Those daring young men and their flying machine

The Flyers: In Search of Wilbur and Orville Wright by Noah Adams

In this book’s favor:
1. Written by Noah Adams (of NPR), who has a pleasant speaking voice (not that that has anything to do with one’s writing ability, but I get a calming feeling when I see the name Noah Adams)
2. It is about the fathers of powered flight!!
On the other end of the stick: This book sure sounds like it’s one of them travelogues.
And, as stated before, I’m not keen on the travelogues, particularly when they are predicated on a gimmick (a la, I’ve always wanted to do this thing, and so now I’ll do this thing and write about it!!)
So this book was a mixed bag for me.
I’ll admit it was Noah Adams’ name that made me pick it up; when I saw the Adams and Wright names together, I thought, “Here’s my book.”
And I liked that he started the book with a visit to the Wrights’ graves. I think a cemetery visit is always good.
In spite of plenty of aviation reading over the years (from the 1980s on), I confess I’ve neglected the Wright brothers Until Now. Poor fellas. Not only ignored by the likes of me, but then Wilbur went and died all young, and Orville was a spinster his whole life and was meaner than mean to his sister when she deserted him to get married at age 50-something. It was a bit troubled, all that business.
But really, for me, it’s all about the humans and their aeroplanes.
Check out this picture, peoples:

(Photo credit: Library of Congress)

How can you not get all verklempt?
That’s Orville flying the machine and Wilbur standing to the right.
Can anyone name the date and place? Aviation geeks, step forward!*
So here’s the best part of this book: It provides good details about the Wrights’ lives and their flights—to such an extent that I am feeling all sentimental about the wonders of flight. Adams makes the Wrights human and he shows them to be remarkable.
The part I didn’t love was the travelogue part—the interviewing people who work at, or live near, the various Wright sites. I like the biographer to step out of the picture and just give us the guys. But that’s just me. I imagine there are people who would be liking the I-went-here-and-talked-with-this-local-expert approach. Not so much my style, but still this book worked for me overall.
*December 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

This book is not about astronauts.

Apollo: Race to the Moon by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox
This book = Triumph of the Geeks
There are hardly any astronauts in this book, which may seem weird. But.
There are tons and tons of engineers and such-like people. And they’re not nearly as exciting as astronauts, yet still this was a good book. So: happy days!
This is the book in which I first learned truly to appreciate Christ(opher Columbus) Kraft and Glynn Lunney. In most of the Apollo documentaries I’ve seen, Gene Kranz is the talking head representing the flight directors (the dudes referred to simply as “Flight” during a mission), and Glynn Lunney gets short shrift, poor fella. And Chris Kraft was the grand poobah, and here we get to know about him. And, speak of the devil, here he is:

(Oh, please note: Big news: John Glenn Himself introduces this segment, and he is cute as a button.)

(Ooo ooo oooo!! One more thing: The guys pictured in the frame right this very second are the Apollo 11 crew: Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin. Armstrong is just to the right of the bearded fellow.)

In the first few pages of this book, I knew I would like it, because the writing is lovely: it doesn’t get in your way, and it just purrs along nicely. When this happens, I know the author knows what he/she is doing; I actually stop and notice—and I appreciate it.
So, even though the astronauts are sort of afterthoughts in this book (and I love those astronauts), this book really makes the guys (and the one or two women) on the ground seem heroic, too.

The Good Kind of Plane Crash

Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson by William Langewiesche
You really gotta love this: a plane crashed, and everyone survived. And we even got to watch it on TV and the Internet, repeated over and over and over. And Sullenberger finessed that water landing every doggone time!

