anecdotes he tells of his subsequent trips around the world for NASA are also entertaining.

Cooper’s memories of Wernher von Braun, however, are somewhat troubling. It’s clear he liked and admired the man, but that’s no reason to lie about the scientist’s past. Cooper claims von Braun never joined the Nazi Party (p 150), which is untrue: von Braun joined in 1937, and became an officer in the Waffen-SS in 1940. Cooper’s history of von Braun is close to the white-washed one presented to the American public – “Our Germans are better than their Germans” – during the Space Race, but by 2000, when Leap of Faith was published, there was surely no good reason to continue the fiction.

Leap of Faith, unsurprisingly, provides a good account of the flight of Faith 7, and though it does not cover Cooper’s upbringing or career in great detail, it is very readable and contains a number of entertaining anecdotes. However, it contains some surprising inaccuracies, and the final section on UFOs seems completely out-of-place. An odd book, and perhaps more for an enthusiast than for anyone with a casual interest in early manned spaceflight.

Leap of Faith,  Gordon Cooper, with Bruce Henderson (2000, HarperCollins, ISBN 0-06-019416-2, 267pp + index)

Packing for Mars, Mary Roach

July 15, 2011

Having heard several approving reviews of Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, subtitled “The Curious Science of Life in the Void”, I had expected to like the book. The subject matter – a look at the “less publicised” elements of space travel – also sounded as though it would appeal. Of course, I have been there before: reading a popular, and populist, book on the Space Race and finding it a poor read. That book was Moon Shot by Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton – see here.

I soon found myself thinking the same of Packing for Mars.

The “curious science” alluded to in the title is, basically, all those delicate subjects NASA and the like are reluctant to discuss openly: fear, sex, urination and defecation, vomiting, food, etc. Packing for Mars discusses its topics with a combination of cited documents and anecdotes (though it’s careful to label and attribute the latter). Unfortunately, some of the facts are just wrong. The first Briton in space was Helen Sharman not “Helen Sherman” (p 47). The “world’s first rocket” was not built by the Nazis (p 87) – as any half-decent book on rocketry will confirm. And as for this: “‘When technical perfection of the steam engine made the development of railways possible, scientists were afraid that the velocity of the trains would exert harmful effects upon the human passengers.’ The quote comes from an aviation medicine text published in 1943. (Locomotives at that time could not exceed fifteen miles per hour.)” (p 94). At first pass, that reads as though trains could not exceed 15 mph in 1943. Which is complete rubbish – the world speed record for steam trains, 125.88 mph, was set by Mallard in 1938. I believe Roach actually means that when railways were first built, the trains were limited to 15 mph. But even that is not true – the first successful railway line in the world was the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which opened in 1825. In 1829, Stephenson’s Rocket set a speed record of 29 mph.

Perhaps that’s being too picky – although I see little point in a non-fiction work that gets its facts wrong. True, Roach does seem less concerned with background facts than she does in presenting amusing stories relating to the book’s topics. There are, for example, several passages quoted from astronauts’ autobiographies and the Apollo transcripts, describing incidents such as floating turds in the Apollo CM, leaking or ill-fitted urine-collection condoms during Gemini missions, or astronauts having trouble keeping down the contents of their stomachs.

None of which is to say that Packing for Mars is an entirely uninteresting read. There is perhaps a somewhat negative tone, since the book focuses chiefly on failures and embarrassments. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make the astronauts and scientists appear more human, it actually feels as if the book is trivialising their achievements. Admittedly, Packing for Mars is, as suggested by its title, chiefly concerned with the difficulties associated with a mission to Mars, and the incidents it reports are used as illustrations in support of that thesis. Unfortunately, those difficulties as presented appear unsurmountable, which only further cheapens any existing achievements in space and space-related activities.

It doesn’t help that the entire book is written in a style which attempts to make a joke of everything. It is possible to talk about toilets and faeces without giggles, though Roach seems incapable of doing so. Sadly, the humour in Packing for Mars is mostly sophomoric, especially in the footnotes. This has the side-effect of giving the prose a patronising tone, and this works against Roach’s arguments. (A tendency to explain things the reader should all ready know, also adds to the patronising tone.)

Perhaps it’s just me, perhaps I’m not the right audience for a populist science book on this topic. I find the jocular tone and the breezy style of such books annoying. It undermines their authority – and, as a reader, I want to be certain that what I am reading is factual. I want to learn something new, not something incorrect or inaccurate. I need to be confident the author is an expert in the topic under discussion – even if that expertise is only the product of research or interviews. Otherwise, it might as well be fiction.

Packing for Mars could have been so much more – a serious study of the hurdles facing a crew travelling to Mars, for example. Instead, it’s an overly flippant commentary on some of the factors affecting such a mission. Disappointing.

Packing for Mars, Mary Roach (2010, WW Norton & Company, ISBN 978-0-393-06847-4, 318pp + acknowledgments, time line and bibliography)

T-Minus: The Race to the Moon, Jim Ottaviania and Zander & Kevin Cannon

January 25, 2010

Last year was the fortieth anniversary of the first landing on the Moon – celebrated, of course, on this blog (see here) – and, as a result, a variety of books were published on the subject. I only reviewed one of them, the Apollo 11 Owners’ Workshop Manual by Christopher Riley & Phil Dolling (see here), although I posted a list of new titles here. One of those new books was T-Minus: The Race to the Moon by Jim Ottavania and Zander and Kevin Cannon, a comic-book retelling of the Space Race.

