Incredible Stories of the Famous and Forgotten Men
and Women Who Took Humanity to the Stars
(2019) Rod Pyle, Prometheus, £14.99 / Can$19 / US$18, pbk, 299pp, ISBN 978-1-633-88524-0
In Heroes of the Space Age Rod Pyle has turned from his favourite topic of unmanned space exploration and gone back to human spaceflight, to the territory of his previous Amazing Stories of the Space Age, (2017, Prometheus). In reviewing that for SF² Concatenation, I wrote:
“I suppose it’s a sign of advancing years, that I knew many of them already. I have to remind myself that even in the mid-70s, there were adults who thought that US manned spaceflight had started with Apollo, because they’d been too young for the Mercury and Gemini programmes to register, much less the earlier rocket aircraft and balloon flights. For many readers today, almost everything in the book will come as news.”
That applies still more to Heroes of the Space Age. I was 15 when Yuri Gagarin went into orbit, 16 and preparing for University when John Glenn did likewise, and a year after graduation when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. This book covers Gagarin, John Glenn, Valentina Tereshkova, Gene Kranz, Margaret Hamilton, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Pete Conrad – heroes indeed, household names to me in the formative years of my life, but certainly not forgotten. Only Margaret Hamilton failed to catch the limelight at the time, and as the pioneer of software engineering – indeed the originator of the phrase – I suspect that she’s far from forgotten in her own field. The film Hidden Figures has done much to highlight the major roles of her predecessors in the early days of NASA, and to find recognition of Margaret Hamilton’s part you have only to turn to the OpenLearn pages of the Open University to find Dr. Sandi Cayless’s tribute, ‘Margaret Hamilton: Spaceship Programmer and Software Pioneer’ at https://www.open.edu/openlearn/science-maths-technology/across-the-sciences/moons
Thinking back to my 15-year-old self, the book that Heroes of the Space Age most corresponds to was The Men behind the Space Rockets by Heinz Gartmann (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1955), although I didn’t find and read it until mid-1961. Up till then I knew piecemeal about various historical figures whose work on rocketry had contributed to the dawn of the space age in the 1950s, but I didn’t have the joined-up picture. Gartmann’s separate chapters on Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, Oberth, Max Valier, von Braun and others put it all into context. It’s a sobering realisation that for a 15-year-old today, the early manned spaceflights of Project Mercury, Gemini, Vostok and Voshkod are as far back in time as Tsiolkovsky’s early work was for me in 1961. For readers of that age (or newcomers to the subject, of any age), “Heroes of the Space Age” must be almost equally valuable. Yes, the material is all there on the internet, but first you have to know what to look for.
At my age, and having been hooked on space since the early 1950s, the value of a book about space missions is in things it tells me that I didn’t already know. “Heroes of the Space Age” has very few of those – I didn’t know, for instance, that Valentina Tereshkova made her first parachute jump early because she couldn’t hear the instructor, but it’s no big deal. Pyle’s explanation for the Apollo 11 overshoot is not the usual one, and I’m not certain he’s right about that. There are a few things not mentioned or not emphasised to which he might have given more of a mention, but they’re not crucial, and he goes into surprising detail here and there, e.g. on the exact initial cause of the Apollo 1 fire, in order to point out the similarity to the cause of the Apollo 13 explosion. But there was one point I was particularly glad to see emphasised.
In recent interviews around the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, I’ve been asked several times if I knew what was happening during the final approach. The answer is that nobody knew, because the astronauts were too busy to explain it, but the late John Braithwaite and I certainly knew what wasn’t happening: it was more and more clear that Armstrong had diverged radically from the intended flight plan. Having overshot the landing site, Armstrong was flying on in search of another, but all we could tell was that he was still travelling horizontally, at low altitude and high speed. We said nothing, not to alarm the other people in our company, but were mouthing things to each other like, “Has he lost it?” and “Kill that horizontal component!” Pyle describes the event from several viewpoints and it is gratifying that we were right about what was happening, though we did not know why. Mission Control was in the same situation, and what I didn’t know was that when the amount of fuel remaining dropped below a minute’s worth, Gene Kranz punched the Capsule Communicator on the arm and said, “Shut up and let them land!” - assuming that Armstrong and Aldrin knew what they were about, and were simply too preoccupied to describe it.
As for the rest – if there are any names you don’t know in the list above, read this book to find out. If you don’t know any of them, except maybe Neil Armstrong, certainly read this book as an introduction to the history of spaceflight.
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