Friday, 11 December 2009


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Monday, 30 November 2009

Reference Guide to the International Space Station, Gary Kitmacher

With a title like Reference Guide to the International Space Station, this book doesn't really need a back-cover blurb. It has one, however; and it says, "This book is designed to provide a broad overview of the International Space Station's complex configuration, design, and component systems. As well, the sophisticated procedures required in the Station's construction and operation are presented". But this is not strictly accurate. The book's overview is actually quite detailed - it gives, for example, the physical dimensions, and other related facts and figures, about every module of the ISS. It is also copiously illustrated (see sample pages here and here), with lots of wonderful photographs.

In fact, if I have one criticism of this book, it's that it needs updating. It was originally published in 2006, so it's already three years out of date. Given that the ISS was originally planned to be de-orbited in 2010 - although that's likely to be extended to 2016 - it's certainly time for a new edition of Reference Guide to the International Space Station.

Although the copy reviewed here was published by Apogee, Reference Guide to the International Space Station is actually a reprint of a NASA document - available in parts as PDFs on the NASA web site here. All the same, it's an excellent resource and belongs in every self-respecting enthusiast's collection.

Reference Guide to the International Space Station, edited by Gary Kitmacher (2006, Apogee Books, ISBN 978-1-894959-34-6, 98pp + appendix)

The Year in Space

... is a useful, fun and informative site, which each week details important space-related events and facts of the past and present. You can either visit the site here, or sign up for a free weekly email newsletter. Each email contains "a photo-essay, daily Moon phases, sky events, space history, holidays, and more". And there's a hard-copy desk calender too.


Monday, 19 October 2009

The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams

I had intended to publish a short story on this blog as part of my 40th anniversary celebrations of Apollo 11, but with one thing and another I never actually finished the story. Recently, however, I needed to come up with a flash fiction piece (i.e., under 1,000 words) as part of my writing group's contribution to a local literary festival. And it occurred to me that the story I'd planned to publish here would be perfect. But first I had to finish it. And then chop it down to 1,000 words. Which I did. And I think it came out quite well.

So here it is:

The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams

“Radar lights are out.”

“That’s a Verb 57?”

Capcom confirms, “You’re go for a Verb 57.”

LMP Gerald P Carr punches it in on the DSKY. The computer will now accept data from the landing radar.

“Descent rate 70 feet per second… passing through 36 thousand… pitch 72…”

Carr reads out the LM’s altitude and descent rate, while Commander Stuart Roosa, USAF, flies the spacecraft. Moments later, Houston signs off as the LM crosses the lunar terminator —

Apollo 20, the first mission to visit the dark side of the Moon.

The LM approaches the Mare Ingenii, a lava-flooded crater. It looks like a real sea. Except it’s grey, a flat featureless grey like an under-exposed black and white photograph. A collapsed rim resembles two fjords. Carr can imagine a fishing port at the shore, a cluster of monochrome houses, with a monochrome jetty and little monochrome dories. Carr is USMC, he knows boats.

“Okay at 20,000,” Carr says. “Computer and PNGS on the button. 1:20 to pitchover.”

He feeds flight data to Roosa. They pitch over and begin to descend vertically.

“Ready for touchdown.”

“20 feet… 10 feet… contact.”


Not even a vibration through his boots. Carr feels a moment of vertigo, the moonscape visible through the window tips one way then the other. He blows out noisily; it’s enough to break the spell.

He says, “Engine stop, engine arm, command override off, PNGS on auto.”

Roosa says the magic words, but Houston can’t hear them:

“Centaurus has landed.”

Both astronauts want to go out onto the lunar surface, but they’re not scheduled for EVA for another three hours. First is a rest period, but they’re too keyed-up to sleep.

“What they used to call this?” Carr asks.

Mare Desiderii.”

“Sea of…” His Latin isn’t up to it.

“Sea of Dreams. But it’s not a mare. Except this bit, so they called it Sea of Cleverness. Ironic, huh?”

“I guess.” Carr is not big on irony. He’s a marine.

“What’s that?”

Roosa bounces round to face Carr. “What’s what?”

“I saw something flash.” Carr points north-east. The rim of Thomson there is broken, forming inlets into the “sea” of the crater’s floor.

“A flash? Like a reflection off a mineral?”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Worth checking out.” It’s some 12 kilometres away, so about an hour on the LRV.

The CSM is overhead, so Roosa tells CMP Paul Weitz their plan. He can inform Houston when he orbits back to the near-side.