T-Minus opens in 1957, with the meeting of CC Johnson and Max Faget at NACA. The two spacecraft designers pop up frequently throughout the story. T-Minus also tells the Soviet side of the story, beginning with a tour of Baikonur given by Sergei Korolev, the Chief Designer, prior to the launch of Sputnik. The story cuts between the two nations and their space programmes, focusing chiefly on the designers – Faget, Johnson and Korolev – although many other names familiar from the Space Race do appear. The major events of the twelve years between Sputnik and Apollo 11 are covered: Mercury, Gemini, the Apollo 1 fire, Gagarin‘s flight, Komarov‘s death, Korolev’s death…

T-Minus is aimed at kids, and it shows. There’s no commentary, the dialogue is often chatty, and, weirdly, in some places a lot of the dialogue spoken by the astronauts during their missions is taken straight from transcripts and left unglossed.

Unfortunately, the simple style of the art doesn’t really do T-Minus any favours. While the artists have made an effort to match the actual appearance of the people in the story, they lack so much detail it’s often difficult to tell them apart. This is not helped by the fact that only some of the characters are actually identified – Faget and Johnson, for example, are referred to throughout only as Max and CC, but never actually named fully.

As an introduction to the Space Race for younger readers, T-Minus mostly succeeds. It’s very detailed in parts, and some younger readers may struggle as a result. The simple art helps focus on the drama of the story, although it can lead to confusion over the personalities involved. There is certainly plenty in the book which will inspire further reading or research.

T-Minus: The Race to the Moon, Jim Ottaviani, Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon (2009, Aladdin, ISBN 978-1-4169-4960-2, 124pp)

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)

Moonshot The Game

April 10, 2008

I was given Moonshot The Game as a birthday present back in the late 1990s. It cropped up in conversation recently with a friend, but I couldn’t find anything on the Internet to illustrate the conversation. So I decided to put up some information myself. And it is relevant to this blog in a manner of speaking. I later discovered that the game was renamed Tranquillity Base, and is available from History in Action Game at The Galactic Attic.

I have a limited edition of the game, signed by the its designer, Van Overbay. The box contains a board, four LM playing pieces, 28 NASA mission patches, and 180 cards of various types. The object of the game is to be the first to complete six missions – Mercury, Gemini or Apollo – and land on the Moon.


The box.


The board – plus playing pieces, some mission patches and some cards.


A few of of the 180 cards.


The designer’s signature.

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)

Into That Silent Sea, Francis French and Colin Burgess

February 16, 2008

Subtitled Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961 – 1965, this book covers the early US and Soviet space programmes, focusing specifically on the manned space missions. It opens with Yuri Gagarin‘s historic flight, covers Project Mercury, and then both the Soviet Vostok and Voskhod missions. A detailed biography is given of each astronaut or cosmonaut as they are introduced. There are also a great many anecdotes by those who were present during the events being described. The authors clearly used a large number of materials in their research – the bibliography is thirteen pages long! – as well as interviewing many of the personalities involved.

Like many books on this subject, the tone of Into That Silent Sea initially seemed a little too in awe of its subject. Anyone named was the best at what they did, the astronauts were near-superhuman, and nobody ever made any mistakes. However, as the book progressed, the authors seemed to have gained more confidence in their material and Into That Silent Sea became more objective.

Perhaps where Into That Silent Sea was most interesting and useful was when discussing those astronauts and cosmonauts of the early Space Race who have not been the subjects of many other books. Into That Silent Sea is especially good on the early cosmonauts; and astronauts Wally Schirra and Gordo Cooper are treated with more detail than the better-documented John Glenn, Al Shepard or Gus Grissom.

There is also an interesting diversion on the Mercury 13 – thirteen female pilots who underwent the same medical tests as the Mercury astronauts, believing that NASA was intent on forming a female astronaut squad. French and Burgess are quite critical of Jerrie Cobb, the most vocal of the Mercury 13, but they did appear to me to be a little too forgiving of the government’s and NASA’s role in the affair.

There is a wealth of material available on the early American and Soviet manned space flights, treated both singly and together. So any new book on the subject needs something extra to stand above the rest. I don’t know that Into That Silent Sea possesses that quality. It’s certainly an informative read and, given the ground it covers, contains an impressive amount of detail. As an overview, or introduction, to the subject, it’s very effective. If you want to read further, there are plenty of books on specific areas covered by Into That Silent Sea – Jamie Doran & Piers Bizony’s Starman on Yuri Gagarin, for example; Neal Thompson’s Light This Candle on Al Shepard (see here); John Glenn‘s own autobiography; The Mercury Thirteen by Martha Ackmann…

I will say one thing very much in Into That Silent Sea‘s favour. There has been over the last two decades a worrying trend in biographical and non-fiction works in which authors “fictionalise” their subjects. In other words, they “imagine” how the person they are writing about might have reacted to a situation, or what that person might have been thinking at a specific point in time. To me, that completely invalidates the work. It’s no longer factual. Admittedly, a biographical work cannot be an entirely objective account of a person, no matter how it tries. Some subjectivity is sure to creep in. It’s the nature of the enterprise. French and Burgess, however, are careful in Into That Silent Sea only to report only what their research has told them. If they mention a person’s thoughts, then they use a direct quote from that person – i.e., the authors have the person themselves describe how they felt, what they were thinking.

There are those who will always be more interested in the personalities of the Space Race, and those whose chief interest lies in the hardware. I must admit I fall mostly into the latter camp. Which means books such as Into That Silent Sea are never going to be a favourite. But I did find this book a readable and interesting treatment of its subject. Recommended.

Into That Silent Sea, Francis French and Colin Burgess (2007, University of Nebraska Press, ISBN 978-0-8032-1146-9, 383 pp)


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