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Light This Candle

Light This CandleOrder this bookStory: America’s first astronaut was also one of its quietest. Fiercely guarding his privacy and that of his family, Alan B. Shepard Jr. did few interviews during his time as an astronaut, seldom talking about his stellar career as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot and later test pilot, or his quest to be the first man in space (he had to be content to be the first American in space, a mantle he was just as happy to wear), or his fierce fight with a debilitating disease – a fight he won before commanding the third successful lunar landing mission, Apollo 14.

Review: As author Neal Thompson explains in his foreword, he wasn’t inspired to write Alan Shepard’s biography until, when asked to write an article upon Shepard’s death, he discovered that no such book existed. Thompson decided to fill this gap himself, and he’s done an admirable job with Light This Candle – amazing, really, drawing from a staggering number of sources, some of them rather obscure and terribly enlightening. Interviews with Shepard’s surviving fellow Mercury Seven astronauts, as well as the astronauts under him during his lengthy grounding while battling a disorienting inner ear disease, you’d expect; Thompson goes back as far as Shepard’s Navy days, interviewing bunkmates, shipmates, instructors, fellow pilots, you name it. The FBI’s dossier on Shepard is also opened, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. Continue reading

Journey Beyond Selene

Journey Beyond SeleneOrder this bookStory: The story of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is told in much the same style as the author’s account of the exploits of the Apollo 13 crew in Lost Moon, but occasionally the casual observer might be lost in the midst of some of the tech talk. While Lost Moon had a very human element in the crew and the ground controllers, Journey Beyond Selene is more of a romance novel for engineers. The human story is on Earth, as the engineers deal with the menaces of launch vehicles, NASA bureaucrats, a press corps more obsessed with manned flights, and an apathetic Congress…not to mention the fact that, quite simply, not all of their marvelous hardware worked.

Review: This recently published opus from the co-author of Jim Lovell’s “Lost Moon” tells the often-overlooked story of the frequently unsung pioneers of America’s program of unmanned space exploration. Continue reading

John Glenn: A Memoir

John Glenn: A MemoirOrder this bookStory: Former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn recounts his life, from an upbringing during the Great Depression to service during World War II and the Korean War, to a series of unexpected twists and turns that culminated in his manning Friendship 7 as the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. But Glenn’s story continues into a series of false starts in the political arena, until his election to the Senate in 1974; some 24 years of policy making and surviving an increasingly hostile political environment are covered in brief, bookending his memoir with his return to space as part of shuttle mission STS-95.

Review: An absolutely engrossing read, “John Glenn: A Memoir” sheds some light on a man who chased his indelible chapter in our national history down with an attempt to keep shaping history. Continue reading

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Space Technology

Book titleOrder this bookStory: An exhaustive compilation of space hardware, both manned and unmanned, complete with colorful Popular Mechanics-style cutaway diagrams, a complete history of successful and less than successful launches through the year of publications, details of abandoned programs (such as a Nixon-era push for man on Mars), possible future projects (orbiting power stations and starships), and everything in between.

Review: I love this book. I’ve had it for nearly 20 years, and despite the fact that it’s out of print, and despite the fact that I could be reviewing something readily available through Amazon.com that would reap a return for my investment of writing about it, I’d much rather tell you a little something about Kenneth Gatland’s wonderful book. Continue reading

Genesis: The Story Of Apollo 8

Genesis: The Story Of Apollo 8Order this bookStory: Amid the tumultuous events of 1968, NASA mission planners watch a suspicious string of Soviet steps toward what may be a lunar mission, and begin preparing an ambitious swap of mission objectives. Instead of waiting until the lunar excursion module has been tested in Earth orbit, NASA will send its second manned Apollo mission to the moon using only the command/service module. Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders are profiled from their childhood through their spaceflight careers, and followed closely throughout the mission in transcripts and the astronauts’ own remembrances.