“Be careful,” says Weitz.

Roosa acknowledges. He turns to look at the LM — bright silver, with its golden skirt. He got to come here, he marvels. Three days on the dark side. He made a first, he’s going down in the history books.

Like Neil Armstrong.

The floor of Thomson could have been made for the LRV, the going is so smooth. Roosa pushes the T-bar forward, and the speedometer needle creeps up to 15 kph.

“Boy,” says Carr, “we’re really motoring here.”

“Yeah. Who needs a Corvette?”

Carr directs Roosa to where he saw the flash. Roosa nudges the T-bar and the LRV arcs to the right.

Ahead, something sparkles. Sunlight spilling over the horizon makes the lunar surface a place of black shadows and grey twilight. But there’s something bright hiding in a fold in the tumbled-down rim.

From a kilometre away, it’s hard to tell what it is, though vision is sharp in the vacuum. Carr squints and makes out a suggestion of…

… something regular?

“You think it might be a Luna? One of those Russian probes?”

No, it’s too big. Carr has seen photos of the Luna probes: they looked like boilers on legs, like some robot from a 1950s B-movie.

The LRV slows to a stop. Roosa sits and stares at the object in the shadows. It’s a spacecraft. It lies crumpled against the slope, broken-backed, its engine bell towards them.

They disembark, and Roosa approaches the crashed spacecraft slowly. Is it alien? He’s heard of UFOs, of lights buzzing planes; but he doesn’t subscribe.

He can see the upper half of the craft. It looks familiar.

“Holy shit,” he says. “You’re not gonna believe this.”

It’s obvious now. Roosa can see exactly what it is:

A Mercury capsule.

Just like the ones flown by Al, John, Gus, the Original Seven. He can see the words “United States” on its side.

“Jesus,” says Carr. “How the hell did that get here?”

Roosa moves up the slope. The capsule looks undamaged. He’s close enough to see the hatch… and the curve of a helmet within.

“Stay back,” he warns.

There’s no movement, but it pays to be cautious. His breath is louder than the PLSS fans. The hatch is cracked open a few inches. He hauls it up.

Inside, belted into the single seat, sits a figure in a silver pressure suit. His head is slumped forward, hiding his face.

“No way is Houston going to believe this.”

The dead astronaut has the Star and Stripes on his shoulder. It’s impossible.

Roosa reaches in and shifts the body. Now he can see the nametag:


The only Kincheloe he knows of died back in 1958, killed at Edwards when his F-104 augered in. Could it be the same man? Maybe they faked his crash, maybe they sent him here instead.

“Jesus,” says Carr. “I found a flag stuck on a pole here.”

“Stars and Stripes?” asks Roosa. He’s still staring at the dead astronaut.


Roosa steps back from the capsule. He looks down at his feet, and sees his bootprints. They’ll last a million years. He sees more bootprints, not his. Kincheloe survived the crash.

“Know what this is?” Roosa remembers now. “I heard about it back at Edwards. Project Pilgrim. A one-way shot to the Moon.”

They actually went and did it. They sent a man to the Moon on a one-way ticket. He planted a flag here, then he died.

“Neil will be pissed,” Roosa says.

(all images NASA)

Monday, 28 September 2009

Winged Rocketry, James C Sparks

The cover-flap blurb for Winged Rocketry states, "this fascinating book retraces the history of rocket planes fro the first crude version fired by coolies in ancient China, on to the secret German space bombers and fighters of World War II and to the great barrier-breaking rocket planes of the United States". And so it does. But not in any great depth.

If anything, Winged Rocketry reads mostly as an introduction to its subject, rather than a deep study of it. Its emphasis is on readability - a not unexpected emphasis, given that the author was for many years the Public Affairs Officer for the Mercury and Gemini programmes in the Office of Information of the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force. While readability can never be a bad thing, it often results in a tendency to dramatise, which often undermines authority.

Take, for example, Sparks' description of Chuck Yeager's historic flight in the X-1 on 14 October 1947. Sparks tells us that:

"[Yeager] had awakened in the middle of many a night, in the throes of fantastic nightmares, most of which were associated with violent explosions, or the fear of being sealed inside the fiery bomb in a last plunge to earth." (p 109)

Unless Sparks is telepathic, there's no way he could know this (this book predates Yeager's autobiography by almost twenty years).

