Archive for the ‘Vostok’ Category

Happy Gagarin Day

April 12, 2011

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin‘s historic flight. On 12 April 1961, aboard Vostok 1, Gagarin became the first human being in space. He madeone orbit of the Earth, in one hour and forty-eight minutes. In order to claim the FAI world record, the pilot has to be in the spacecraft when it lands, but Gagarin actually ejected seven kilometres above the ground and descended by parachute. This only came to light after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It does not not in any way invalidate Gagarin’s achievement.

Today is also the thirtieth anniverary of the launch of Columbia, the first Space Shuttle to reach orbit. Sadly, Columbia was lost on 1 February 2003 when it broke up on re-entry after sixteen days in orbit, killing all seven of its crew.

Gagarin’s flight ushered in over a decade of astonishing achievements in space, by both Soviet cosmonauts and US astronauts. The Apollo Moon landings were, of course, the pinnacle. The Space Shuttle programme – with a design resulting from a series of unwise compromises – never made travel to orbit as routine as NASA had hoped, but after two decades of political vacillation it did finally gives us the International Space Station. It could also be argued that the Shuttle has restricted humanity to Earth orbit for the foreseeable future. The rest of the Solar system, the really exciting missions, now belongs to robots. And now the Shuttle is to be retired. Only two are still flying, and both will be decommissioned later this year.

It would be a shame if the achievements of the last fifty years in crewed space travel were to prove an historical aberration. Yuri Gagarin led the way, and each year we should honour that by doing more in space, by putting into effect plans to take us beyond the Moon, out to where the future of our race truly lies.

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)