A fascinating book. Couldn’t be more interesting. Potter’s story begins with Charles Lindbergh in Cape Kennedy watching the launch of Apollo 8. That scene describes the range of the book, from Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic to the Apollo missions to the moon.
Included are the popular heroes of aviation and space history: Lindbergh, Alan Sherman, Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. But we are introduced to others whose legacy is more obscure, like the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who “lived on bread and water, his hair uncut, his clothes eaten away.” In 1903 he wrote a paper on the mathematics of space flight.
The Lindbergh story alone makes the read worthwhile. Most of us know about the Spirit of St. Louis, the kidnapping and murder of his son and the World War II era speech that forever after tagged him as an anti-Semite. But I knew little else about him. Turns out in later life he devoted himself to saving endangered species. He became something of a recluse, although that didn’t stop him from visiting Europe to see the two or three families he had produced with German mistresses.
Rocketry and space exploration needed war to advance. The rockets that would launch both American and Russian spaceships were derived from those built by the Nazis during World War II. While the scientists responsible may have had visions of visiting the Moon or Mars, the Nazis paying the bills were looking for weapons to knock out England. After the war, the German scientists were divided up between the U.S. and Russia like the spoils of war. One, Wernher Von Braun, was to the become the engineering rock star of the U.S. space program.
Many of these scientists were an important part of the two countries accomplishments in space. The Cold War fueled the space race and was the reason that the U.S. and Russia made billions of dollars available to their programs. Von Braun for one knew how to play this game, dredging up the frightening prospect of being behind Russia whenever approval or funding was needed. And as Cold War fever cooled in the late 60’s and 70’s, so did government interest in space programs.
Potter goes beyond the dates and accomplishments of the various noteworthy and record-breaking flights and focuses on the experience of the pilots, astronauts and cosmonauts.
For example, Lindbergh, toward the tail end of his sleep-deprived trans-Atlantic flight, described feeling that the fuselage behind him was filled with ghostly beings “vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving, riding weightless with me in the plane.”
True to the title of the book many of these astronauts try to put into words what it was like to see the earth from a perspective that only a few dozen have ever had. Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman, a member of the first space crew to leave earth’s gravitational pull, said, “We were the first human beings to see the world in its majestic totality. This must be what God sees.’” Gemini astronaut Mike Collins described his sighting of his home planet as follows: ”The little planet is so small out there in the vastness that at first I couldn’t even locate it. And when I did a tingling of awe spread over me. There it was shining like a jewel in a black sky.”
For some it was a religious experience. Many returned home and became environmentalists. I doubt that few if any of these explorers of the heavens would buy into Trumpian climate change denial. They came back to earth feeling the need to protect it and, in spite of the nationalism that often surrounded the space program, the experience left them with a more global view.
NASA was a micromanaging sort of organization and one of the aspects of this narrative that I enjoyed was the stories of the astronauts who as a group were not that keen on being told what to do. When John Glenn heard that NASA didn’t want their astronauts taking “tourist photos” from space, he went out and bought a $20 camera to sneak on board with him. Another of the astronauts hid a corned beef sandwich in his space suit to better enjoy the flight.
As a baby boomer who came of age during the space race, I always figured that NASA had everything under control before they zapped a man or two up into the cosmos. Wrong. There were a frightening number of failed tests and problems associated with many of these flights. When Frank Borman’s wife Susan was advised by a NASA official that he had a 50/50 chance of returning safely she actually began planning his memorial service.
This is not my usual reading fare. I doubt that I ever would have found my way to the shelf where this book is placed in most book stories. I got it as an unexpected premium after making a donation to a listener-sponsored radio station (thank you WFMU). Sure glad I did. Potter tells the story brilliantly and has crammed in as many interesting facts and anecdotes as you could possibly fit onto 400 pages. It may seem weird to describe a book about aviation history as a page-turner, but trust me on this one.