Thursday, November 18, 2021

Books: On Space Travel

Space travel has been in the news a lot this year, with launches by NASA, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos capturing the country's imagination. In this review, we will take a look at three books that will deepen your knowledge of space: A Long Voyage to the Moon: The Life of Naval Aviator and Apollo 17 Astronaut Ron Evans, by Geoffrey Bowman;  Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space, by Stephen Walker.

A Long Voyage to the Moon: The Life of Naval Aviator and Apollo 17 Astronaut Ron Evans

By Geoffrey Bowman; foreword by Jack Lousma

Nebraska; hardcover, 424 pages; $36.95

Geoffrey Bowman is a retired litigation lawyer living with his wife in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is a fellow of the British Interplanetary Society and has contributed to the society's Spaceflight magazine. He contributes regularly to the quarterly magazine of the Irish Astronomical Association, of which he is a member.

Jack Lousma wrote the foreword to the book, and he is a retired United States Marine Corps colonel, former naval aviator, NASA astronaut, and politician. He was a member of the second crew on the Skylab space station in 1973 and commanded the third space shuttle flight in 1982.

A Long Voyage to the Moon tells the story of Ron Evans, the command pilot of Apollo 17, which was the last crewed flight to the moon. Evans combined precision flying and painstaking geological observation with moments of delight and enthusiasm. 

On his way to the launchpad, he literally jumped for joy in his spacesuit, and when he emerged from the command module to conduct his crucial spacewalk, he exclaimed, "Hot diggity dog!" and waved to his family. When he was in charge of command module America, and because of his patriotism, he was nicknamed "Captain America" by his fellow crew members.

Evans was born in 1933 in St. Francis, Kansas, and he distinguished himself academically and athletically in school, earned degrees in electrical engineering and aeronautical engineering, and became a naval aviator and combat flight instructor. He was one of the few astronauts to serve in combat during the Vietnam War, flying more than a hundred missions off the deck of the USS Ticonderoga, the same aircraft carrier that would recover him and his fellow astronauts after the splashdown of Apollo 17. 

The thing about Evans' career which is remarkable is that it spanned the Apollo missions and beyond. He served on the support crews for Apollo 1, 7, and 11 and the backup crew on Apollo 14 before he was chosen for Apollo 17 and flying on the final moon mission in 1972. 

Evans next trained with Soviet cosmonauts as backup command module pilot for the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission and carried out early work on the space shuttle program. He then left NASA to pursue a business career, and he died suddenly in 1990 at the age of fifty-six.

Bowman writes of Evans after the landing of Apollo 17 in this excerpt: "His bulky spacesuit was airtight, the gold-visored helmet securely attached. His similarly attired colleague edged out of the way to allow him room for maneuver. As the last few molecules of the spacecraft's atmosphere fled into the vacuum beyond, the hatch finally opened.

Back on Earth, giant TV antennae pointed skyward, awaiting a signal from a carefully positioned TV camera. At home in El Lago, Texas, the first astronaut's wife, Jan, and their two children stared intently at their TV set, wondering what to expect.

A live picture flashed onto the screen - a slash of white against a dark background. The astronaut eased through the hatch, taking care not to snag any part of his suit. Then his figure appeared on the screen. As he began to speak, his words triggered the microphone in front of his lips. What would he say? Across the gulf of space, an enthusiastic voice exclaimed, 'Hot diggity dog!' 

Ron Evans, command module pilot of the Apollo 17 mission, floated out of the open hatch of spacecraft America. He was, quite literally, having his day in the sun after being eclipsed by the more newsworthy activities of his companions during their three days on the moon. 

Looking back toward the hatch, Ron spotted his own reflection in the mirrored view of Dr. Harrison 'Jack' Schmitt. Resembling a snail popping out of his metal shell, Jack kept his eye on Ron's air hose to avoid tangles. This spacewalk was not for show. It was a hazardous but essential part of their mission to retrieve film cassettes from the belly of the spacecraft where cameras and other instruments had been scrutinizing the moon. Ron had trained repeatedly for this task. Of course, it hardly compared with that famous televised moonwalk conducted by his former El Lago neighbor Neil Armstrong. For one thing, Ron's audience was only a fraction of the numbers that had watched Neil's 'giant leap for mankind.'

No one would have expected Neil to have been as exuberant as Ron was on live TV, but Armstrong was doing more than making footprints in the lunar dust. He was making history. Ron Evans knew that his spacewalk, in comparison, was almost the final act in the Apollo story.

One feature of the two excursions was entirely comparable - the level of dedication and training required of each man. Ron knew how to conduct his crucial task with perfect precision. He took his job extremely seriously. But nothing in the rules said you couldn't enjoy doing your job, and right now Ron Evans - thirty-nine-year-old husband of Jan, father of Jaime and Jon, and proud American from a little town in Kansas - was having the time of his life doing what he would later call 'the best job in the world.'"

The Light of Earth: Reflections on a Life in Space

Al Worden with Francis French; foreword by Dee O'Hara

Nebraska; hardcover, 184 pages; $29.95

Al Worden served as a support crew member for Apollo 9, backup command module pilot for Apollo 12, and command module pilot for Apollo 15's mission in 1971. He retired from active duty in 1975, and then spent years in private industry before becoming the chair of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and traveling the world as head of the Astronaut Al Worden Endeavour Scholarship. He is the author of Falling to Earth: An Apollo 15 Astronaut's Journey to the Moon, and this book can serve as a companion work to the one reviewed above, A Long Voyage to the Moon, as they are similarly produced and presented.

