Archive for the ‘Voskhod’ 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)

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)

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)