Story: The history of outer solar system exploration is covered in depth, from the earliest notional studies of robotic exploration beyond Mars to the missions that actually made it off the drawing board and into space – Pioneers 10 and 11, Voyagers 1 and 2, and their progeny such as Galileo and Cassini.
Review: This is the book I’ve been looking for and waiting for. There are books aplenty – both lovely and lacking – on the Voyager missions to the outer planets, but while JPL’s machine marvels continue functioning to this day, outlasting interplanetary missions launched both before and since 1977, they were not the first. This book covers the ambitious Pioneer missions to Jupiter and Saturn that preceeded (and, in many ways, paved the way for) the Voyagers, and revealed that there was much to be gained by going and – at least for a while – staying at Jupiter and Saturn. Continue reading
Story: Subtitled “An Insider’s View of the Mars Pathfinder Mission,” this book recounts the history of the original Mars rover mission that inspired millions in 1997, from its genesis as a retrofitting of long-outdated unused moon rover hardware to the little rover’s landing and exploration of the Martian landscape. Despite being written by Andrew Mishkin, the Senior Systems Engineer for the Sojourner rover for JPL, the book is culled from extensive interviews with his teammates and co-workers.
Review: An eye-opening book, “Sojourner” is an incredible tale of a little unmanned mission that could – despite obstacles on two planets. The forbidden environment of Mars is enough of a hazard to survive, to say nothing of the months of deep space journey before Soujourner and its Mars Pathfinder mothership arrived at the red planet. Just as many obstacles threatened to keep Sojourner’s wheels on Earth, from technical difficulties to petty bureaucracies. Continue reading
Story: The author, through interviews with the man himself and many of his colleagues, friends and family members from various stages of his life, chronicles the life of Neil Armstrong, combat pilot, experimental test pilot, Gemini and Apollo astronaut, and someone who had to come back to Earth dealing with universal celebrity as the first human being to walk on the moon.
Review: By his very nature, former astronaut Neil Armstrong is quiet, reclusive and admirably level-headed. We truly need more like him in the world. The flipside of that, however, is that perhaps he’s not the most exciting biographical subject in the world. His aeronautical and astronautical exploits are the stuff of legend, and rightly so, and as much as anyone’s possibly can be, his brilliance in those fields is practically a matter of public record now. But with his legendary reserve and unflappability, anything that’s outside of those areas winds up rendering the book…well…dry. Continue reading
Story: The Planets is, quite simply, one of my all-time favorite books, a mind-boggling and impossible-to-pigeonhole anthology of scientific essays and short stories from some of the best science fiction authors on the planet. The Planets is a brilliant combination of facts, speculation, and artwork, each section of the book focusing on one of the planets in our solar system, as well as the asteroids, comets, and Earth’s moon, and how humankind could change it – or how it could change us.
Review: Though it’s most likely out of print now, this book is one of my most prized literary possessions. Smartly-written factual essays combined with mold-breaking science fiction short stories made for a book whose contents have challenged and awed me since my early teens. (Somehow, the follow-up book, The Stars, edited in much the same staggered science/science fiction format, didn’t thrill me as much.) Continue reading
Story: Lt. General Thomas P. Stafford, USAF (retired) recounts his journey from Weatherford, Oklahoma to the Cold War-era Air Force, and from there to the Edwards Air Force Base test flight facility and the second class of astronauts selected by NASA. Stafford would fly two record-setting Gemini missions and command the Apollo 10 mission, essentially a full-on dress rehearsal for the first lunar landing. He also commanded the Apollo half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project flight, the first international mission in space and the first docking of American and Soviet spacecraft. Even after his retirement from the NASA flight rotation, Stafford would go on to serve frequently as America’s ambassador to the Soviet and Russian space programs, right through the Mir/Shuttle docking missions and the International Space Station; and at the same time, he was still fighting the Cold War as well, drawing up the B-2 Stealth bomber’s specs on a hotel napkin. He would also be on many advisory boards regarding NASA safety issues in the wake of both the Challenger and Columbia disasters, and would eventually return to Weatherford to found an aerospace museum.
