Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space – John W. Young with James R. Hansen

John Young was undoubtedly the most experienced astronaut of NASA’s early era, active from the days of Gemini, through Apollo and the Space Shuttle. He walked on the Moon, commanded the first test flight of the Space Shuttle and didn’t retire from NASA until he was seventy-four. He was legendary for his soft-spoken demeanour, coolness under pressure and later in his career, for not being afraid to speak truth to power on issues of mission risk.

His memoir is laid out in a straightforward chronological fashion, starting with early life and following him throughout his career in the Navy and at NASA. While he is most well known for his missions, his time as head of the Astronaut Office and then as a sort of senior and independent safety inspector within NASA, make up large parts of the narrative. There is also ample space dedicated to the Challenger and Columbia accidents, with extensive technical detail.

For any NASA and space buff, the memoir is interesting reading. However, it is a bit of a slog. The style is quite dry and self-effacing, much as the man himself. Descriptions of missions mostly chronicle events without poetic embellishments. This is in stark contrast with, for example, the memoirs of Gene Cernan, Gene Krantz and Mike Mullane, which in their different ways speak much more passionately about the subject matter. The book feels long-winded in many parts, with sections which are just listing various mission achievements, seemingly for completeness’ sake. The most readable bits are where Mr. Young manages to convey his considerable technical expertise to illustrate an issue concisely, such as when he discusses his testimony before the Rogers Commission, investigating Challenger.

I strongly felt that more decisive editing could have made this a more readable book, but then again, I also felt that Mr. Young’s particular voice came through loud and clear.

Elon Musk: Inventing the Future – Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk is looking more and more like the real life Tony Stark, minus the super-powered metal suit. Self-made billionaire, innovating industrialist, visionary and working hard to save the future of the human race. Mr. Vance’s biography draws on thousands of hours of interviews with Musk, his family, his friends, his colleagues and his peers. It takes the reader from Mr. Musk’s beginnings as an awkward wunderkind to the not so distant past of early 2015. Since then, SpaceX has gone from triumph to triumph with ever increasing ambition, and Tesla seems on the verge of following.

The biography gets up close and personal with Musk, declining to gloss over the man’s less pleasant character traits. By all accounts he can lack empathy and is not overly concerned with coddling people. His goals are overarching and he has little patience with people who get in his way.

Even before reading this book, I had noticed a disconnect between how normal people in industry try to analyse Musk and how he actually behaves. Musk’s goals are far more long term than building successful companies. His business empire is a means to an end, not the vehicle of his chosen legacy. It is somewhat baffling that he has repeatedly and clearly stated his goals (most notably removing dependency on fossil fuels and colonising Mars to ensure humanity’s long term survival) but most people either don’t take him seriously (he’s dead serious) or try to judge him as if he were a normal person (he isn’t).

As recently as yesterday, Mr. Musk outlined his refined vision for Mars colonisation. What was interesting is that the competition is now starting to pay attention, coming up with (rather staid) ideas of its own. Ten or fifteen years ago, Musk was a weird guy with weird ideas whom the establishment could ignore. Today, his continued success at delivering on his spectacular promises has already engendered deep shifts in the areas of energy production, the automotive industry and the space launch industry. The competition is imitating and scrambling to catch up, but this was Musk’s goal all along. He always knew that Tesla wouldn’t kill all the other car manufacturers. His goal was to make all cars electric, not to have them all branded Tesla.

For the reader who wants to delve deeper into the thinking behind Musk’s ideas, I highly recommend Wait But Why’s series of excellent in depth articles.

Playing the Enemy – Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation – John Carlin

PlayingtheEnemyThe story of how Nelson Mandela became a free man and then united South Africa with the help of rugby.

The story is fascinating, a real-life fairy tale. South Africa was on the brink of civil war but in large part through the efforts of Mandela, disaster was averted, and even turned into triumph. Perhaps this book goes too far in sanctifying Mandela, but by all accounts he was the true statesman depicted. In fact, verbatim quotes from interviews with the main characters lend veracity to the story itself. On a side note, the author’s structure was often somewhat less than smooth, with run-on sentences of ambiguous meaning.

The second half of this book was the basis for the movie Invictus, a favorite of mine.

4Rosbochs

Gweilo: A memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood – Martin Booth

GweiloMartin Booth moved to Hong Kong with his parents in 1952, at the age of seven. This is an autobiographical account of the first three years he spent in the then British colony. Mr. Booth was obviously a curious and unafraid boy, roaming widely about the streets and hills of Kowloon and Hong Kong while connecting firmly with the local culture and people.

Having lived in Hong Kong for several years now, this book held particular interest for me. Mr. Booth lets us see Hong Kong through his eyes, without adult judgment or bias. I got the impression that he retells his experiences as Booth the boy saw them, not as Booth the man interpreted them later. This infuses the chronicle with a refreshing naivete. Mr. Booth’s stick-in-the-mud bully of a father contrasted with the adventurous and ever curious mother, make for an colorful domestic backdrop to his adventures. While it is easy to think that a young boy did not actually experience all the things described, and that age has romanticized in the author’s mind events which happened long ago, the authenticity of people’s reactions and places described makes me want to believe that Mr. Booth really did all these things. No doubt he was a more adventurous boy than most.

The love that Mr. Booth felt for Hong Kong shines through the pages. His eagerness to seek out new and foreign experiences should be encouraged in all people, not just expats. It was how he became really aware of his surroundings in a way that many expats are not.

NOTE: This book is entitled “Golden Boy: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood” in the USA edition.

4½Rosbochs

The Prophet Muhammad – Barnaby Rogerson

A biography of Muhammad. I should qualify that: A rather short and basic biography of Muhammad. Since I knew next to nothing of the man or the birth of Islam, this served as a good primer. Rogerson has been a guide in the Middle East for over two decades, and it shows in his writing. Lots of details of places, just like a guided tour. However, it is not terribly engaging reading once you get past the places to descriptions of people and events. Rogerson treats the issue of mystical revelation rather well, without judgement. He simply describes Muhammad as having visions. He focuses more on Muhammad’s reactions to the visions that on the visions themselves.