Despite such flourishes, Winged Rocketry is mostly a solid read about rocket planes. As the blurb indicates, it opens with apocryphal tales of rocket-powered flying experiments in ancient China - all of which, obviously, failed. It then follows the German experiments between the wars and during World War II, which led to the Messerschmidt Me-163 Komet and the Natter - both lethal aircraft to fly. There is a chapter devoted to each. Next is the proposed manned variants of the V-2 and the Sänger "Antipodal Bomber".

After Germany, the only experiments in rocket-powered flight of any consequence took place in the US - the X-1 programme, and the D-558 Skyrocket, both of which are covered in the book; as are the Bell X-2 and North American X-15.

Of course, research with rocket-powered aircraft did take place in other countries, most notably the UK. The Saunders Roe SR.53 was a mixed jet- and rocket-powered interceptor, which first flew in 1957, and would likely have led to the SR.177 entering service with the RAF. Duncan Sandys' infamous 1957 Defence White Paper, however, put paid to that, as it did the TSR-2 and a variety of other imaginative aviation projects. None of this is mentioned in Winged Rocketry.

It's only towards the end of Winged Rocketry that the book becomes interesting, and then for the wrong reasons. At the time it was written, there was an expectation that some of the lines of study by NASA and the armed forces would lead to real aircraft and spacecraft. Although the X-20 Dyna Soar had been cancelled in 1963, Sparks describes the future of lifting body research - i.e., their use as spacecraft - as if it were certain to happen, even going so far as to write, "The trend in futuristic space vehicles is rather firmly established at present" (p 158). Of course, no manned lifting body ever made it into orbit. And these days, they are better known from the opening credit sequence of the television programme The Six Million Dollar Man.

The final chapter of Winged Rocketry describes some of the proposed designs for space planes, both military and civil. None ever got further than the drawing-board, although in 1968 it was perhaps expected they would do so. Sparks certainly believed so. It's a shame he was wrong.

Winged Rocketry, Major James C Sparks (retd) (1968 Dodd, Mead, No ISBN, 180pp + index)

Saturday, 5 September 2009

One Small Step, PB Kerr

Given the shadow the Apollo Programme casts over the history of the twentieth century, it's surprising there isn't more fiction set in and about it. There's certainly plenty about space travel, but that's science fiction, inasmuch as it supposes technologies and sciences which do not exist, such as faster-than-light drives. But they're the subject of my other blog here.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, an I very much doubt I was alone in that. It was never a likely prospect - I'm not American, for one thing. In PB Kerr's One Small Step, thirteen-year-old Scott MacLeod wants to be an astronaut when he grows up, but he gets to be one while he's still a kid. PB Kerr is better known as Philip Kerr, the author of the excellent Bernie Gunther novels, as well as a number of others. As PB Kerr, he writes YA fiction - this novel, and the Children of the Lamp series.

One Small Step opens with Scott's parents separated, his mother in Florida, and his father a serving USAF officer in Texas. After an incident at school, Scott goes to live with his father. And every Sunday, Scott's father gives his son flying lessons at the nearby Air Force base. On a flight in a T-37 trainer jet, a bird strike shatters the canopy and knocks out Scott's father. So he lands the plane on his own.

News of this feat reaches NASA, and Dr Wernher von Braun comes to visit Scott and his father. Apparently, NASA had been so scared after the Apollo 1 fire that the Apollo missions might fail, or that the astronauts might be killed, that they were running a shadow programme, called Caliban, using chimpanzees. They were all set to send a Caliban mission to the Moon ahead of Apollo 11, but their chimp commander had suffered a mental breakdown. Von Braun wants Scott to command the mission instead.

Which, of course, he does. After four months of training, Scott is blasted into space with two chimpanzees in a smaller version of the Apollo spacecraft. The mission plans for the two apes to land on the Moon, but not EVA, while Scott remains in lunar orbit. Naturally, he disobeys, pilots the LM down himself, and goes out onto the surface. Where something strange happens to him and his chimpanzee LMP. They then return to Earth and are quarantined, but Scott can convince no one of what he experienced on the Moon.

Certainly NASA used apes early in its space programme, but it's a stretch too far to imagine an entire secret project shadowing Apollo. As a central premise, it's a little difficult to swallow. and that sort of spoils the book. Scott is an engaging narrator, and the story is very readable. Kerr is perhaps better on his ape characters than he is on Apollo details - the afterword, for example, refers to the "Apollo 7 fire". The only Apollo astronaut to feature is Pete Conrad (see my review of his biography here), and he feels mostly true to character.

