Archive for the ‘Books’ Category
Moondust by Andrew Smith is a space history book that seeks to tell a unique tale through first person interviews. The subtitle describes the quest for which he set out – “In Search of the Men who Fell to Earth”.
As Smith describes in his prologue, he did not originally intend to spend several years on a quest to interview all the surviving Apollo astronauts. His principal career was as a journalist, not an author, and on July 9, 1999 he was interviewing Charlie Duke (Apollo 16 LM pilot) and his wife for a magazine. That was the morning the world learned of the death of Pete Conrad. Somehow that coincidence of timing haunted Smith, leading him to ponder the meaning of Apollo and those unique men, the “moonwalkers.” Hunting down all 9 surviving moonwalkers is a daunting task, but somehow Smith accomplished it, with a few Command module pilots thrown in to boot.
There is nothing like a first person account of history. Moondust is a one of a kind book (unless you count the film “In the Shadow of the Moon” as a book) in that it provides so many first person accounts of the Apollo program, from the men that flew the missions, in one place. This is Moondust’s exceptional achievement, which overcomes some other flaws – not least of which is Smith’s lack of in depth knowledge about the Apollo program. Smith is certainly an outsider to the space program. He freely admits that he is not even a huge fan of space exploration. Thus, it is understandable that he is not a space scholar. This provides a fresh outside perspective but leads to some glaring factual and editorial errors. A good example is when Smith asserts that the Apollo program stopped for 18 months after the Apollo 1 fire so that NASA management could be “overhauled.” A more studious historian would know that the entire Command Module design was also “overhauled” during this period.*
Due to these frequent errors or twists of history, I would not recommend Moondust to readers who are not already studied in Apollo history. Moondust is not a book to read to learn about Apollo. Instead, Smith’s book is a look at the personalities of many of the astronauts themselves. When reading other personal stories, such as the memoirs of astronauts Gene Cernan, Al Worden, or Dave Scott, you are only treated to one perspective for an entire book. Within the pages of Moondust you can contrast the free spirit of Al Bean with the cocky second place finisher Buzz Aldrin with the hard and political Cernan with the quiet hero Neil Armstrong, and many more. Smith’s interpretations of the many astronauts motivations and psychologies may be flawed, but the words from the moonmen he interviewed are their own. In some cases, more interesting than the words the astronauts say, is Smith’s description of their demeanor, tone, and unique quirks. For instance, Aldrin’s strange ramblings can only really be appreciated by someone that has seen him speak off script (ie, not on Dancing the With the Stars or an Axe commercial).**
The second aspect of Moondust which I really liked is what seems to be at the heart of most negative reviews of the book on Amazon.com – context. Andrew Smith does more than just recount his many interesting interviews with Apollo heroes, he gives us personal and historical context for his thoughts about Apollo, and why it may or may not have been worth it. Most astronaut memoirs do at times try to provide context by discussing what was going on in the world outside – Vietnam, civil rights, civil unrest (Kent State, Chicago DNC riots). But most of the astronauts bring those events up to admit that they were sheltered in their NASA bubble, and were thinking only about their missions. Andrew Smith of course grew up and lived through the 60s and 70s, and at times digresses from his space themed narrative to tell us what that was like. This is described by some Amazon reviews as “self-absorbed” and “narcissistic” but overall I found it enlightening.
In summary, Moondust is a book worth picking up for any space geek who wants a new perspective, and who won’t be offended by an outsider telling you that maybe space exploration isn’t everything you make it up to be. Smith’s core thesis is dubious, but interesting; that the astronauts who went to the moon never really “came back” but instead spent the rest of their lives searching for that sense of purpose that they had during their mission, forever dreaming of the Moon. This may not be a fair psychoanalysis to use with so broad a brush, but it took me out of my comfort zone and really caused me to examine each of the moonwalkers as people. Moondust is best read after first reading the major Apollo memoirs (Cernan, Aldrin, Worden, Slayton, Scott, Kranz, Kraft, and Lovell) but will likely be enjoyed by almost any space fan. Add it to your reading list.
