Friday, October 15, 2021

Reading | Moon Shot and Falling To Earth

Moon Shot | Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton with Jay Barbree

Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton are both members of the exclusive Mercury Seven, the first astronauts chosen to travel in space, and ready-made celebrities the instant their names were announced by NASA back in 1959. While Shepard is able to sneak in a quick 15-minute cannonball route earning him bragging rights as the first American in space, the great irony is that because of chronic physical ailments, both Deke and Alan are grounded for many years. Their sizable egos, however, remain fully inflated throughout their careers and in many ways, their book is worse for their endless braggadocio and - if my other reads of the 1960s space program are to be believed - tendency toward self-satisfied exaggeration.

Inarguably, Deke proves himself as NASA's advocate for the astronaut crews and earns great respect from his guys for his unwavering support and keen ability to say the right thing at the right time, despite being a man of few words. My favorite astronaut, Michael Collins, has elsewhere described Deke as the best boss he ever had, and that high praise is reason enough for me to forgive Deke at least some of his boasting.  

Alan, however, comes across as reckless, abrasive, and entirely full of himself. During the years he is grounded, Alan works for Deke in the astronaut office but other reports reveal that he spends more time pursuing other interests - with more lucrative revenue streams - than he does pushing papers at NASA. Much is made of his sweet and long-lasting marriage to wife Louise, but his well-documented years of running around with other women are not noted here. 

Still, one can't help but cheer these men on when they each - eventually - get their health issues cleared and finally get their turn to ride a rocket into space. It's just a shame that they weren't a bit more humbled by the experience. 

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Falling To Earth | Al Worden with Francis French

Although Al Worden follows the same fighter jock to test pilot to astronaut career flight plan as virtually all of the 1960s astronauts, and successfully flies the Apollo 15 command module around the moon while his crew mates frolic on the lunar surface below, his otherwise sterling reputation is nearly ruined by a single moment of bad judgment. When his commander, Dave Scott, introduces him to a scheme by which the Apollo 15 astronauts will carry collectible stamps on board their flight and later sell them for profit, Al doesn't ask questions but simply goes along with the plan.

The whole fiasco explodes months after their highly successful Apollo flight has returned to earth. Quickly, the three astronauts return the money they've received and reveal all the pertinent details to NASA. But it is too late. Their boss, Deke Slayton, unleashes his notorious wrath upon them; their fellow astronauts avoid them like the plague. Congress calls the three crewmen in for a chat, and a red-faced NASA fires Al, though he simply refuses to go. Eventually, the whole fuss blows over.

Al unpacks this mess, and sorts through the other details of his career, with honesty, humility, and quick wit. He reveals himself to be both an accomplished astronaut and fallible human being, which is a highly refreshing twist. 

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Most of the men who flew to the moon have been clever enough to write books about their journey, and I am bound and determined to read every single one. 

Yes, as you might expect, their stories involve considerable repetition or, as we like to say in the spacecraft business, redundant systems. Each astronaut's telling shares the same basic plot, setting, and characters; most of these guys are small-town, Type A, high-achieving military men and self-professed loners, and I certainly don't blame any reader who might find the books' overlap to be annoying.

But what I love is that in each and every one of these stories, the personality of the individual astronaut comes shining through. Even accounting for ghost writers, which some but not all of the spacemen employ, there's a sparkle and shine that each man contributes to his telling of the space race story, and I come to feel like I've met them face to face, spent time with them, maybe even sat out on the back patio with their family in the Texas sunshine, or driven around Houston in their custom Corvettes, or water skied on Clear Lake behind their speed boats. They are good men, these astronauts, kind men; men driven by beautiful dreams and incredible work ethics and a keen desire to serve their country. 

I've come to admire - if not full-on adore - these Apollo astronauts and I'm deeply grateful for their contributions to the world of science, technology, and exploration, as well as to my life. Most of them hate to be called heroes, so I'll resist that refrain. But they are really cool guys, and I can't wait to read more. 

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