But. Sending apes to the Moon. And having to use a thirteen-year-old boy to command the mission. It's too incredible. The Caliban 11 mission is launched using a Saturn V, which means there was no requirement for ape-sized Apollo spacecraft, which means in turn there was no need for a boy rather than an adult. Not to mention the level of automation required for a mission "manned" by chimpanzees. The real Apollo astronauts had thousands of tasks during their missions, and they were already quite heavily automated. I can swallow a young boy being given flying lessons, and landing a damaged jet trainer because the pilot in unconscious, but the rest....

Which doesn't mean One Small Step isn't a fun read. And I suppose it provides a very good YA introduction to Apollo. Not everyone, after all, is going to want to wade through heavy non-fiction books on the subject (which may explain why the terrible Moon Shot - see here - is so popular). I found the details in One Small Step mostly correct, the book wears its research lightly, and the period is evoked well. I already knew Kerr was a good writer, and in that regard this book doesn't disappoint. Perhaps the whole separated parents subplot is a bit of a cliché, but at least it makes for a happy ending. I'd happily pass One Small Step on to a reader of the appropriate age. I'm fairly sure they would enjoy it.

One Small Step, PB Kerr (2008, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-1-84738-300-6, 305pp + Author's Note)

Monday, 20 July 2009

First on the Moon, Armstrong, Aldrin & Collins

Forty years ago, the first person from this planet set foot on Earth's satellite, the Moon. He was Neil Alden Armstrong, and with Buzz Aldrin he formed the crew of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle (Michael Collins remained in orbit about the Moon aboard Command Module Columbia). They were followed by a further six missions, one of which - Apollo 13 - did not make it to the lunar surface. On 14th December 1972, Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt climbed back into the Apollo 17 LM Challenger and shortly afterwards it departed. No one has visited the Moon since.

First on the Moon by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins is the definitive account of the first mission to land on the Moon. It was published immediately after the event, and was written with the assistance of Gene Farmer and Dora Jane 'Dodie' Hamblin, two of the Life journalists who had exclusive access to the astronauts and their families.

You would expect the most authoritative book on the Apollo 11 lunar landing to be one written by the three men who actually made the trip. But would that necessarily make it a good book? Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins are, after all, astronauts and not writers - Farmer and Hamblin's presence on the title page notwithstanding. So it came as a pleasant surprise to discover that First on the Moon is very good indeed. Not only because it tells the story of the mission with authority, but because it is readable, well-structured, and a fascinating read from start to finish.

The book is written in several voices - there are transcripts of the mission, some parts of which are annotated; there are passages by the three astronauts, typically in answer to questions; there are sections describing events at the homes of the astronauts as their families watch the mission on television; and there are passages more typical of a non-fiction record of Apollo 11, not all of which feature the Apollo 11 crew or their families. Together these build a mosaic, rich in detail, of what happened during the flight, for both those aboard and those who remained behind.

Having now read First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong (see here), Buzz Aldrin's Return to Earth (see here), and Michael Collins' Carrying the Fire (see here), I feel I have some idea of the character of the three astronauts - and First on the Moon does nothing to dispel the impression of them as people I had gained from those three books. Armstrong still talks like a flight manual, Aldrin is as blunt as he is in his autobiography, and Collins provides the light relief and culture. Those three books, however, do not cover Apollo 11 - surely the defining moment of their lives - in as much detail as First on the Moon.

First on the Moon also scores highly in another area. Since Farmer and Hamblin were embedded with the Apollo families, they witnessed the reactions of the wives and children to the mission. The families are certainly not ignored in First on the Moon, and they are quoted almost as extensively as the astronauts themselves. It makes for a rounded view of Apollo 11 - the three astronauts in space in their CSM, while their spouses and children watched and waited at home.

The book finishes with an excellent epilogue by Arthur C Clarke, entitled 'Beyond Apollo'. It's typical Clarkeian futurism, and with the benefit of hindsight we can see that his optimism in many areas was unfounded. After Apollo 17, no one ever left Earth orbit again - so there are no moonbases, there have been no missions to Mars. Which is a shame: I think I would have liked the late twentieth century Clarke depicts. Those familiar with Clarke's novels and stories may spot references to his fiction in some of the points he makes.