Review: It’s not that the story of Apollo 8 has never been told; all three astronauts have published their own memoirs of their NASA careers, and Andrew Chiakin’s A Man On The Moon did an excellent job of putting it all together. But sometimes it’s hard to appreciate just how many risks NASA took with Apollo 8. Continue reading

Full Moon

Full MoonOrder this bookStory: Photographer Michael Light delves into NASA’s archives and does what no one had done in the thirty years since the landing of Apollo 11 – gained access to the original master negatives and struck the first new copies of these iconic images from space since the missions were flown. The digitally scanned images offer a new degree of resolution to shots of the moon’s surface, the astronauts and their vehicles, and even their looks back at the Earth.

Review: I don’t normally spend a lot of time reviewing art or photography books here, because what is there to say? That they’re pretty? One would presume that, or the book probably wouldn’t have made anyone’s publishing schedule. This book quickly grew on me, though. It’s not pretty. It’s mind-blowingly gorgeous. Continue reading

The Encyclopedia Of Soviet Spacecraft

The Encyclopedia Of Soviet SpacecraftOrder this bookStory: After a brief introduction on the dawn of the Soviet space program and its pioneers, this book offers a concise, launch-by-launch, mission-by-mission catalog of the entire space program through 1987. Launch sites and dates, crew rosters, and mission accomplishments are noted, along with a surprising number of photos and diagrams. In some cases, though, the mission details and even the physical details of the craft are still conjecture, despite the author’s best efforts, due to the secretive nature of the Soviet space program at the time.

Review: This book urgently needs updating.

I found “The Encyclopedia Of Soviet Spacecraft” quite unexpectedly while doing a bit of used book browsing, and my curiosity was piqued to say the least. If you’ve spent any time visiting this site, you’ll know that I’ve read and reviewed gobs of technical, historical and autobiographical texts on the U.S. space program, and on humanity’s push into space as a whole. But never before had I seen a book so detailed in its focus on the other half of the space race. Continue reading

Deke!: U.S. Manned Space From Mercury To The Shuttle

Deke!: U.S. Manned Space From Mercury To The ShuttleOrder this bookStory: Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, as you may recall, was the one member of the original Mercury seven who was shackled to the Earth by a recurring heart condition. Admirably, he made the best of his condition and eventually became the first director of NASA’s Astronaut Office, selecting and coordinating primary and backup crews for the Gemini and Apollo programs, and all the while waiting patiently for a flight of his own, something which did not happen until he was declared fit to pilot the final flight in the Apollo program, the joint American/Soviet Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975. This is his story, told from his own no-nonsense perspective (with the posthumous blanks filled in by co-writer Michael Cassutt; Slayton died before the book was published).

Review: If anything, Deke Slayton’s autobiography is the Apollo astronaut bio which features the least information on the Apollo program. Continue reading

Chariots For Apollo

Chariots For ApolloOrder this bookStory: Long before men set foot on the moon or even set off on a journey to orbit it, NASA engineers and their brethren at several corporate contractors and subcontractors sweated blood to make sure that the astronauts would have spaceworthy vehicles to fly. Veteran aviation and theoretical engineers alike gave up family life, personal time, and other amenities because they faced the reality that, if their numbers were even slightly off, astronauts could die. Some of them watched their worst nightmares realized when Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died on the ground in the Apollo 1 fire. But they still kept up an unrelenting quest to get the numbers right and put Americans on the moon by the end of the sixties.

Review: A bit of a “tech novel” of sorts, Chariots For Apollo does not assume that anyone opening the book’s cover understands all of the terminology involved in going to the moon, let alone the math, but it does an admirable job of catching you up very quickly.

But that’s not the heart of this book.

Behind the tech talk, Chariots For Apollo is about the people who dreamed, and then built, the Apollo program (primarily the delicate lunar excursion module). Continue reading

The Apollo Adventure

The Apollo AdventureOrder this bookStory: Jeffrey Kluger’s insightful volume on the Apollo program from inception right through to the end is another treasure trove of information on that most daring era of Ameircan space exploration, focusing on other aspects that just the flight of Apollo 13.

Review: When I saw the blurb in the back of Apollo 13 nee Lost Moon for a trade paperback companion book, I figured it would be a kiddie item that really ought to be given away with Hardee’s Apollo Burgers. Wrong again. Continue reading