Saturday, July 20, 2013

One Small Step For Mankind

Writing is all about using your imagination to take you to a place that you can't really go. It's about putting you inside another person's experience, and showing you things from a different perspective. Fiction can transform our sense of self in ways that daily life usually can't. Every now and then, however, life has a way of topping our wildest fantasies.

Such a moment occurred July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to walk on the moon. Despite incalculable odds, these two men journeyed hundreds of thousands of miles to land on another heavenly body. No science fiction novel will ever be able to embody the wonder of that moment.

As I am only in my mid thirties, I wasn't alive to witness this historic moment. During the past few years, I have developed an enormous respect for the men and women involved in the space programs of both The United States and the Soviet Union. From the depths of genocide and hatred, a dream arose that bonded a select few. A bitter rivalry would give that dream life, and pave the way for a peaceful resolution. Here are two of the books that have fueled my admiration for the Astronauts and Cosmonauts who risked their lives for exploration.

Rocket Men (2009)
Craig Nelson

Generations of Americans have grown up since Neil Armstrong took his first step on the lunar surface. Millions of people today have no concept of how truly awesome that moment was, or what it took to get there. Today, society places more value on vapid reality show stars than on brilliant minds like the Apollo astronauts. Luckily, there are books like Rocket Men that shine a light on these deserving  men and women.

Nelson opens with a chapter that briefly introduces us to the members of the American space program. Rather than trot out their qualifications and distinctions, he focuses on trivial information. He strips away the pomp and circumstance to show us their human side. It is a little jarring at first, but quickly becomes amusing and disarming. Next, he briefly explores the WWII roots of the space program.

After setting up the historical back story, Nelson moves away from the political motives of the race to the Moon, and focuses on the majesty of the endeavor. He allows the Astronauts to speak for themselves, through documented interviews and papers. He includes enough of the technical information to keep the story going, however, he never allows it to bog the pace down. This book is about the people, rather than the machinery.

What I love about Rocket Men, is that it holds a feeling of excitement. This isn't just a historical tome; this is a fascinating revelation of the major players. The story unfolds with such dramatic flair, that you really feel as if you don't know what is about to happen next. You feel every set-back, and cheer for every triumph. After finishing this book, I felt as if I lived through the era, and experienced the exultation of the time.

Space Race (2006)
Deborah Cadbury

The space race, like this book, began in German bunkers during WWII. Wernher von Braun, a Nazi scientist with dreams of space flight, persuaded Hitler to allow him a rocket program aimed at designing missiles. Der Furher, seeing this as a final ditch effort against the Allies, conceded to the request. With the vast resources of the German war machine at his disposal, von Braun designed weapons that could travel further, and with more accuracy, than ever before. Though he was unhappy with having to produce the missiles, he was convinced that it was the only way to fund his ultimate goal of building a rocket that could break the Earth's atmosphere and travel to great unknown. When it was clear that the Nazis were losing, von Braun and (most) of his men defected to the US. The Soviet Union captured the rest of the team, and thus began the space race.

For years, the scope of the Russian program had been classified, and hidden away. Even now, there are still details that are obfuscated. However, Cadbury has unearthed enough information to paint a thrilling picture of the rivalry between the United States and The Soviet Union for space dominance.

Von Braun, and his crew, were brought to the U.S. under a secret program known as Operation Paperclip. They were planted in Huntsville, AL where they planned to launch men to the Moon. For years, however, they were stowed away from the country, and allowed to do virtually nothing. Meanwhile, the Russians jumped at the opportunity to decrypt the German rockets that had pelted them during the war.

Cadbury documents the fits and starts that epitomized the early years of the space race, and then allows the unusual contest between Von Braun and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Korolev, to take center stage. Though the two never met, or were even sometimes aware of each other's existence, they shared a passion for space travel that bound them in a global competition.

The author does a wonderful job of framing the circumstances that each man faced in their respective countries. She sets the stage for the events, and follows through with the physical and emotional impact. The once shadowy figures of the Soviet Cosmonauts become actual people; risking the same flesh and blood as the Americans.

Space Race plays much like a tragedy at times. Again, you find yourself pulling for the Russian characters, even when you know the eventual outcome. It is her ability as a writer that conveys the horrendous conditions that Korolev faced, and the tremendous stress that would eventually unravel him.

This book takes a much broader picture of the time period than Rocket Men. It clearly interweaves the political ramifications of each rocket failure or successful satellite orbit with the personal feelings of despair and elation. Occasionally, the author spends a little too much time on the technical aspects, although she never dwells. She allows the people to remain the focus.

Whether you want to explore the global implications of the space race, or just want to feel the awe of the rocket's liftoff, these books should fill that desire. They are both very well-written, intriguing pieces. Here are a few of others that are definitely worth a read:

Carrying The Fire: An Astronaut's Journey (1974/2001) by Mike Collins.
The Right Stuff (1979/2001) by Tom Wolfe
Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 (1994) by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger

If documentaries are more your thing, you can find a list of great ones about the Apollo program on my movie review blog, A Reel Indication.


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