Of course, since First on the Moon was written by the Apollo 11 crew, with the help of Life journalists, it's not going to be "warts and all". It puts a positive spin on the whole endeavour, and no one comes out of it looking bad. That's not necessarily a bad thing; after all, Apollo 11 should be celebrated. When talking to Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins aboard USS Hornet after their return, President Nixon said, "This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation". Hyperbole aside, putting two men on the Moon was an astonishing achievement; and even more astonishing when you consider the time at which it happened, the 1960s. Most of the technology required was in its infancy then. Now, we have the science, technology and engineering to repeat the achievement, and it would not be nearly so difficult.

Even if some nation does put an astronaut on the Moon in the next twenty years, and several have declared an intent to do so, it will never be as impressive an accomplishment as Apollo 11.

There are many books available on Apollo 11 - and yet more being published this year to celebrate the its fortieth anniversary. First on the Moon not only has the advantage of being written by the crew of Apollo 11, but also having been written shortly afterwards. It's an excellent study of the mission. Highly recommended.

First on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, with Gene Farmer and Dora Jane Hamblin (1970, Little, Brown, No ISBN , 433pp + epilogue, acknowledgment and notes)

Sunday, 19 July 2009

First Man, James Hansen

There are two approaches to writing a biography. In the first, the subject is treated as if he or she were the protagonist of a novel - their life is dramatised. A good example of this type would be Rocketman by Nancy Conrad and Howard Klausner (see here). The second approach is far more academic, and treats its subject as just that, the subject of the book. To me, what the first type gains in readability it loses in authority. First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong by James R Hansen also proves the point, albeit from the opposite direction.

Neil Alden Armstrong is, of course, the first man to set foot on the Moon. On 20th July 1969, he climbed down from the hatch of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle, stepped onto the lunar regolith and said, "that's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind".

(Although Armstrong actually said "one small step for man", and repeated studies have deemed it unlikely he ever uttered the implied "a", he has said he certainly intended to speak the article. Besides, the phrase is nonsense without it, and given its historical importance I feel it's best to quote it as it should have been said.)

First Man is authoritative. Hansen was chosen by Armstrong as his biographer in 2002, and the book quotes the astronaut extensively. It was also uses a great many quotes from Michael Collins' Carrying the Fire (see here) and Buzz Aldrin's Return to Earth (see here)... which does give a somewhat odd effect: for example, Armstrong is commenting on Apollo 11 after more than thirty years, but his crewmates' commentaries are from no more than a couple of years after the lunar landing. This also gives Armstrong the benefit of three decades of thought on the matter. But while he has been chiefly characterised as an introspective, thoughtful man, there isn't actually that much evidence of this in the book.

Which is perhaps an unfair characterisation of Armstrong. He is notoriously taciturn, and when he does speak it's often difficult to comprehend his meaning. At the press conference for the New Nine, he was asked why he had applied to become an astronaut. He said, "It was the general challenge of the unknowns of the program, and the general alignment of this part of it with our national goals". Only when he is actually describing events, or discussing an engineering topic, does he make sense.

But then Armstrong saw himself first and foremost as an engineer. He was a test pilot for NASA prior to becoming an astronaut, but all those worked with him during that part of his career stressed his engineering expertise over his flying abilities - in fact, in Carrying the Fire, Collins remarks he had been told Armstrong was "one of the weaker stick-and-rudder men". And yet, but for Armstrong's flying abilities Apollo 11 might very well have come a cropper. When LM Eagle undocked from CSM Columbia, the docking tunnel still contained air. This gave Eagle sufficient push such that the onboard PNGS no longer accurately showed the LM's position. So when the craft reached the final section of its powered descent, Armstrong and Aldrin found themselves heading for an area that was unsuitable for landing. So Armstrong manually flew the LM further and they landed with only 25 seconds of fuel remaining.

That Armstrong could do this, and do it successfully, is chiefly a result of his monomaniacal approach to his training to the mission. The best training device for the lunar landing was the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle, which was notoriously dangerous - so much so that Director of Flight Operations Chris Kraft wanted to eliminate it. In fact, Armstrong nearly met his death in the LLTV, but managed to eject in time. That afternoon, he was back behind his desk, filling in a report.

First Man is an excellent resource on the whats and whens of Armstrong's career - from his birth and childhood, through his service in Korea, his time at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Centre at Edwards AFB, Gemini 8 and Apollo 11, right up to the time of the book's writing. Hansen takes care to debunk several myths which have grown up about the astronaut, chiefly stories whose details have become inflated over the years, but he never really seems to come to grips with the man. Since Armstrong speaks for himself - either in NASA transcripts, or in interviews or correspondence with Hansen - it's difficult to grasp his character. The fact that he often talks using the tortured English of an engineering report doesn't help. It makes for an interesting comparison with Collins, whose character comes across plainly in his Carrying the Fire; and Buzz Aldrin, who is not as open in Return to Earth but is certainly far less inscrutable than Armstrong.

