Archive for the ‘Gemini’ Category

Two Sides of the Moon, David Scott & Alexei Leonov

June 2, 2012

It must have sounded like a neat idea when they pitched it to the publisher: a NASA astronaut and a Soviet cosmonaut, both of whom were involved in the Space Race, each telling their own side of the story. Except there isn’t that much linking David Scott and Alexei Leonov. They met several times, and even became friends. But Scott was in the third group of NASA astronauts, flew once in Gemini and twice in Apollo; but Leonov was in the first group of cosmonauts, a close personal friend of Yuri Gagarin, and flew once in Voskhod and once in Soyuz/ASTP.

True, Scott made it to the Moon, and Leonov was made commander of the USSR’s failed attempt to put a man on the Moon. But Leonov also commanded the Soviet half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The US side was commanded by Thomas Stafford (see here). Scott was involved only as a liaison with the Russians – in fact, that’s how he came to know Leonov. Even then, the sections of Two Sides of the Moon recounting that first visit from either viewpoint read like two reports on two entirely different trips.

If there’s a fault to Two Sides of the Moon, it’s that: the book reads like two autobiographies published together without any real connection between the two. Which is not to say that those individual accounts are not interesting. Scott’s is perhaps lighter on technical detail than the autobiographies of some of his peers, and Leonov’s does display a tendency to repeatedly stress his importance within the Soviet cosmonaut corps. Both quickly cover the lives of their subjects prior to joining their respective space programmes. Only Leonov seems to remark on the differences between how the programmes were run, and several times remarks on his surprise at learning that the NASA astronauts were not as rigorously managed in terms of diet and exercise as the cosmonauts were. Leonov’s account also makes it clear that the Soviet space programme was much cruder than that of the US – indeed, facilities at Baikonur were initially extremely basic, and those involved spent as little time there as they possibly could.

Scott recounts the details of his Gemini 8 mission, the one in which he and Neil Armstrong nearly came a cropper due to a faulty RCS vernier. He focuses more, understandably, on Apollo 15, the mission he commanded which landed on Mare Imbrium and explored the region around it, including Rima Hadley and the foothills of the Apennines. These are among the most interesting sections of the book.

By comparison, Leonov appeared to be involved in more failed missions than successful ones. In fact, he flew only twice – though one of his flights, admittedly, did make him the first person to walk in space. He was set to command Soyuz 11, but was pulled off after one his crew was diagnosed with suspected tuberculosis. The backup crew of Vladislav Volkov, Georgi Dobrovolski and Viktor Patsayev died on ther return from Salyut 1 when a release valve opened prematurely and evacuated the descent module’s atmosphere. Leonov was then put in command of the Zond programme to put a cosmonaut on the Moon, and blames the lack of courage of Vasiliy Mishin, Sergei Korolev‘s successor as head of the Soviet space programme, for its failure. Mishin repeatedlt insisted on unmanned tests, when a manned test could have put a Russian in lunar orbit before Apollo 8. And perhaps even put Leonov on the lunar surface before Apollo 11.

It’s clear that Two Sides of the Moon was written as the reminiscences of Scott and Leonov – their central position in their respective narratives indicates as much. But where their memories might have failed or misled them, you would have thought the ghost writer (Christine Toomey) would have fact-checked. And yet errors have slipped in. Perhaps the most egregious is Scott’s claim that Neil Armstrong’s motto was, “If you can’t be good, be colourful”. He even tells an anecdote about it. Except that motto was Pete Conrad‘s, as even a cursory search on the Internet will reveal.

If Scott and Leonov are not the obvious choices to have their stories put together, at least both tell interesting tales. The fact that those stories don’t seem to fit together particularly well seems almost incidental. Two Sides of the Moon is certainly a readable book, and a faster read than many other books on the Space Race. There are better astronaut autobiographies than Scott’s – Michael Collin’s Carrying the Fire (see here) and Thomas Stafford’s We Have Capture (see here) are two examples – but Two Sides of the Moon is also by and about Alexei Leonov, and his story lifts Two Sides of the Moon above many other such books on the Space Race.

Two Sides of the Moon, David Scott and Alexei Leonov (2004, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-7342-3162-7, 390pp + acknowledgements, glossary, bibliography and index)

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)

Rocketman, Nancy Conrad

April 21, 2009

Rocketman is subtitled “Pete Conrad’s Incredible Ride to the Moon and Beyond” and purports to be a biography of Gemini and Apollo astronaut Charles ‘Peter’ Conrad Jr. Except it doesn’t actually read like a biography. It reads more like a novel, in which Pete Conrad happens to be the main character. As a result, it offers little insight into its subject.

