3.0 out of 5 stars
In the Shadow of Andy Chaikin
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on February 25, 2014
"In the Shadow of the Moon" chronicles the oft overlooked NASA missions wedged between the original trailblazing Mercury program and its culmination in project Apollo. Whereas Mercury proved humans could orbit the earth for a short time and survive, before NASA could land on the moon there were numerous additional questions that had to be answered, and so Gemini was created as a bridge between Mercury and Apollo. Gemini, eponymously named because the capsules now carried two astronauts, tested numerous requirements: EVA, orbital rendezvous/docking, physical endurance in space, etc. etc. Each subsequent mission was more ambitious than its predecessor.
French & Burgess continue the "Outward Odyssey" series picking up where "
Into That Silent Sea
" left off, and wrapping up the book after Apollo 11's successful mission. Spoken simply, this is probably the best book for (mostly) project Gemini. To the outsider, Gemini is almost wholly overlooked due to the accomplishments of Mercury and Apollo, but French & Burgess call out the significance of these missions constantly in sight of NASA's higher goal of a lunar landing. With this scope in mind, they do very well to point out the obstacles Gemini had to overcome and how the astronauts performed well under pressure. Particularly they really sucked me into Gemini IX when Gene Cernan's space suit stiffened almost to the point of immobility, the inner mylar layers of his suit breaking apart and giving him second degree burns on his back, his over-exertion grasping for any foothold or handhold he could find and causing perspiration which fogged up his visor, sweating off over 15 pounds of body weight during his struggle to perform the EVA, and all this while simultaneously becoming the first human to orbit the earth entirely while outside the spacecraft (passing through an orbital day and night). This book is saturated with this type of dramatic, heart-pounding excitement. If you have overlooked project Gemini in the past as I have, French & Burgess will help bring it back to life.
While reading the book, I couldn't help but try to frame it next to Andy Chaikin's masterpiece, "
A Man on the Moon
." Not only is Andy's writing style technically informative, but it is also sentimentally engaging. Chaikin's book puts the reader right there in the capsule or on the moon along with the astronauts. For example, Chaikin took us inside "Big Al" Shepard's no nonsense management style, but also softened our hearts with him as he stepped off the LM onto the surface of the moon, looked up at the earth, and silently wept for joy. Moreover, Chaikin arranged his book chronologically, letting the story of the lunar explorations unfold to us as they did to those involved. Contrast Chaikin's style to that of French & Burgess, who bounce around chronologically and only loosely stick to a timeline based on the launch order of these missions. If you're new to project Gemini and/or Apollo, you could be reading about Tom Stafford's contributions during his Gemini VI flight, and in the middle of it, French & Burgess will reference an event from Stafford's experience on Apollo X, four years later. The primary example came at the end of chapter 3, "The Ballet of Weightlessness," when French & Burgess attach themselves to Pete Conrad (who flew Gemini XI, yet the last Gemini flight was Lovell & Aldrin on Gemini XII), follow his post-NASA business challenges, and then take us to his funeral in 1999. The timeline seemed out of place for wrapping up the Gemini missions and moving into the 1967 fire of Apollo 1 in the following chapter. In this sense, French & Burgess don't seem to mind "spoiling the future" for the reader. With content as exciting as the space race, I prefer Chaikin's "take the reader along for the ride" writing style.
Also, while the chapters covering the Soviet race to the moon were interesting, they lacked in detail and emotional impact that the American portions of the book had. Those sections felt rushed and out of place. On the flip side, I do walk away more curious about the Soyuz project and will find other books (like Dave Scott's book) detailing the Soviet side of the space race.