Collins described the Apollo 11 crew as "amiable strangers", and as commander Armstrong bears most responsibility for that situation. He created the character of the team. It's tempting to suggest that everyone in his life - bar immediate family, of course - was no more than an amiable stranger to him. There are occasions when the mask slips - the crew joking about in Columbia during the trip back to Earth, when discussing the tragedies he has experienced - but even then Armstrong permits only a carefully-controlled slippage.

First Man is an important book because its subject is important. Neil Armstrong was the first man on the Moon. He is also something of an enigma, and while First Man fails to solve that puzzle it comes closer to a solution than any other book. It is also an excellent historical document because it is a well-researched, comprehensive and authoritative treatment of its subject. The writing is perhaps not great, running from the serviceable to the occasionally bizarre: "To achieve jettison, the astronauts had to depressurize their cabin once again..." (p530). But it does its job.

First Man is an important book, although not a great biography. But it definitely belongs in the collection of any self-respecting space enthusiast.

First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong, James R Hansen (2005, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-0-7432-5631-5, 648 pp + acknowledgments, notes, bibliography and index)

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Return to Earth, Buzz Aldrin

Last month, Buzz Aldrin, with Snoop Dogg, Quincy Jones, Talib Kweli, and Soulja Boy, recorded a hiphop single, 'Rocket Experience'. All the proceeds from it will go to the ShareSpace Foundation, a non-profit organisation founded by Aldrin. A hiphop song is perhaps an odd way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, but Aldrin has been promoting space exploration since retiring from the US Air Force in 1972. He is the only one of the three Apollo 11 crew who currently engages with the public on the topic.

However, Aldrin hasn't always been such a vocal and tireless proponent of space exploration. After Apollo 11, he returned to the US Air Force as commandant of the Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB in California, but stayed there only a couple of years before retiring from the military. His first book, Return to Earth, covers this portion of his life.

Return to Earth opens with the Apollo 11 splashdown. Aldrin then goes on to describe the quarantine which followed - in case the astronauts had brought any "Moon germs" back to Earth - and then the subsequent world publicity tour. Aldrin holds little back. He finds the Norwegians "not at all enthusiastic", is surprised the British don't present the astronauts with a decoration or award, and declares the Shah of Iran's wife the most thoughtful of the state leaders' spouses they meet on their travels. There's surprisingly little culture-clash, perhaps because Aldrin served in Germany with the US Air Force for three years from 1956. But there are still one or two telling incidents - such as the Apollo 11 astronauts' dinner at 10 Downing Street, at which "the recently deposed Labour leader landed in his cups and gave a speech ripping his country's present administration" (p 71). That would be Harold Wilson attacking Edward Heath's government. As a Brit, this strikes me as entirely unremarkable - but not, perhaps to a US military man who must never "embarrass the Chief", a phrase which appears several times in Rocketman, the biography of Pete Conrad (see here).

Return to Earth then leaps back to Aldrin's childhood and his early career. Like many astronauts, he had early exposure to aircraft - nothing notable now, but it certainly was in the late 1930s and early 1940s. While his father arranged for Aldrin to attend Annapolis, the US Navy academy, Aldrin chose instead to go to West Point and then into the US Air Force. He fought in Korea, and downed two enemy MiG-15s. He then served in a variety of places, including Germany, before attending MIT to earn a doctorate in astronautics. His doctoral thesis was titled Line-of-sight guidance techniques for manned orbital rendezvous, a subject he deliberately chose with an eye to becoming an astronaut. He'd already applied once, asking that the requirement for attending test pilot school be waived in his case. The request was refused.

In fact, at NASA Aldrin was sometimes known as "Dr Rendezvous" because of the work he'd done on the subject. He joined NASA in the third group of astronauts in 1963, after they'd dropped the test pilot school requirement. Initially, he was assigned as backup to Gemini 10. This meant - following the usual rotation schedule of "miss two missions, fly on the the third" - he would not actually fly until Gemini 13. But there were only twelve missions planned. But then the crew of Gemini 9, Charlie Bassett and Elliot See, died in a plane crash, and so Gemini 10 became Gemini 9A... which in turn meant Aldrin would fly on Gemini 12.