Perhaps this is because the book was co-written by Howard Klausner, who is better known as the screenwriter for the film Space Cowboys. While that certainly means he’s familiar with the material, writing a screenplay and writing a biography are not the same. A biography, for example, does not need a story. It doesn’t require a three-act structure. And the character-arc is a function of the subject’s life, and not something that is imposed by the biographer.

All of which explains in part why I found Rocketman such a dissatisfying book. It was certainly a fast and easy read, but its style gave it no authority. It was based upon notes left by Conrad on his death in 1999, and from which he intended to write an autobiography himself, but for all that it doesn’t seem to really capture what it was like to be a Gemini and Apollo astronaut.

For whatever reason, Nancy Conrad and Klausner chose to frame Rocketman using Conrad’s record-breaking around the world Learjet flight in 1996. Which in turn gives the chapters on Conrad’s childhood, his career at NASA, and his days afterwards at McDonnell Douglas, the feel of reminiscences. It distances his achievements. In fact, one of the few sections of the book which gives a real feel for the man is a direct quote taken from, I assume, his notes, regarding his Gemini 5 mission. He and Gordo Cooper set a new space endurance record of eight days in, as Conrad described it, “a garbage can”. In the quote in Rocketman, he mentions that his knees dried up and began to hurt. It’s details such as this which make the man and his mission come alive for the reader. It’s a shame there aren’t more in the book.

In places, Rocketman reads as though Klausner were trying to tell his own history of the space race, a story in which Conrad was an important, but not major, player. The focus of the book occasionally shifts to the world stage and describes events in which Conrad played no part – because, it feels like, Klausner has something to say about the representation of the USA in geopolitics. There’s a lot of rah-rah “our country, ’tis for thee” nonsense, which might fit the macho character of the test pilots and astronauts, but seems faintly risible to a non-American reader in the twenty-first century. Admittedly, the space race took place because of politics, and Apollo was indeed an astonishing achievement. But an Apollo astronaut’s biography is not the right place to give the US’s somewhat tarnished international reputation a buff and polish.

Rocketman hits the highlights of Conrad’s career – Gemini 5, Gemini 11, Apollo 12, Skylab and the McDonnell Douglas Delta Clipper. The book ends with a dramatised description of the motorcycle accident which caused his death in 1999. In many respects, Conrad was a typical astronaut. Like many of them he spent much of his youth hanging around an airfield and learned to fly in his teens. He was described as one of the best pilots among the astronauts – as most of them have also been described. Clearly he was as driven and determined as the other astronauts, although he was perhaps atypically approachable. He liked a good joke and reading between the lines his sense of humour unlike, Alan Shepard, another astronaut known for his jokes, was not cruel.

Reading Rocketman, the over-riding impression is of a man who was liked by everyone who knew him. While it seems a little unlikely – the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts were, after all, highly-driven, highly-ambitious military jocks – Conrad definitely appeared to be a more likable man than many of his colleagues.

But I’d have sooner Rocketman left an impression of Conrad’s career and achievements, rather than simply the fact that he was a nice guy for an astronaut. Disappointing.

Rocketman: Pete Conrad’s Incredible Ride to the Moon and Beyond, Nancy Conrad with Howard A Klausner (2005, New American Library, ISBN 0-451-21509-5, 275pp + appendices and index)

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)

We Have Capture, Tom Stafford

October 10, 2008

Thomas Patten Stafford, a USAF pilot and flight test instructor, joined NASA in the second group of astronauts in 1962. He flew two Gemini missions, and commanded Apollo 10 and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). He is also one of the three people to have travelled at the fastest speed ever attained by a manned vehicle – during the return from the Moon, Apollo 10’s trajectory resulted in a speed of 24,791 mph.

We Have Capture is Stafford’s autobiography.

If a biographer has to struggle to capture his subject’s personality and character, you would imagine an autobiographer would have a much easier job of it. And it’s true that We Have Capture reveals Tom Stafford’s nature much better than, say, One Giant Leap did of Neil Armstrong‘s (see here). Of course, there’s an all too natural tendency to be less than truthful when writing about yourself – unless you particularly enjoy embarrassing yourself in public. But for a Gemini and Apollo astronaut, one of only 24 men to ever fly to the Moon, there’s more than enough that’s worthy of admiration in Stafford’s life to fill a book without including the “warts and all”.

That’s not to say that We Have Capture gives a reader a real idea of what he was like as a person. It’s written in a personable, affable style, and Stafford is as honest about his mistakes as he is eager to recount his told-you-so moments. But it’s the achievements more than the man which are the real focus of the book. However, where We Have Capture really scores over other books about astronauts I have read is that Stafford gives a very real feel for what it was like to be there, to be in the Gemini 6-A capsule, or the Apollo 10 CSM.