I also have a bone to pick regarding the chapter outlining the extra-marital affairs most of the astronauts had at the Cape. The focus was on Donn Eisele, the first of the astronauts to divorce and remarry openly as a consequence of his infidelity, and the fallout his career experienced as a result. French & Burgess even draw upon Deke Slayton running interference for Donn and the others in order to maintain a squeaky clean, all-American public image of the astronauts. They also detail the emotional turmoil Susan Eisele (Donn's second wife) encountered as she took an outsider's role among the other astronaut wives. They illustrate that Donn paved the way for others who were stuck within loveless marriages, but whose careers were anything but adversely affected: viz. John Young, possibly NASA's most decorated astronaut ever, having flown to the moon twice (Apollo X & XVI) and along with Bob Crippen piloted the first re-entry of the Space Shuttle in 1981, and Al Worden, the first of only three astronauts to undergo a "deep space" EVA during the return trip from the moon (Apollo XV). The authors dwell on the drama surrounding these issues quite a bit, and one could say it is decidedly the fulcrum of the chapter on astronaut office politics. No disrespect is ever given to Donn or those who succeeded him, so for that I congratulate French & Burgess. They even compared Donn's final days in the NASA office to those of Gordo Cooper, who would have been a clear choice for a moon landing in the wake of the Apollo 1 fire had he not been so casual about training (even falling asleep on the launch pad at one point). However, is Eisele's extra-marital affair, divorce, and remarriage really the best vehicle for painting an accurate picture of astronaut pecking order and politics? Andrew Chaikin didn't seem to have a problem giving his readers a vivid understanding of how Al Shepard and Deke Slayton selected crews without digging up this kind of dirt. To me, it felt like French & Burgess couldn't land enough interviews with the astronauts in order to meet the timeline promised for the book, so they settled with material gleaned from interviews with Harriet and Susan Eisele as a result. I hope that's not the case. But if the book warranted a section on back-office politics (I still question whether it was necessary...), perhaps there are better, more poignant ways of doing so.
*** SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF GRAMMATICAL ABERRATIONS DON'T BOTHER YOU *** My only other gripe about the book is probably not a show-stopper to most readers. When reading non-fiction, I expect to enjoy the reading experience free from distracting grammar mistakes. I'm not sure if French & Burgess edited this book or if they hired someone else to do it for them, but whatever the case, the editor needs to rethink his or her approach. The most commonly encountered grammatical mistake in this book is the split infinitive. It is so common and distracting that it caused me to think at one point that the authors were using the split infinitive deliberately, as if to portray the idea that they actually learned the principle backwards. (Example: "Armstrong had to manually guide the lander..." The infinitive verb "to guide" has been split. The proper way is "Armstrong had to guide the lander manually..." This aberration can be confusing to those whose primary language is not English, who may think the verbal notion of the sentence is "to manually," which doesn't make sense, instead of "to guide"). Next, I spotted several misuses of the word "further" when "farther" was the intent ("farther" is used for measurable distances or quantities, "further" is for abstract principles not possible to measure empirically). Frequently the authors would employ the phrase "try and" when they probably meant "try to" (Example: "Aldrin attempted to try and see the surface but..." but the conjunction "and" doesn't work as a transitive particle. The proper way is "Aldrin attempted to try to see the surface but..." Also, try putting the "try and" into the past tense ["tried and"] and you'll hear the error clearly). Also I saw many uses of "different than" throughout the book, when "different from" is the correct usage. Lastly, authors and editors are on very thin ice when using the word "literally." If this book were fiction aimed at a teenage reading audience, I suspect misuse of the word "literally" would go unnoticed or ignored, but I found myself cringing with each misuse of the word (and there are plenty). At one point, the authors even allowed the words "literally like" into the text, which is both contradictory (how can something exist both in a literal sense and as a simile?) and inexcusable. If misused in a quotation (Gene Cernan, for example, says "literally" a lot), the "sic." annotation can be employed to call out the mistake to the reader. The word "literally" should be reserved for times when an idiomatic expression has both figurative and actual application (which is extremely rare); otherwise it is best to stay away from it.
Grammar peeves and timeline spoilers aside, this is an engaging book, and should be on the bookshelf of every space enthusiast.
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