OK. So let’s be serious. Geese and an airplane collided, and that is nothing but bad.
Langewiesche, who doesn’t waste a single word (thank you, universe, for such writers), tells the story of the four minutes between collision and landing. When I got to the part where the man seated next to a mom with a baby offered to brace the baby during the impact, oh, I liked that part. Told with as few words as possible, and without drama-ing it all up. I detest “heartwarming,” and this was the only moment that veered close—but he pulled back just in time, and the book was saved.
But most of the focus here in on the pilots and the aircraft—what the pilots did right, and what the aircraft designers did right.
I love books where things turn out well because people have done good work. Life ain’t always like that, and damn, it’s refreshing to read something non-treacly that still comes out right in the end.
This book is not very long. And if you decided to skip all of the mini-stories it contains, about other pilots who totally screwed things up, then it’s even shorter. If you wanted to read a novella-length nonfiction account of an event that was almost tragic, here’s a darn good bet.
Pair it with Down around Midnight, and you can have yourself an survival-of-a-plane-crash reading spree. Tempting, eh?

Hey, guess what? Astronauts!

First on the Moon: A Voyage with Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. by Gene Farmer and Dora Jane Hamblin

I found this book while browsing the shelves at the library. (Man, I don’t do enough of that!)
And here’s what the book jacket flap* says: “Life senior editor Gene Farmer and Life staff writer Dora Jane Hamblin have spent many months with—indeed, living with—the astronauts and their families.” I had an ecstatic little moment in which I savored this word: voyeurism.Photo credit: NASA
Oh, yes. I’m not ashamed to confess it. (Admit it—when you’re a passenger in a car after dark, you oh-so-casually glance in people’s windows, too. Right? Right?!)
Then, about 10% of the way through the book, I was liking it so darn much, I wondered: Am I just a lazybutt, to be liking journalists’ writing so much? (You hear those scary things about newspapers being written at a 4th grade level. You know?)
Then I decided, To heck with it. I don’t give a crap. I just like this book, and I’m going to keep liking it, and so there.
(Plus, it vindicated itself; I had to look up the meaning of the word “tocsin.”)
So here’s the thing:
If you read only one book about the space program, probably it should be The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. But—if you read only one book about the Apollo program, this one here is the one I recommend.
Here’s why:
First, it gives a terrific behind-the-scenes perspective, including interviews with the astronauts and their wives. It feels very up-close and personal. (As up-close as you could get to those close-lipped fellows, anyway.)
Another good thing about this book is that it’s informal in tone, yet it provides a great overview of Apollo 11. It’s one of those books that you enjoy so much, you don’t realize you’re learning stuff. Photo credit: NASA

* Yes, I read the flap, in spite of protesting yesterday that I Do Not Do That. But this was one of my bizarro browsing instances, when all rules fly out the window. Truly.


Rocketman: Astronaut Pete Conrad’s Incredible Ride to the Moon and Beyond by Nancy Conrad and Howard A. Klausner

This loving posthumous biography by Pete Conrad’s second wife presents him in a very positive light… but so far I’ve not run across anything negative written about the guy, so who knows—maybe her view is fair and balanced?

Other than sensing a general acknowledgment that Conrad was widely recognized as an inveterate wise***, I continue to read only good things about him. And it’s clear that Nancy Conrad adored the man.

I first ran across Pete Conrad in The Right Stuff, which opens with a vignette about him during his test pilot days. At the time, I was not sure he was real—in part because of that book’s subtitle “A Novel,” and in part because he seemed too perfect a character to be real.

So here’s Pete Conrad, in a nutshell: “He was the third man to walk on the Moon. He was the first to dance on it.” (from Rocketman’s epigraph) What’s not to love about that? After Armstrong’s stoicism and Aldrin’s intensity, here we’ve got a lighthearted dude.

Here’s a typical scene, during liftoff of his Gemini mission with Gordo Cooper:
“‘Go, you mother, go!’
Pete let it fly, didn’t give a damn whether he was transmitting or not (he was), didn’t care whether it was cool or not. He flicked all his switches at the proper intervals, giggling like a schoolboy in that metal helmet.” (pp. 139-140)

And in this book we have confirmation that on their Apollo 12 mission, Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon, and Alan Bean* really did listen (repeatedly) to the song “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies, a song that Dick Gordon apparently adored. (And I thought it was artistic license when they showed such a scene in From the Earth to the Moon.)