After the Gemini programme finished, Aldrin was assigned as backup on Apollo 9, which would have put him in the prime crew for Apollo 12. Then it was learnt that the Lunar Module would not be ready for the Apollo 8 flight, so that became Apollo 9, putting Aldrin as backup on what was now Apollo 8 and so prime on Apollo 11. At that point, Apollo 11 "seemed a much too optimistic candidate for the first lunar landing" (p 198). Besides, Aldrin admits several times he would sooner fly on a later mission, one which spent longer on the Moon and performed more science.

The rest, as they say, is history. On 16th July 1969, Apollo 11 launched from launch-pad 39A, and on 20th July Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon in the Lunar Module Eagle. Aldrin devotes less than eight pages to the time spent on the Moon, and while he has become known for the phrase "magnificent desolation" as a description of its surface, he does fail to evoke what it was actually like to be actually there.

That is, perhaps, the major failing of Return to Earth. It is very matter-of-fact. Aldrin is honest; he pulls no punches. But writing his style is an odd mix of frankness and self-aggrandisement. He gets the details across but rarely succeeds in presenting them memorably to the reader. While his preference for facts over opinions is laudable, it does make for a dry read. This doesn't mean he entirely avoids giving his own opinion; far from it. While at West Point, he charged another cadet with cheating, but there was not enough evidence for a court-martial. The cheating student, however, was honour-bound to confess. He failed to do so and "is now a very high ranking officer in the armed services" (p 115). Aldrin admits to feeling bitter, to having his confidence in the system severely shaken, but also realises he was guilty of "rather naïve idealism".

Aldrin's idealism and naivety is a common theme throughout Return to Earth. His lack of political nous at NASA nearly saw him bumped from a flight. After joining the Astronaut Corps and being sent on public engagements, he was misquoted by the press on many occasions, and admits to being very angry over it. Even after he left NASA, he tried to set up a youth congress, only for it to fail. But this did work in his favour on occasion - after rejoining the Air Force, he was assigned as commandant of the Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards, where he set about changing the school's culture to make it more open and egalitarian. He was successful.

Return to Earth is, unsurprisingly, an unflinchingly honest self-portrait. Aldrin admits to an extra-marital affair and the precariousness of his marriage; he details the mental illness he suffered which persuaded him to retire from the Air Force; and, while the word "alcoholism" is never actually used in the book, there's certainly a great deal of drinking mentioned in its pages. The book is very informative and an excellent account of Aldrin's early life and career. It also gives an indication of his character - its honesty alone suggests he had not, at the time of writing, lost his "rather naïve idealism". But that's no bad thing.

Return to Earth is perhaps not the most rivetting read about Apollo 11 that has been published, but it certainly belongs in the collection any self-respecting space enthusiast.

Return to Earth, Colonel Edwin E "Buzz" Aldrin, with Wayne Warga (1973, Random House, ISBN 0-394-48832-6, 338p)

Friday, 17 July 2009

Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins

I've read enough about Apollo 11 - and not just in my preparations for this Apollo40 celebration - to be aware of how its crew are normally characterised. Neil Armstrong is the strong, silent type, and has shunned all publicity since the Apollo 11 round-the-world tour. Buzz Aldrin is a fierce proponent of space exploration, extremely clever, but also very frank and blunt. And Michael Collins is the erudite one, the wine connoisseur, who was not as po-faced or serious as Armstrong or Aldrin.

These, of course, are the public perceptions of the three astronauts. And the best way to a better understanding of them is to read their biographies or autobiographies. Beginning with Michael Collins, whose Carrying the Fire is generally reckoned to be one of the best books of its type.

I've been disappointed by highly-recommended books on space before - see here - but happily I can confirm that both Michael Collins and his Carrying the Fire live up to their reputations. He is an engaging and readable narrator, surprisingly honest, and considerably more self-effacing than the other astronauts. (This last may also have been true of Pete Conrad, but his biography, Rocketman, was written after his death and doesn't really give a true indication of the man - see here.)

Like Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins owes his place in the history books to misfortune - in this case, his own. He had been initially assigned to the crew of Apollo 8, but a cervical disc herniation requiring surgery resulted in him being dropped from flight status. After he had recovered, he was assigned to Apollo 11. If it had not been for his back problem, it's likely Apollo 8 would have been his one and only Apollo flight - he was keen to retire from NASA after successful completion.

