Sunday, May 06, 2012

Book Review: Fallen Astronauts

Every once in awhile I read a book that covers aspects of the space program that I hadn't known before. Such is the case with Fallen Astronauts, a book cowritten by Colin Burgess, Bert Vis, and a Facebook space friend of mine, Kate Doolan. The subtitle of this book, Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon, conveys the topic well: this is a series of stories about American (and Russian) astronauts who died during the race to the moon but never made it there.

Primarily this is the story of Americans who died prior to Apollo's eventual triumphs. Their names are mostly unknown outside of the space community--Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee, Ted Freeman, C.C. Williams, Charlie Bassett, Elliot See, and Ed Givens--but most of them can be read on the Astronaut Memorial wall at Kennedy Space Center.

A few patterns begin to emerge in reading these men's biographies: white males born 1925-1935, interested in engineering or aviation from an early age, driven to attend one of the nation's military academies (West Point or Annapolis), very smart, very patriotic. Like most of America's astronauts, they were and are among the best of our best--intelligent, physically fit (Ed White tried out for America's Olympic team), and possessed of the maturity, professionalism, and fearlessness required to fly into space when our nation's space program was still new and highly dangerous. Space exploration is still highly dangerous and subject to accidents (the last seven astronaut names added to the memorial wall were added in 2003), and our astronauts continue to be the same types of overachievers as the men portrayed in this book.

The Soviet space program, much more secretive, still had its share of best-and-brightest space heroes, also drawn from their air forces. A single chapter of this brief book (254 pages of text) discusses cosmonauts who died on the other side of the Cold War space race. Even after the fall of the USSR, Russia remains protective and quiet about the failures of their program, and some secrets might never be known. However, the courage of their astronauts was no less than ours, and like ours they faced the very real possibility of death in space--as some of them did. Some of their names, at least those that were known to the West in 1971, were included on a plaque mission commander Dave Scott left on the moon during Apollo 15.

A few things struck me about this book, in addition to the striking biographies of the astronauts. First, given that the book was written by three non-Americans (two Australians and a Dutchman), I was surprised by the great seriousness, sympathy, and respect the authors showed toward their subject. This approach was gratifying, as it could have gone very easily into maudlin sentimentalism (they come close) or outraged anger (the closest they come is making a plea for Ed Givens to be included on the Astronaut Wall). For the most part, though, they give us just the facts. Also, the authors did their homework, seeking out sources beyond the typical technical briefings or NASA press releases, going so far as to solicit letters from family members and peers of the astronauts to get a sense of the astronauts as men. The letters are quite affecting. Lastly, the quality of the writing is simply excellent.

If I have any criticism of the book--and it's a minor one--it is that when you read the individual chapters, you can tell they were clearly written by separate authors as there is some repeated content in each of them that could have been eliminated. Because of that, the book reads like a series of separate essays rather than a unified work. However, the authors all manage to write in a similar style and convey the same general themes and sentiments.

And what are those sentiments?

A few days ago, as part of my day job, I was asked to review a speech astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson gave at the National Space Symposium. He was talking about the philosophy of our nation's space program, and he compared it to the sort of exploration cave men first did: "Not all of us leave the cave. Not everyone wants to, and that's okay. Not everyone who leaves the cave comes back. But we erect statues to those who do because they are heroes." Amen.

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