Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Rocketman, Nancy Conrad

Rocketman is subtitled "Pete Conrad's Incredible Ride to the Moon and Beyond" and purports to be a biography of Gemini and Apollo astronaut Charles 'Peter' Conrad Jr. Except it doesn't actually read like a biography. It reads more like a novel, in which Pete Conrad happens to be the main character. As a result, it offers little insight into its subject.

Perhaps this is because the book was co-written by Howard Klausner, who is better known as the screenwriter for the film Space Cowboys. While that certainly means he's familiar with the material, writing a screenplay and writing a biography are not the same. A biography, for example, does not need a story. It doesn't require a three-act structure. And the character-arc is a function of the subject's life, and not something that is imposed by the biographer.

All of which explains in part why I found Rocketman such a dissatisfying book. It was certainly a fast and easy read, but its style gave it no authority. It was based upon notes left by Conrad on his death in 1999, and from which he intended to write an autobiography himself, but for all that it doesn't seem to really capture what it was like to be a Gemini and Apollo astronaut.

For whatever reason, Nancy Conrad and Klausner chose to frame Rocketman using Conrad's record-breaking around the world Learjet flight in 1996. Which in turn gives the chapters on Conrad's childhood, his career at NASA, and his days afterwards at McDonnell Douglas, the feel of reminiscences. It distances his achievements. In fact, one of the few sections of the book which gives a real feel for the man is a direct quote taken from, I assume, his notes, regarding his Gemini 5 mission. He and Gordo Cooper set a new space endurance record of eight days in, as Conrad described it, "a garbage can". In the quote in Rocketman, he mentions that his knees dried up and began to hurt. It's details such as this which make the man and his mission come alive for the reader. It's a shame there aren't more in the book.

In places, Rocketman reads as though Klausner were trying to tell his own history of the space race, a story in which Conrad was an important, but not major, player. The focus of the book occasionally shifts to the world stage and describes events in which Conrad played no part - because, it feels like, Klausner has something to say about the representation of the USA in geopolitics. There's a lot of rah-rah "our country, 'tis for thee" nonsense, which might fit the macho character of the test pilots and astronauts, but seems faintly risible to a non-American reader in the twenty-first century. Admittedly, the space race took place because of politics, and Apollo was indeed an astonishing achievement. But an Apollo astronaut's biography is not the right place to give the US's somewhat tarnished international reputation a buff and polish.

Rocketman hits the highlights of Conrad's career - Gemini 5, Gemini 11, Apollo 12, Skylab and the McDonnell Douglas Delta Clipper. The book ends with a dramatised description of the motorcycle accident which caused his death in 1999. In many respects, Conrad was a typical astronaut. Like many of them he spent much of his youth hanging around an airfield and learned to fly in his teens. He was described as one of the best pilots among the astronauts - as most of them have also been described. Clearly he was as driven and determined as the other astronauts, although he was perhaps atypically approachable. He liked a good joke and reading between the lines his sense of humour unlike, Alan Shepard, another astronaut known for his jokes, was not cruel.

Reading Rocketman, the over-riding impression is of a man who was liked by everyone who knew him. While it seems a little unlikely - the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts were, after all, highly-driven, highly-ambitious military jocks - Conrad definitely appeared to be a more likable man than many of his colleagues.

But I'd have sooner Rocketman left an impression of Conrad's career and achievements, rather than simply the fact that he was a nice guy for an astronaut. Disappointing.

Rocketman: Pete Conrad's Incredible Ride to the Moon and Beyond, Nancy Conrad with Howard A Klausner (2005, New American Library, ISBN 0-451-21509-5, 275pp + appendices and index)