Tag Archives: NASA

Into the Black

Continuing my flight into NASA and space flight history, my latest read picked up, essentially, after the Apollo missions, looking into the development of the space shuttle and the U.S.’s attempt to get back into the space race after the conclusion of the Apollo missions.

Into the Black by Rowland White is several things. White intended it to be the story of the shuttle’s first flight, and how, with the heat shield potentially classified, NASA relied on a classified government agency for help. But more than that, it’s the history of the shuttle program, and how the cancellation of the Air Force’s manned space program made it possible for the National Reconnaissance Office to be in touch with NASA in the first place.

The book covered such a broad time frame, it was easy to forget that it was all leading up to the revelation of now-declassified information. And, after having read it, I would say the synopsis certainly felt like an over-dramatization (though surely in the moment, without knowing if the classified spy satellites could even get a picture of the damaged shuttle, and by knowing how extensive the damage was, the men flying the shuttle and those controlling from the ground were in the edges of their seats).

But as a historical account of the shuttle program, and the journey to get there, Into the Black is excellent, going into detail and getting perspectives and comments from nearly everyone involved. It’s clear that White did extensive research and interviewing to reconstruct the story.

It was complete accident, though not all that hard, to have bought three books on space history and have them chronicle the timeline almost without skipping any time. But I’m so glad it worked out that way, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my journey through space history so far.

For anyone interested in space history, the shuttle program, or classified government agencies, Into the Black is a book to add to your reading list.

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Apollo 8

I’m on a hardcore space kick, and my latest read (ok, last couple, with more to come) fed right into that.

In natural progression, I went from the the Mercury missions to Apollo (I skipped Gemini, I’ll have to go back sometime), specifically Apollo 8.

Jeffrey Kluger jumps into space history with American Astronauts training for missions to the moon, trying to make good on the late President Kennedy’s promise to land a man on the moon by 1970. But with a craft that is riddled with issues, and tragedy striking, it seems impossible.

But just when things seem hopeless, NASA’s brightest give voice to an unthinkable but perfect idea: push forward a lunar mission. So, what was supposed to be a routine launch and testing some maneuvers that lunar missions would need for the return trip, became a lunar mission. And not just to the moon, Apollo 8 was going all out, shooting for 10 orbits before reigniting the engine to come home.

Nearly everything about Apollo 8 was untested. While NASA had done the math, there were no guarantees that things would go well. But the men assigned the mission–astronauts, scientists, and controllers– and their wives, set aside fears and the bounds of logic and pursued history.

Kluger’s account of the Apollo 8 mission and the years leading up to it is an easy, interesting read, filled with research and personal interviews. It’s an exciting story that requires no extra dramatization, and Kluger does a good job of allowing the story to unfold and do itself justice.

Whether you’re a space junkie, and adventure junkie, or history junkie, Apollo 8 is worth the read.

Endurance

Seriously, sometimes I think I majored in the wrong thing. From a young age, I remember always thinking it would be cool to be an astronaut. For now, though, I’ll just live vicariously through their biographies.

I was excited to see an advanced copy of Scott Kelly’s biography, Endurance A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery. It took me only a couple days to read through it.

Like many astronauts, Kelly got his start as a military test pilot, though the road to test pilot was anything but easy. Kelly had a rough time focusing in school, which meant his grades were anything but stellar. Kelly reflects on how Tom Wolfe’s book, The Right Stuff, was crucial in inspiring him to put his mind to the task of doing well in school so he could reach his ultimate goal of becoming an astronaut.

Once part of NASA, Kelly’s main desire was to fly shuttle missions as the pilot or the commander. Once he’d had a taste of long duration space missions, however, he realized they weren’t so bad either. Kelly’s career culmination was a year-long mission on the International Space Station during 2015-2016. The mission’s main objective was to see how the human body reacts to such a long time in space. Kelly was also able to contribute uniquely to the study because his identical twin brother, also an astronaut, stayed behind on Earth, which meant NASA could compare and contrast data.

The story is told alternately between chapters talking about Kelly’s past–everything from childhood to college to early days at NASA–and chapters talking about Kelly’s year-long mission on the ISS. While it’s a little different technique, instead of starting at the beginning and working to the end, I think it works in Kelly’s case because many people reading his biography will remember the mission, and be anxious to get those behind the scenes glimpses. I think the mixture will inspire people who might otherwise skip to the end to read the whole book.

Kelly is able to write about real danger and emergencies, and write about real tragedies, in a way that captures, I think, the attitude behind so many astronauts, that despite the dangers, the payoff is worth it.

All in all, it was an excellent read. Not too technical and not over-dramatized, Endurance reads like a sit down chat where Kelly tells you his life story, and you’re anxious to catch every word. When this book hits stores in mid-October, whether you love biographies, science, space, or just real-life adventure, this is one book you should make sure not to miss.

John Glenn: A Memoir

I’ll admit, I was interested in this book, not because I knew who John Glenn was, but because I’d looked it up for a customer at work and saw that it was a biography on an astronaut. Sometimes I think that if I could go back, knowing what I know about myself now, I probably would have pursued a career in science, and maybe even my dreams of being an astronaut. But, on to the book review.

The book is an autobiography that explores John Glenn’s life from childhood during the Great Depression, to his joining the military and becoming a fighter pilot during World War II, all the way through his two trips to space–the last when he was 77 years old (maybe it’s not too late for me!).

Glenn writes in a very plain way, unassuming. You get the feeling he is just telling his story, not trying to brag about anything he’s done or reap glory for being an American icon and hero. It feels very much like sitting down and listening to your grandfather regale you with stories from his life. Sometimes you can almost here the laugh that goes along with a funny anecdote.

Glenn’s biography is encouraging and inspiring too, a representation of chasing dreams and making a difference through hard and dedicated work. Not to mention just cool to see how much history this guy lived through.

Overall, it was a fun and pretty fast read, considering it’s more than 500 pages. If you like history, science, airplanes or politics, it’s the read for you.

Hidden Figures

I saw the preview for Hidden Figures shortly after I’d seen the book at work. Right away, I knew I wanted to read it. Astronomy and all its facets has always fascinated me, and I knew Hidden Figures would too.

Having read the book after seeing previews for the film (haven’t yet seen it, though), the book certainly wasn’t quite what I had expected.

The book chronicles the lives of several women–black women–who began working for NASA (or rather its precursor, NACA) in the thick of World War II, and paved the way for not only the astronauts to enter space, but for equality and integration to spread throughout the organization.

The book focuses mainly on four women and how they fought for advancement, seeking titles of mathematicians and engineers instead of being stuck being computers.

After having seen the preview for the film, I was honestly expecting something more biographical of the women–and more interaction between their stores.  Hidden Figures read more like a brief history of how black women worked their way into traditionally white, male jobs. And while it was still interesting and a good read, I found myself having to readjust my expectations in order to finish the book.

My one issue with it was that it just wasn’t long enough. As author Margot Lee Shetterly herself said, she had to cut some parts out. And as I read the book, I wanted more. It seemed like this book could easily have been 400 or 500 pages, including more biographical detail and going deeper into the interactions between the women. But, perhaps that is what the film will accomplish.

Overall, the book was an enjoyable read, satiating my appetite for learning, even as it whetted it more. I’ll have to revisit my to-read list, I know I’ve got a few more science-related books on there.