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.

Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants – John D. Clark

Ignition was written by one of the scientists working on rocket propellants from the 1940s to the 1970s. Back when there was a Cold War on, meaning missiles of various varieties, and a Space Race on, meaning rockets of various varieties.

The text stretched my high school chemistry to its breaking point, and then broke it. While I won’t pretend to understand much of the actual science, I was drawn in by Dr. Clark’s bone-dry prose and hilariously understated anecdotes, as well as his humourously cynical view of government research projects. When asked how to handle a certain unstable explosive compound, he writes “I recommend a good pair of running shoes”. The period described was a golden age for propellant research, and government agencies were throwing around silly money to projects with little or no chance of success, in the hope that something would stick. In that way it is very much a sideline commentary on a time where mankind went from Earthbound to Spacebound; a time when science and technology were the answer. Just a bit more research and we can crack just about anything.

The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space – Eugene Cernan with Don Davis

On 14 December, 1973, Gene Cernan re-entered the Lunar Module Challenger after the third and final moonwalk of Apollo 17, the final Apollo Moon Mission. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s aspirations, first as a US Navy Pilot, then as an Astronaut. This is his story, told in his own words.

Mr. Cernan comes across as a straight talker with a rock-solid work ethic; a conservative in the traditional sense. When he wrote this memoir, he gave the impression of being long past any point where he needed to impress anyone.  His account is frank and does not mince words about anyone, including himself. While Cernan will never be remembered like Neil Armstrong, Apollo 17 had much more value from a scientific standpoint. It had the longest stay on the surface, the longest space walks, the longest distance traversed, the heaviest load of samples and the speed record for the lunar rover (unofficial).

A great book for any fan of the space race, or even flying in general.

In a sad coincidence, Mr. Cernan passed away on 16 January of this year, while I was in the middle of reading his book.

Failure is not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond – Gene Krantz

Failure is not an Option - Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and BeyondThis non-fiction account of the NASA manned space programs from the early days of Mercury through the triumphs of Apollo was written by Gene Krantz, one of the original flight controllers in Mission Control, and probably the best known. While most accounts of the events focus on the astronauts and the spacecraft, Krantz naturally takes us into the world of Mission Control. It is a fascinating “behind the scenes” look at the people and equipment that led and supported the missions. While the astronauts got most of the glory, the truth is that Mission Control saved the day on many occasions.

This is by all accounts a geeky book. The material is often rather technical and having a prior understanding of some of the mechanics involved definitely helps. Just like the author and his former job, it is written with the precision and honesty that Krantz values.

Setting aside for a moment the spectacular achievements of the American space programs in the sixties, I was struck by Krant’s unabashed patriotism. He is a big fan of John Philip Sousa marches and feels great pride when listening to the national anthem. This is not the showy, hollow national love so prominent nowadays, but a true, deep connection. Krantz worked very hard to achieve great things, and he did it predominantly for his country. He gave to his country through blood, sweat and tears. His feelings are those characteristic of a generation past, one that did not show love of country by clicking “Like”, but actually by sacrificing. It smacks of an innocence lost in the late nineteen-sixties, when Americans stopped looking up to their politicians and when they stopped believing they could achieve great things. Krantz does indeed mention this himself in the epilogue. While reading, I found myself growing very fond of Krantz. He could by all accounts be tough as nails, but he feels an affection towards his colleagues that is very different from the empty corporate speak of many of today’s leaders. The world needs more people like Gene Krantz. People who dare to step up and doing the hard things because they feel that they need to be done.

On a side note, it was nice to see the footnotes in line with the text instead of at the end. On a Kindle, following a link to the footnotes is an annoyance.

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In the Courts of the Crimson Kings (The Lords of Creation II) – S.M. Stirling

In the somewhat free-standing sequel to The Sky People, Stirling takes us to a Mars inspired by the work of Burroughs and the “science” of Percival Lowell. The arid and cold planet is nevertheless inhabited by close relatives of humans. Our hero, one of the U.S. team based on Mars, travels to a lost city on an archeological expedition. But the Martian head of the expedition team is more than she seems. Soon people are out for their heads as they are embroiled in the thick of Martian politics.

Stirling is masterful at characterizing alien cultures. Even minor dialogue lines are steeped in a deep imagined tradition. It is a pleasure to read, especially as Stirling’s unobtrusive understated humor pervades the prose. This tale of a Mars that never was but that dreamers really wished for is a great adventure yarn.

The Sky People (The Lords of Creation I) – S.M. Stirling

This series is set in an alternate history where Mars and Venus were found teeming with life by spaceprobes in the 1960s. A space race ensued to set up bases on the planets. Interestingly, the superpowers spent so much on space that no major wars were fought on Earth after the Korean War. The action starts on Venus in 1988. Marc Vitrac is one of the researchers living there. It is very much a frontier life among the lush and extremely varied flora and fauna. After some initial setup, Marc and a few others set off on a long journey of adventure. They find answers as to why Venus’ life forms seem so similar to Earth ones, and those answers are unsettling. Along the way, they befriend some natives and, in that inevitable manner of colonization, they are assimilated into their adopted land.