One of the highest-profile personalities among the Apollo astronauts, Worden was renowned for his outspokenness and potent views but also recognized as a warm and well-liked person who devoted much of his life after retiring from NASA to sharing his spaceflight experiences.

Worden passed away in 2020 at the age of eighty-eight, and was near completion of this book, which is his wide-ranging look at the greatest-ever scientific undertaking, in which he was a leading participant. His co-author is Francis French, a space historian and author of numerous best-selling history books with international experience in relating science, engineering, and astronomy to general audiences.

In this enlightening book, Worden gives his refreshingly candor opinions on the space program, flying to the moon, and the people involved in the Apollo and later shuttle programs, as well as sharing hard-hitting reflections on the space shuttle program, the agonies and extraordinary sights and delights of being a NASA Apollo astronaut, and the space program's triumphs and failures.

Worden also shines a light into the areas of personal grief that reveal the noble and truly human side of the space program's earliest years. He does not hold back when discussing the shocking deaths of his fellow astronauts in the three major tragedies that struck the space agency, and he shares his personal feelings about fellow astronauts including Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. 

Worden writes in this excerpt: "It turns out there is no such thing as an ex-astronaut.

Sure, we can retire from NASA and spend years doing other things. But it's not our choice whether we are still considered an astronaut. It seems that other people get to decide that.

When my generation of astronauts retired from NASA one by one, we generally tried to leave the astronaut stuff behind for a while. It's not too surprising. We'd all been type A personalities, at the top of whatever career we'd chosen to pursue We weren't the kind to rest on prior accomplishments. Whatever we picked to do next - mostly working in the business world - we wanted to be the best at that too. We shook the space program off and moved forward. There wasn't much choice anyway; in the mid- to late 1970s, no one cared about Apollo much anymore. Many of us grew our hair long, grew a mustache or even a beard, dressed much less conservatively, and went with the times. For a while you'd never have been able to place us if you'd tried to spot us by looking at old NASA photos. Our different directions in life also meant we rarely met in anything other than small groups.

But now, when I go to space events, we're all back in the same room again like some perennial high school reunion. Those of us who still have hair now generally have it cut short, NASA style. And although the closest we've been to a jet that week was probably flying in the dreaded middle seat of a commercial flight, we're all wearing NASA flight jackets. We even have military-looking name tags and an American flag on the shoulder - in case we forget our names and where we're from, I guess. We're back in uniform. We're each dressed as 'the astronaut' again.

I'm a lot prouder of the non-NASA stuff that I did in my life. NASA was all about learning a skill. Running for Congress, starting my own company, heading a charitable organization - those were individual achievements of mine. Nevertheless, I'm back to wearing that flight jacket. Ironically, I had to have one made. My old ones were long gone.

People think of Apollo astronauts like some band of brothers with a shared experience. But there's a difference between us and, let's say, your typical World War II fighter squadron. In that squadron, you've all gone through hell together. You've protected the people with you. If you were the wingman, you protected the lead, and if you were the lead, you protected the wingman. You flew together, you fought together, and some members died together. But with the Apollo program, everybody was an individual. We never all flew together, so there is a big difference in mentality. Fifty years later, of course, we get back together, and it's kind of fun, and we reminisce about old things. But I reminisce about things that basically didn't have much to do with the program. For example, astronaut Paul Weitz was probably my best friend in that whole group. When I saw him, Paul and I talked about fishing. Then when he lost his wife, which was a huge blow for him, I helped talk him through that. It's not about space exploration. It's personal stuff. It's catching up with old friends."

Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space

By Stephen Walker

Harper; hardcover, 512 pages; $29.99

Sixty years ago, on April 13, 1961, the first human being who left Earth and took the journey into space was Yuri Gargarin was a diminutive 27-year-old Russian ex-foundry worker and father of two.

Gargarin strapped into a capsule on top of a giant intercontinental ballistic missile and blasted into orbit, circling the Earth at almost 18,000 miles per hour, ten times faster than a speeding bullet, in just 106 minutes. 

Since it was amidst the space battle between the United States and Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, the mission was conducted in total secrecy. The Soviets beat the U.S. to space by three weeks.

In Beyond, Stephen Walker, who is known for his documentary film work and is the bestselling author of Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima, chronicles the sheer enormity of the undertaking, what it took to keep such a large-scale operation secret, and its impact on the United States' own space program. 

Both the U.S. and Soviets took enormous risks in the race to be first. For both, it was a long leap into a long list of terrifying unknowns. While each side grappled to solve similar challenges, their approaches were vastly different.

The U.S. chose relative transparency and a media blitz, while the Soviets chose secrecy, releasing curated storylines for mass consumption only when things were going well, and stringently covering up when they did not. While America's Mercury Seven astronauts became international celebrities, their Soviet rivals, comprised of twenty astronauts, trained under cover, forbidden to tell even their own families what they were training for. That all changed when Gargarin stunned the world.

Walker drew on extensive research and the vivid testimonies of eyewitnesses, many of whom have never spoken before. He reveals secrets that have been hidden for decades and takes the reader into the drama of one of humanity's greatest adventures. He features the scientists, engineers, and political leaders on both sides, and above all, the astronauts on both sides battling for supremacy in space.

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