*My second favorite error is during Smith’s chapter about his Al Bean interview. He says that Bean described watching “the Earth wax and wane int he sky “like a blue-and-white eye opening and closing.” But clearly this is impossible, as the moon’s orbit means that Earth’s phases, as seen from the moon, are also on a 28 day cycle. Perhaps Bean was referring to shifting cloud patterns on the Earth. In any case, Smith’s lack of scientific understanding here is glaring.
**Apparently Aldrin has partnered with AXE in some strange promotion where they will send contest winners to space. Ya, I don’t get it either.
Down to Earth
Stratolaunch has been in the news again. This week they received their first 747 airplane they will use for parts to make their huge rocket carrier aircraft. Jeff Foust at NewSpaceJournal.com has some good quotes from the Stratolaunch guys from this week.
Here’s a “VR” interactive panorama of the Space Shuttle Discovery’s flight deck, ready to head to the Smithsonian in April.
Speaking of Discovery, it was a year ago this week that Discovery launched on her final mission, STS-133.
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new book is published this week! It’s called Space Chronicles: Facing the Final Frontier. I will have to get it and let you know how it is!
This weekend is the SpaceUp Unconference in Houston.
This is part of what makes media like Twitter so appealing – two cool astronauts just hanging out in DC. Nice!
The Russian space agency has been looking for new cosmonaut candidates. Ria Novosti reports that in the first month of recruitment they have received less than 50 applicants. Contrast that with NASA’s 6000+ applicants – one has to wonder if the state of the US space program isn’t quite as bad as some people complain. Just think, we could be Russia.
John Glenn reflects on the 50th anniversary of his orbital flight, which was February 20, 1962.
Don Pettit, current space resident, explains the challenges of space-based photography of the Earth.
Don is also a pretty good story teller and this brief post about eating toast in space is fun.
Here’s a good photo from last week’s ISS EVA. Oleg Kononenko and Anton Shkaplerov are shown moving the large “crane” to a new location so it won’t be thrown away later with Docking Compartment 1, which is to be replaced by the MLM (via NASA Image of the Day).
ESA’s ATV-5 cargo ship now has a name! Georges Lemaitre, named after a physicist who originally postulated a theory we now call “The Big Bang”, will likely fly in 2014.
Around the Solar System
My choice for this week’s awesome view from Cassini in Saturn orbit is this shot of the tiny moon Mimas in front of the planet’s rings
Cassini just passed periapsis of its 24-day, 161st orbit of Saturn. Orbit 162 starts on March 1st at apoapsis. I have a good feeling Cassini will make it to 200 orbits of Saturn and beyond.
How far have human radio signals traveled since the birth of the tech age? You may not have ever wanted to know that before now, but Emily Lakdawala has a beautiful graphical answer over at The Planetary Society blog. Space really is huge.
Speaking of galaxies, check out the stunning beauty of NGC 1073.
The big exoplanet news this week is GJ1214b, the planet that is a veritable water world. Here’s Bad Astronomy’s take on it and then Well-Bred Insolence’s take on it. The new data are based on spectra taken of the planet’s atmosphere showing the atmosphere to be 20% water.
Because it’s cool
A “galactic storm” from Earth Science Picture of the Day.
If the Orbiter Access Arm at JSC’s Rocket Park can be said to hold the dreams of my childhood, the Kepler Spacecraft must be the dreams of my teenage years set aloft.
I was a real sci-fi addict in high school (okay, also Tolkien). I consumed Arthur C. Clarke books as well as the Ender series and the first few Ringworld novels (A World Out of Time is another great Larry Niven offering). My simple childhood dreams of piloting a Space Shuttle in Earth orbit evolved into grander imaginings of interstellar travel, multi-generation ships, and humanity’s destiny in the stars. All of these sci-fi driven dreams, in order to become reality, are built on one simple but elusive premise: habitable planets other than Earth. This is of course where Kepler comes in.