This is one fun book to read. Since it’s kind of like hanging out with Pete Conrad for a couple hundred pages, how couldn’t it be fun?

* Space geeks — Alert! Alan Bean’s artwork is on display at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum! You have until January 13, 2010, to get your bodies over there to check it out.

I cannot say enough good things…

Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys by Michael Collins

OK, so I already confessed a general admiration of Michael Collins.

That was before I read his book.

Now I am quite simply unbearably fond of him.

The man can write. He’s smart, he’s funny, he can turn a phrase, he’s an astronaut! Dear heaven.

And here he is (2nd from left), accompanied (from left) by Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and some jowly guy I don’t recognize.

(Photo credit: NASA)

I took this book on vacation, began reading it on the plane, and Could Not Stop. Then, did the unthinkable: bought a copy at the Air & Space gift shop. Even though I had a library copy with me on the trip! Even though I do not buy books; I borrow them!

Here’s why this book is fabulous and worth dropping $16 on:

First, of all, the writing is simply lovely. It’s conversational, easy, and smart.

Second, the tone is perfect: self-deprecating, humorous, and upbeat.

For example:
“It is perhaps a pity that my eyes have seen more than my brain has been able to assimilate or evaluate, but like the Druids at Stonehenge, I have attempted to bring order out of what I have observed, even if I have not understood it fully.

Unfortunately, my feelings cannot be conveyed by the clever arrangement of stone pillars. I am condemned to the use of words. I know, because after the flight of Gemini 10, I tried to use paint, and it was a total flop.” (p. 474)

And third, the subject matter can’t be beat. For the love of Mike (OK, pun intended), he was on the first mission to land humans on the moon! And before that, he was a test pilot. And in between, he flew on one of the Gemini missions. This book is packed with anecdotes and details that give us a window into the astronauts’ world.

But truly, it’s the man’s voice. It comes across, loud and clear. No, quiet and clear.

And so… a big event has just happened here. I’ve added this one to my “Top 10 Favorite Book” list.

And it ain’t just me: Harry Hurt III (author of the fine book For All Mankind) mentions Carrying the Fire as the most poetic book written by an astronaut.

S0 — here’s Michael Collins earlier this year, speaking at Air & Space (the museum where he served as director when the museum opened in 1976)…

Geek-Out Attack!

Oh, good people, here is your blogger, happy–oh so happy– (is she perhaps delirious?) at the Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, home of The Very Isolation Chamber Where the Apollo 11 Astronauts Were Quarantined Upon Their Return to Earth!!!

It’s one of those god-awful self-portrait numbers, certain to make one appear ready for, say, an isolation chamber.
But dang. What a happy girl!
For a similar portrait, featuring Richard Nixon himself in roughly my location here, Check This Out! (You’ll see Armstrong on the left, Collins in the center, and Aldrin on the right.)
Book-related note:
In my bag at the time this delightful image was captured: the remarkable Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys by Michael Collins. (I had a bus ride, followed by a shuttle bus ride, to get there, and then a shuttle bus, bus, and subway ride to get back. Can you imagine such a haul without a book? [breaks out in hives at mere thought])

All Apollo, All the Time

A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin

While watching HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon on DVD (initial reaction: “Rats, it’s not a documentary!”—then, after one episode: “This is fantastic!”) I saw that the series was based in part on this book. So I hauled it home from the library and dove in. And stayed there a while—this book has 680 pages, if you count the appendices, notes, and index. And in this book’s case, 680 pages is a good thing.

One might think, “A 680-page tome on the Apollo missions… [yawn]” but boy, would one be wrong, Wrong, WRONG.

Chaikin talked with the astronauts, with their families, and with others at NASA, and the result is a book that focuses on the human experience of preparing to go to—and then actually visiting—the moon. While I have a certain appreciation for the technical whiz-bang wonders of getting humans into space and onto the lunar surface and returning them “safely to Earth” (as JFK put it), I confess I never crave the experience of reading a technical book on any subject. So this book, with its narrative tone and human-centric approach, was the right choice for me.

