Half a century ago, humans landed on the moon for the first time. Here are some more reads about events before, during, and afterwards.
“Rocket Billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and The New Space Race.” Tim Fernholz, 2018.
Many books about the ever-changing field of private space development – a field very much in flux – are all too predictable. The larger-than-life protagonists, such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, are written either as saviors of humanity, or cartoonish ogres. This book, thankfully, does neither. While the personalities are skillfully and entertainingly chronicled, they are set in a context of the wider, tough world of business. Fernholz’s background as a reporter works well in a book format, as the story is told breezily and entertainingly. This is a great peek behind the scenes of some pioneering business people and the wider field of access to space. The author gets some space shuttle Columbia tragedy details subtly wrong, which makes me wonder about other details I am less familiar with. But this does not detract from a lively narrative.
“Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight.” Margaret Lazarus Dean, 2015.
Margaret Lazarus Dean opens her book with one of the best-written space musings I have ever read. It may be because the author and I are about the same age, with the same experiences of walking into space museums as a child – but she nails, absolutely, how those of us who grew up with the space shuttle perceive the last few decades of space flight. The book is worth purchasing for the prologue alone.
Can the book sustain that feeling for the next three hundred pages? Of course not: that would be almost impossible. There are times in the middle of the book where I feel the pace has slowed a little too much, and the musings repeat. Nevertheless, at the end, I was sorry the book was over.
Dean does, better than anyone, stake claim to a new niche in what she correctly identifies as a literary field all to itself – that of space reporting and observing the sweep of human spaceflight. Not the recollections of the astronauts, but instead the more difficult task of witnessing and describing from the ground. She reflects often on those who came before her - not so much on the well-worn Tom Wolfe style, so emulated now as to be cliché, but the lesser-known work of Oriana Fallaci and Norman Mailer. Fallaci’s work in particular is unfamiliar to many, but her determination in the 1960s to thrust herself as a foreign woman into a world of American military men and tell it as she saw it is wonderfully illuminating. Mailer was able to capture his total confusion at the anodyne boredom of the public face of Apollo 11, but to my mind then bloviated for hundreds of pages to little end. Dean is able to tease the good strands of thoughts from Mailer’s self-absorbed, wasted opportunity, and place herself deservedly as the new voice of a tradition of watching the space program unfold, close by, but not so close as to be involved. The reader is thus able to feel, as a fellow outsider, events take place in what Dean correctly describes as a turning point in history. While chronologically impossible due to their age difference, I wish Dean had been there in 1969 to tell Mailer “Focus! Look at what you are missing! Look at that!”
Dean tells us what humans have accomplished in space, and the awkward pause we find ourselves in now, better than any writer ever has. It’s fresh, and most intriguingly – because it is still taking place – the questions are startlingly relevant. What is next for America’s space program? Dean does the toughest job of all. She doesn’t advocate, or try to answer questions that cannot yet be answered. Instead, she captures that sense of unease, that sense of wondering, better than any other book I have read. It’s a poignant elegy by a smart, inquiring mind. She is careful to always ask the questions as a thoughtful, outsider individual, and not widen the scope. She captures a culture, which in many ways is much harder than capturing a history on the page. She asks why, more than telling us what. In doing so, she tells a wonderfully crafted, personal story.
By now, you've guessed that I think that she is a darn good writer. There are turns of phrase here and details that caught me thinking “I know that feeling exactly, and no one has ever captured it on a page like this before.” Such books are rare. And Dean does it despite this book having one of the most divisive, potentially confusing, argument-inciting subtitles ever. Putting an image of an Apollo launch on the cover of a book about the last shuttle launches seems puzzling enough, but subtitling a book “Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight” feels oddly provocative. Wait a minute, I thought when first seeing it, there have been Americans permanently living in space since the year 2000, including the many post-shuttle years. Want to tell the current crew that they are living after the last days of American spaceflight? It’s one of those “I know what they mean, but...” titles. I can only assume it was the unwanted decision of the publisher, because Dean's writing is much, much more nuanced and thoughtful than such sloganeering.
Such things are minor, however, compared to the overall scope of the book. Rather than amped-up hyperbole of questing for the heavens, or surrendering to melancholy, Dean fully captures a sense of a curious young woman standing on uneven, swampy ground, sweating in the humidity, irked by mosquitoes, waiting for a shuttle launch that might take place in minutes, or be postponed for months. If you missed seeing the final shuttles launch in person – read this book. And you’ll be there.
“Deke! U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the Shuttle Hardcover,” Donald Slayton with Michael Cassutt, 1994.
If you want to know how the first person to set foot on the moon was chosen, or any of the other insider stories that were previously unknown and hidden to outside knowledge, then this is the book you’ll want to read.
Deke Slayton was an astronaut himself with one of the most fascinating personal stories (which we learn in this book). But he was also deeply involved, perhaps more than anyone, in choosing who flew and on which flights.
Before Slayton died at a relatively young age, his name was added to a book called “Moon Shot,” which I found shallow and disappointing. The stories I knew he must have were not in there. With his death, I assumed that we’d lost any opportunity to know how the astronaut selection process had worked, something which had decided which spacefarer would be a name to be remembered for all time in the history books, and who would be obscure, even forgotten.
But then I found that he hadn’t truly been involved with “Moon Shot” – he’d instead been working on this second, much better, much deeper book. And here are all the stories I’d hoped for. For the first time, I learned how some of the most historic and momentous decisions were made. It makes for fascinating reading, and I am thankful that Slayton took the time to get it all down on paper with the ever-talented Michael Cassutt.
Possibly the best recommendation for this book comes from other astronauts; many have commented that they did not know why they had been picked for certain flights (or passed over) until, decades after retirement, they read this book.
An essential read for anyone with the slightest interest in some of the most important historical events of our age.