Tuesday, August 16, 2011

It May be a New Era, but the Old One was Pretty Cool

The Space Shuttle program is grounded. NASA is renting Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get its scientists to and from the International Space Station. And all the big voyages, the ones to asteroids and other planets, are being carried out by robots. At the same time, new companies like Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures have emerged, promising "space tourism" opportunities that will soon offer rides to the edge of space and even weightless vacations and honeymoons on private space stations. It's clear that a new era of space travel and exploration has begun.

The book Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon, a collaboration of former astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton with journalist Jay Barbree, provides a look at the old era of space exploration, the one that began with America's then nemesis the Soviet Union launching the tiny Sputnik satellite into orbit to the great chagrin of American rocket scientists. It's a story of military test pilots--a rare mix of daredevil enthusiasm and ferocious discipline--who were shot up into the heavens in tiny capsules atop massive rockets that were never quite as reliable as a space traveller might hope. It's a story of a race between nations, a race that, at the outset had America playing catch up behind the Russians who reached milestone after milestone months and years ahead of the USA. Finally, of course, it’s a story of triumph, of the moment when humans stepped onto the moon's grey dust, of perhaps the greatest thing the U.S. has ever accomplished as a nation.

Though the book is written by astronauts about astronauts, it's not written in the first person. Instead, it takes an objective, journalistic approach but focuses on the experience of the two authors, quoting them as if they'd been interviewed by someone else for the purposes of this book. It's a little strange to read in this way, and it's made stranger by journalist Jay Barbree mentioning himself, again in the third person at odd and irrelevant moments.

The narrative itself is a sometimes uneven, digressing into detailed accounts of test pilot runs that have next to nothing to do with the space race and glossing over some important political context, but when its focus is where it belongs, on the astronauts involved in the space it rips along, reading like a top notch thriller. Here, for example, the writers build suspense up to a tragic Apollo 1 test run that does not end well:

This was the spacecraft that an Apollo quality-control inspector, Thomas Baron, had condemned as "sloppy and unsafe," the ship that spacecraft manager Joe Shea admitted had been plagued with more than twenty thousand failures in its construction and assembly . . . and that Rocco Petrone, director of launch operations, railed against as a totally unacceptable "bucket of bolts." This was the spacecraft that had been awash in a thick soup of 100 percent oxygen for more than five hours.

Despite the outward attempt toward journalistic objectivity, Moon Shot is ultimately a personal portrait of the two men who wrote the book and who lived through the adventure it relates. Both Slayton and Shepard were grounded for health reasons in the midst of the space race and yet leant their knowledge and experience to the astronauts who would get to fly. The book relates how difficult that must have been and how painful when some of those men died in the line of duty.

No one knows what the next era of space travel will bring, but for thrills, there's nothing like reliving the last one.

For another take on both past and future manned space missions, try Packing for Mars by Mary Roach.

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