Which is a shame. Collins was command module pilot for Apollo 11, and remained in orbit about the Moon in Command Module Columbia. Of all the Apollo astronauts, Collins would probably have best described in prose what it was like to actually walk on the Moon. If he had not left NASA after Apollo 11, the normal rotation schedule would probably have seen him commanding Apollo 17... and so landing on the lunar surface. And then he would have been able to write about it.

For instance, take Collins' description of his first sight of the Moon from close quarters:

"The moon I have known all my life, that two-dimensional, small yellow disk in the sky, has gone away somewhere, to be replaced by the most awesome sphere I have ever seen. To begin with, it is huge, completely filling our window. Second, it is three-dimensional. The belly of it bulges out towards us in such a pronounced fashion that I almost feel I can reach out and touch it, while its surface obviously recedes towards the edges. It is between us and the sun, creating the most splendid lighting conditions imaginable." (p 387)

It is definitely the writing which lifts Carrying the Fire above other books of its type. In its approach to its topic, it is little different. It opens with a very brief précis of Collins' early life, mentioning - of course - his first aeroplane ride. It covers his entry into the US Air Force and his career before joining NASA. He then discusses the other astronauts, and takes time to briefly characterise them. Of his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts, he says:

"Neil Armstrong Makes decisions slowly and well. As Borman gulps decisions, Armstrong savors them - rolling them around on his tongue like a fine wine and swallowing at the very last moment ... Neil is a classy guy, and I can't offhand think of a better choice to be the first man on the moon.

Buzz Aldrin Heavy, man, heavy. Would make a champion chess player; always thinks several moves ahead. If you don't understand what Buzz is talking about today, you will tomorrow or the next day. Fame has not worn well on Buzz. I think he resents not being first on the moon more than he appreciates being second." (p 60)

To be fair, Carrying the Fire was published in 1974, at which point Aldrin was indeed failing to cope... but Aldrin did subsequently go on to "wear fame" the best of the three, and today is a tireless and vocal proponent of space exploration. And, of course, Aldrin's own words on the second man on the Moon "controversy" are entirely different in his own book, Return to Earth (see this blog tomorrow). Later in Carrying the Fire, during the mission itself, slightly different characters emerge for the two; and Collins' analysis on the trip back to Earth results in him referring to them as "amiable strangers" - an often-quoted phrase.

Collins provides a great deal of detail about his time in NASA. As all the astronauts were encouraged to specialise in an area related to the various missions, Collins chose space suits and Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA). He spent a lot of time testing the space suits for both the Gemini and Apollo programmes, and describes extremely well the experience of wearing them. In fact, Collins provides an impressive amount of detail about everything he did as an astronaut - most especially, of course, his two missions, Gemini 10 and and Apollo 11. His is the most descriptive and evocative accounts of missions from either programme I have read to date. And they are not only highly informative but a pleasure to read.

Also noteworthy is Collins' ability to explain the arcana of astronautics in an easy-to-understand fashion. Carrying the Fire by no means talks down to its reader, but neither is it as dense with "technobabble" as, for instance, Tom Stafford's autobiography, We Have Capture (see here). Collins writes, "NASA-ese is no worse than Air Force-ese or State Department-ese, I suppose each has its place, although none of them seems a desirable substitute for English" (p 76), and goes on to give examples of each. Carrying the Fire is, happily, written entirely in English.

Collins is also a nicely self-deprecating writer, not only unafraid to include his emotional responses in his account but also to comment on his own abilities and position (or lack thereof) in the Astronaut Corps. He is not always complementary about his colleagues, although he clearly likes and admires them. Neither does he agree that every decision made regarding Gemini and Apollo by NASA was the right one, or that the technology used was always ideal or best-suited to the job.

Above all, Carrying the Fire is an involving read. On finishing it, you're left with an excellent impression of what it was like to have been on the Gemini 10 and Apollo 11 missions, rather being left with a knowledge of the life and career of Michael Collins, astronaut. Compared to other astronaut autobiographies I have read, this is unusual. I would also say it was a good thing. Interestingly, this is also one of the few autobiographies which was not ghost-written, or written with the assistance of a ghost writer. As Collins himself says, "No matter how good the ghost, I am convinced that a book loses realism when an interpreter stands between the storyteller and his audience" (p xvi).

Highly recommended. If you want to read one autobiography by an astronaut, I can confirm that this is definitely one of the best.

(Note: unlike the other books I have written about on this blog, my edition of Carrying the Fire is not a first edition. The book was first published in 1974.)

Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins (2001, Cooper Square Press, ISBN 978-0-8154-1028-7, 478 pp + appendix)