Kepler is what every sci-fi geek beginning with Clarke 70 years ago, or maybe even Wells before him, secretly wished for. Kepler is our gateway between the worlds of fiction and science.
I wanted to highlight Kepler because of the slew, or even deluge, of new planet candidates that continues to come from the Kepler team. About a month ago the blogosphere was in a frenzy over the announcement of Kepler-22b (which is notable enough to have it’s own Wikipedia page but not a better name), claimed to be the first small planet discovered in the habitable zone of another star. Then in late December the Kepler team announced confirmation of small planets around Kepler 20. Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f are just about the size of Earth (although they are not in the habitable zone). Just a few years ago I was dreaming of the day we might hear of this kind of discovery.
Now there are so many planets out there that NASA has a dedicated counter over at the PlanetQuest website. Consider that only 20 years ago in 1992 we discovered the first planets around another star. There are so many planets that i have an iPhone app to keep track of them all. It would probably be a full-time job if someone tried to give them all normal names.
Even more exciting than talking about all the worlds we have already discovered is looking ahead at what Kepler should find this year. Kepler works by looking at planets transiting in front of the light of their star. Confirmation of new planets takes 3 transits to build high confidence that it’s a real planet. If we want to find Earth-like planet around Sun-like stars, that means waiting 3 years. Kepler was launched in March of 2009. See where I’m going with this?
They say never to make predictions about scientific progress, but I’m fairly confident that 2012 will be an unbelievable year in exoplanet science. We are going to start confirming planets that in all likelihood have life thriving on the surface, and that could very well look a lot like the planets from our favorite sci-fi stories. If you’ve been sitting around wondering where’s all the cool stuff those scientists have been working on, well welcome to the future. They’ve been busy finding the thousands of planets that your great-great-great grandchildren may colonize.
I was going to use yesterday’s post about the Orbiter Access Arm and white room that are now at JSC’s rocket park as a segue to recommend Guenter Wendt‘s autobiography The Unbroken Chain. But after doing an Amazon search I discovered that his 2001 book is now mysteriously no longer being printed by Apogee Books. This is baflling to me because the softcover was released just recently in May 2009, about when I got my copy.
Unfortunately, it probably has something to do with the fact that we lost Guenter in May 2010. I can’t even find a preview or anything at books.google.com. So, long story short, if you are a space geek you should find a copy of this book, and if you already have one, hang on to it!
Most casual space fans are familiar with Guenter Wendt from Apollo 13 when Tom Hanks is getting suited up and says “Ah, Guenter Wendt. I wonder where Guenter went.” (the same line is used in episode 3 of From the Earth to the Moon). I honestly didn’t know much about this guy either, other than this quotable movie line, until I read his book. And wow. You really don’t have a complete picture of the people of the early space program without reading Guenter’s stories about the pranks that the astronauts and closeout crew used to play on each other almost every mission.
My absolute favorite anecdote is from Gordon Cooper’s Mercury flight. Apparently, after getting out of the van at the launch pad, Gordo pretended to be so scared that he refused to get on the tower elevator and the closeout crew wrestled him in and slammed the door. All of this was done in front of a crowd of media cameras. This is the space program that you never knew happened.
On a more serious note, I love this book because it really shows the tension of those moments strapping into your rocket up in the white room. It’s clear from the way the astronauts talk about Guenter that they are truly fearful during those patient long hours at the top of the launch tower, and that Guenter’s calm professionalism and boyish sense of humor always helped them keep their cool.
You can’t talk about the history of the US space program without mentioning Guenter Wendt. I know that now and hope that more space fans get a chance to read his book and find out for themselves. Maybe we can start a grassroots campaign to get Apogee to start printing again? In any case, with any old copy listed online for about $100, I don’t think I’ll ever be getting my hands on a signed copy for my collection (Update: actually, most used copies are about $40 and there is at least one signed copy for $150 – I initially read Amazon wrong).
I’ll leave you with a couple of nice videos of Guenter talking about the early space program.