Diehard “outdoor Stirling” fans need not worry. There is plenty of camping, hunting and bowmaking. The characters are. as usual with Stirling, engaging and “real”, as is the backdrop. It is easy to see that Stirling had a lot of fun writing this. It’s as if he woke up one morning and decided to throw a whole bunch of elements (dinosaurs, giant mammals, modern humans, neanderthals, giant bugs and on and on) into a pot just to see what would come out. The result is a fun read but not Stirling’s best. The setting is very rich and complex and more could have been fleshed out, if only to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. An appendix discussing background history and societal aspects would have been very welcome.

The Tranquillity Alternative – Allen Steele

The premise of this alternate history novel is that the USA established a permanent presence on the Moon in the 1960s, even basing nuclear missiles there. History has caught up, though, and an expedition is sent to hand over the moon base to a European corporation, as well as deactivate the missiles. A mini technothriller with some excellent good science fiction elements. Very entertaining and a real page turner.

Red Rabbit – Tom Clancy

A somewhat enjoyable story of a young Jack Ryan, also featuring the Foleys during their time in Moscow. Not nearly as “big” a story as most of Clancy’s novels. It seems a bit “Clancy by numbers”; in other words what you’d expect him to write with regards to subject matter and type of story, but without any of the great qualities of his earlier works. Despite its flaws, I nonetheless liked this tale of a defection from the Soviet Union. Still, Clancy has shown many times that he can do better than this.

 

Rainbow Six – Tom Clancy

A step away from Jack Ryan, although he still lurks in the background. Unfortunately, this novel marks a decided slump in the quality of Clancy’s writing. There is nothing wrong with the story, although I found the motivation of the bad guys a bit too James Bond’ish. I just did not feel a compelling need to finish the book. It was a bit dull, especially compared to earlier Clancy are. You won’t miss anything by skipping directly to The Bear and the Dragon.

Some say that he does not write anymore, but only oversees a staff. I don’t know about that. My opinion is that this novel was written mainly as a selling vehicle for the computer games series released around the same time by Clancy’s games company Red Storm. The Rainbow Six games are very much about the counter-terrorism unit depicted in the novel.

The Sum of All Fears

Jack Ryan brokers peace in the middle east and discovers that nuclear weapons in the wrong hands can be dangerous. Solid Clancy, and I especially like how he is not afraid to blow big stuff up just because it happens to sit in the continental United States.

The movie, although quite good, changes the story significantly and does not really reflect the breadth of the novel.

Without Remorse – Tom Clancy

In this novel, Clancy takes a step back in time to tell the story of how John Clark became… Well, how he became John Clark. Solid stuff, but not Mr. Clancy’s best work.

Red Storm Rising – Tom Clancy

The fact that it had “been done” did not scare Tom Clancy when he wrote this novel about an attach on Western Europe by the Warsaw Pact. It is pure technothriller with a very heavy military element. Masterfully written and very hard to put down.

Watchmen – Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

This graphic novel is one of the classics for good reason. Well drawn and masterfully written, it is a tale of a disillusioned world and its disillusioned heroes. The heroes are well into middle age as they must unite again to save the world. Even if you are skeptical to the format, you should give Watchmen a chance. You won’t be disappointed.

Debt of Honor and Executive Orders – Tom Clancy

An older Jack Ryan moves upwards in the chain of command. Debt of Honor is nowaday subtitled “The prelude to Executive Orders”. I think this does it a tremendous disservice. Although it does end in the middle of the story, it is a fully fleshed out novel in it’s own right, and raises some interesting questions about the future of the Pacific region.

Executive Orders is my favorite Clancy. Its amazing mix of high level politics, forced change at the highest levels of the US governemnt (wishful thinking by Clancy, but I do agree with his views on this one) and of course excellent military action make this a book to read over and over.

Clear and Present Danger – Tom Clancy

Jack Ryan moves to the top floor of the CIA, and has to deal with some thorny internal politics as well as the dangers of “the real world”. The small unit action descriptions and the helicopter stuff is amazing. Also very good are the internal tribulations of our hero, who finds that people can be quite ruthless when in power. In the end, however, his integrity is his strength. A great read.

Patriot Games and The Hunt for Red October – Tom Clancy

Patriot Games was written second, but chronologically the events portrayed occur before The Hunt for Red October. These two novels kicked off a series that continues today, and remain among the best technothrillers ever written. The true passion that Clancy has for his subject matter shows through, and his strong personal belief in the values portrayed by Jack Ryan, widely considered to be his fictional alter ego, make these books among the best I have read,

These are also two of my favorite movies. The films follow the novels quite closely. Of course they abridge, but the essence of the stories is there.

A Man on the Moon – Andrew Chaikin

A simply magnificent portrayal of the Apollo program. Easily accessible even for the non-engineering inclined. Chaikin interviewed a whole host of people from engineers to administrators and of course the astronauts, thus managing to produce what many feel is the definitive account of NASA’s Moon program. A fascinating insight into what actually happened on the American side of the Moon race. Despite its heft it does not feel like a heavy read. The only caveat is that you might have to read it twice since it is packed with information and a bit much to digest in one go.