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.

Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA – Amy Shira Teitel

This is the story of how the American space program came to be. Starting with humble experiments in the early 20th century, continuing with the German rocketeers of the 30s and 40s, and developing into the advanced US military programs in the 50s.

Ms. Teitel is a space historian and producer of the popular YouTube channel Vintage Space, in which she presents short segments focusing on particular bits of space history. The subject matter of this book is fascinating, and not only because it is not as popular as the early NASA period from the formation of the agency to the end of the Apollo Program, which is documented and described in hundreds of books and documentaries. The story of the German rocketeers before and during World War II reads almost like a thriller.

Ms. Teitel lays out the subject matter clearly, mostly avoiding confusion by periodically reminding the reader of myriad programs and initiatives with repeated mentions of names. Given the very intricate events and relationships of the post-war US rocket launch initiatives, this is no small feat.  While clarity is achieved, a history should focus on bringing people and events to life. This one fails to really grip the reader and would probably not be very an interesting read to the non-enthusiast. A more in-depth focus on a changing society, or a deep dive into technology, or character analysis of particular figures and their motivations, would have made the whole thing more engaging and less bland. Put bluntly, the story told lacks the ability to provoke passion in the reader because there is little depth presented. Many parts read like an encyclopedia entry.

The prose could use some polish, perhaps with stricter editing. There is an overuse of “as well” and “also”. Too many sentences start with conjunctions, making for a sometimes jarring rhythm in the text. The decision to use purely US/Imperial units without conversions even in footnotes makes the text less accessible to readers from most of the world.

The subtitle is somewhat misleading. While the Soviet space program is frequently featured, there is no in-depth analysis of that side, and information on the adversary serves mostly as background to the US program.

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.