Obviously, Stafford was there. But it’s more than that. His descriptions include many small details – which, perhaps, a conscientious biographer might have picked up – and it is those which make his prose seem more real. For example, when describing the deaths of cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov in Soyuz 11, Stafford explains:

Seeing that the front hatch was still sealed, the crew realized that the leak was probably coming from that ventilation valve, which was located under Dobrovolsky’s seat. They tried to crank it shut – there was a backup master valve, but this unit, like a basic steam valve, was mounted over the crew’s shoulders and took nineteen turns to close.

It’s that “nineteen turns”. Only someone who had spent time in a Soyuz capsule, and knew it well – as Stafford had while training for ASTP – could write something like that. It’s such details which lift Stafford’s book above others I’ve read on the subject.

Having said that, Stafford does have a tendency to drop into the language he used while at NASA. Some of it went straight over my head; such as this, while arguing with Apollo Spacecraft Program Office manager, Joe Shea:

“Inertial reference is fine for certain phases of the mission,” I said, “starting in posigrade attitude with inertial attitude, When you’re 180 degrees around the world, that’s retrograde. It makes a hell of a difference how you apply that thrust with respect to the rotating radius vector.

After ASTP Stafford felt he was no longer needed at NASA, and returned to the Air Force. He was given command of Edwards AFB. Eighteen months later, he retired from the military, and went into consulting. He remained involved, however, with space exploration – in fact, if his take on events is to be believed, he was responsible for creating the F-117, B-2, getting the International Space Station “off the ground”, saving the Space Shuttle from being cancelled after the Challenger disaster, and repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. According to We Have Capture, Stafford was probably NASA’s most important astronaut – or rather contributed the most to manned spaceflight – even more so than the likes of Neil Armstrong or Al Shepard. Yet, as commander of Apollo 10 and ASTP, he’s little more than a footnote to Project Apollo in the history books. Perhaps in the future his contribution will be better known by the general public. Certainly, there should be more books about him. Nonetheless, this one is recommended and belongs in the collection of anyone interested in manned space exploration.

We Have Capture, Tom Stafford (2002, Smithsonian Institute Press, ISBN 1-58834-070-8, 296pp + notes and 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.

One Giant Leap, Leon Wagener

December 30, 2007

An event as momentous as the first human being to land on the Moon is sure to attract a lot of commentary, and certainly Neil Armstrong has been the subject of a number of books. One Giant Leap is subtitled “Neil Armstrong’s Stellar American Journey”… And right there you have the first indication that this is not going to be one of the better books about him. Armstrong, of course, did not make a “stellar” journey – he stayed entirely within the Solar System, travelled no more than a quarter of a million miles from Earth, in fact. Okay, perhaps that’s poetic licence. But the cover also depicts a figure in a spacesuit on the Moon. There are no photographs of Armstrong on the Moon. Aldrin didn’t take any. So that can’t be Armstrong on the cover.

Not good omens, and I’ve not even opened the cover. Once I have done, it comes as no surprise to learn that Wagener has little or nothing to say about Armstrong and Apollo 11 that has not been said elsewhere. And more accurately. He perpetuates, for example, the myth that Buzz Aldrin didn’t take any photos of Armstrong because he was upset at not being first to leave the LM. Not to mention misnaming Alexei Leonov as Alexei Leonor (isn’t that a fabric conditioner?). Armstrong is described throughout in language not unlike “the noble-countenanced astronaut”, even if those exact words are not used. Wagener claims that Armstrong‘s childhood dream had been to land on the Moon, and that he was chosen as the first man to walk on the Moon by NASA because he was a civilian. The latter is certainly untrue – there was a lot of juggling of crews and missions prior to Apollo 11. The former… well, I’ll reserve judgment on that claim until I’ve read more on the subject, but I find it hard to believe.

One Giant Leap reads more like a hagiography than a serious attempt to document and understand its subject and his life. I’ll admit I knew little about Armstrong – he is, after all, an intensely private man – and I now know more having read One Giant Leap. But I found the book’s uncritical appreciation of Armstrong annoying, and its occasional inaccuracies irritating. On the plus side, the book has a good index, and it does seem a fairly complete description of Armstrong‘s life.

One Giant Leap doesn’t really get to grips with Neil Alden Armstrong, the man, although I’ll concede that’s not an easy task. If there’s a better biography of Armstrong available – and James R Hansen’s First Man may be it, but we’ll see – then I’d suggest One Giant Leap is for completists only.

One Giant Leap: Neil Armstrong’s Stellar American Journey, Leon Wagener (2004, Forge, ISBN 0-312-87343-3, 302pp)