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.
William Burrows, an expert in the history of manned and unmanned spaceflight, had previously written “Deep Black”, a chronicle of military uses of the space program during the Cold War, including spy satellites. As such, the military’s participation in space is spoken of often within this book, but given that some of the facts involved have scarcely been brought to the public’s attention until now, this still makes for a fascinating read. Another compelling facet of “This New Ocean” is a focus on the Soviet space program (and its remnants after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet communism). Quite a bit has been written about the Soviets’ space activities between Gagarin’s launch and the first landing on the moon, but this book covers events through the abandoned Buran shuttle program, and the difficulties facing Mir when the Russian space agency fell on hard times as the new government tried to find its footing.
Despite the thickness of the book, and the thoroughness with which it’s written, there are a few places where more material on specific events and periods wouldn’t have been unwelcome. The Challenger explosion is one example of this – the disaster and the investigation of it aren’t really subjects to be dealt with in a short space of the book. I wouldn’t have minded more attention on the Mir collision with an unmanned supply capsule which very nearly led to the first deaths in orbit. In any event, even Burrows’ cursory examinations are interesting, focusing on such colorful personalities as Dr. Richard Feynman (whose no-bullshit approach during the Challenger investigation quickly made him a bit of a media darling) and Vasily Tsibliyev, the defiant Russian cosmonaut who commanded that nearly-doomed Mir mission and lashed out at his superiors when he returned to Earth and found that they had already begun scapegoating him for the problems. Burrows also lays into politicians who have, at one time or other, attempted to ground the space program, as well as others (namely Chuck Yeager, appointed to the Challenger investigation board, who apparently barely participated in the board’s activities).
Overall, it’s a nice survey of the space program’s triumphs and failures, manned and unmanned, American and otherwise, civilian and military. The thing is, I could’ve easily handled a book twice this length on this subject. But for those of you out there who aren’t quite as space-obsessed as myself, this will do the trick nicely.
Author: William E. Burrows
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 725 pages