Review: Co-written with Michael Cassutt (who also co-wrote Apollo-Soyuz astronaut Deke Slayton’s memoirs), “We Have Capture” is an engrossing read for anyone interested in the history of the U.S. space program. Many of the stories you’ve already heard have something in common – Thomas Stafford was on the flip-side, whether it was flying the plane that landed safely mere minutes after another plane carrying a promising two-man rookie Gemini crew crashed, or taking over as NASA’s Chief Astronaut after Alan Shepard overcame Meniere’s Disease and reclaimed his place on the flight roster, or commanding half of the Gemini 6 / Gemini 7 rendezvous mission, or commanding the Apollo 10 moon landing “rehearsal” mission that went to the moon and did everything but land. Tom Stafford was there. Continue reading
Story: The author traces the history of space travel from engineering imaginings to WWII missile technology through the planning stages of the International Space Station. Much attention is paid to military funding and applications of the space programs of both the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as to the political ebb and flow that allowed Apollo to flourish and yet later all but crippled the Space Transportation System, of which the space shuttle was intended to be only a small part.
Review: Thrillingly comprehensive and yet astoundingly cursory in its treatment of some episodes in space history, “This New Ocean” leaves me baffled as to how to assess it, and yet still turning the pages. Continue reading
Story: NASA’s chief historian charts the beginnings of the agency in the midst of the Cold War, the race to orbit and then to the moon against the Russians, and the evolution of manned spaceflight from Mercury to the Mir/shuttle docking missions. The text is accompanied by artwork from NASA’s archives, ranging from photorealism to abstract impressionism.
Review: Ah, that NASA artwork. With the marvels of real photography and computer animation, some of this book’s paintings, sketches, charcoal drawings and other works may seem a bit dated. But once upon a time, they were the only way you’d ever get to envision a spacecraft as it appears in orbit. Even now, it’s often still the best way to go, and stirs the imagination more than anything else. And when we’re looking at a space program that is, at the time this review was written, stalled until further notice, stirring the imagination would seem to be an absolutely vital thing. Continue reading
Story: In a way, this book picks up where Deke! leaves off – the prologue of the book describes the arrival of the old members of Slayton’s team of astronauts for his funeral in Texas. But the main portion of the book covers Deke and Alan Shepard’s adventures through their risky lives as military test and combat pilots, the origins and selection of the Mercury astronauts, and medical problems that later kept both of them Earthbound during the Gemini years. Both of them served as administrators during that time, and they dealt with everything from the tragedy of Apollo 1 through the triumph of Apollo 11 and the Apollo 13 emergency, from their own unique perspectives – sort of.
Review: With the help of two other writers, both space historians in their own right, the book is written in a curiously detached third-person perspective, not unlike “Lost Moon”. (It’s interesting to note that, unlike quite a few other biographical and factual books on one subject which diverge in their details, virtually all of these books, including Lovell’s “Lost Moon”, agree completely on the events of Apollo 13.) Continue reading
Story: Each mission is given plenty of coverage, and a lot of attention is paid to the doomed Apollo 1 test mission as well as what the future of America’s manned moon presence could have been if not for budget cuts to redirect funding to the Vietnam War. I learned an incredible amount of information I had never heard before from this book, including something of a minor scandal involving the crew of Apollo 15.
Review: Though I thoroughly enjoyed Jim Lovell’s “Lost Moon”, I have to hand the definitive honors in the category of books about America’s push to reach the moon. It’s amazing how many of the astronauts, families and support crews Andrew Chaikin tracked down and interviewed, and the resulting gold mine of information and feelings barely fits into this admittedly thick book. Continue reading
Story: Unusually for a book which concerns itself with events that were directly experienced by one of the writers, the entire story is told in the third person perspective, switching back and forth from the spacecraft to Lovell’s home, Mission Control in Houston, and even leaping around in time from Lovell’s early fascination with rocketry, the Apollo 1 fire and its demoralizing effect on the astronaut corps, Lovell’s earlier groundbreaking flight to the moon aboard Apollo 8, and so on. Of course, the book’s primary focus is the doomed April 1970 flight of Apollo 13, and how astronauts and ground controllers alike fought valiantly to bring the crew home safely.
Review: I missed “Lost Moon” when it was originally released just a year before the movie that it spawned. When I went looking for the autobiographical “Lost Moon”, I instead saw numerous books bearing Tom Hanks’ face and the title “Apollo 13”. Thank goodness the small print beneath the title mentioned that this was, in fact, the book that started it all – for a moment, I feared a ridiculous repeat of the Alan Dean Foster novelization of Total Recall, which itself was based on a Philip K. Dick short story! That’s a roundabout way to tell one story. This book, however, is another story entirely, and it’s well worth a read or two. For about the same price as a movie ticket, there’s a lot more story. Continue reading