Though, speaking of technical manuals… While I was reading A Man on the Moon, this little news item, which includes three of my favorite things—libraries, the Smithsonian, and the space program—appeared on The Face*, and I got all excited. And then, shortly thereafter, this fine thing also appeared on The Face. But I digress…

Someone described A Man on the Moon as “picking up where The Right Stuff left off,” (Oh! It’s Pete Conrad, on the back cover of the book!) and I think that’s a fair statement. (Though do the Gemini missions get lost in the shuffle, perhaps? Those poor overlooked dudes.)

I shall conclude with an ode to Michael Collins, whom I believe to be a perfectly lovely human. He seems to glow with affection for all that surrounds him, and I just cannot resist that. Just a couple of Apollo 11 quotes from the man: “Beautiful burn, SPS, I love you, you are a jewel!” and “You cats take it easy on the lunar surface.” Of him, Chaikin writes, “To reporters faced with Armstrong’s inscrutability, Aldrin’s technical relentlessness, Collins was a breath of fresh air. He fielded their queries with good humor; his face seemed to say that yes, these are interesting questions.” (p. 175) What a beautiful human being. And if, 40 years after the big event, Michael Collins chooses to express an occasional burst of discontent with the world of celebrity, I’m impressed by how un-grumpy he remains. And how lucky he considers himself.

And I’ll complete my happy talk here by thanking Andrew Chaikin for writing this fine book. It’s a world unto itself, and I’m glad I spent so many happy hours there. I gave it one of them five-star reviews on Shelfari and Good Reads; that doesn’t happen every day.

*That’s how I call Facebook.

The Man on the Moon

Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon by Buzz Aldrin with Ken Abraham

Here’s the thing: I have a natural affinity for Michael Collins (the only Apollo 11 astronaut whose marriage survived) and Neil Armstrong (a near-recluse after the moon landing; I get that). So of the three Apollo 11 astronauts, who do I read about first? Yes, that would be Buzz Aldrin.

I will admit that I complained about Aldrin’s making the most of the 40th anniversary of the 1st moon landing by publishing his (2nd) memoir to coincide with it. But did I read it? Heck, yes.

Aldrin has overcome some serious demons, which is impressive stuff, to be sure. He is frank about the depression and alcoholism that accompanied him during the decade after the moon landing (and the depression that continues to this day, off and on). I appreciate that honesty. And I’m glad he has done some interesting pop culture stuff, such as appearing on Sesame Street. That’s pretty lovable.

I think part of my discomfort is that when one writes a memoir, there are so many absent points of view—whereas a good biography often takes alternate viewpoints into account. Anyway, I digress…

The thing I like best about Aldrin, in addition to his openness about his personal difficulties, is his ongoing passion for space travel. And his democratic approach, proposing a lottery that would allow an average Jane the opportunity to travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. And I really like his idea that we should send writers, artists, and songwriters into space so they can capture the essence of it in a way that astronauts and scientists cannot. Brilliant, no?

So look out your window Right Now: We’ve got a full moon going on up there, and it looks like a fine place to see up close. Wouldn’t you throw your name into a lottery to go up there on a quick jaunt?

I’m thinking I’d do it, despite being more of an airplane freak than a space fanatic–a feeling that hits me every time I visit the National Air and Space Museum and I gaze at the airplanes like a lovelorn soul.

End of the Age of Dirigibles

The Hindenburg by Michael M. Mooney

Good heavens to Betsy. Who knew the Hindenburg was so darn fascinating? (OK, I admit it: I’m on a disaster kick. There it is.)

This book is absolutely riveting, which is due not only to the gripping nature of the story, but very much to the writing style of the author. Reading this book was a pleasure, because the sentences and the paragraphs were crafted beautifully. It makes a person just want to hum.

The author tells the story of the people involved in the development and the crash of the Hindenburg. There’s just enough information about the technology to inform those who know little about airships (count me among them—I’m an airplane girl myself), but not so much that things bogged down in detail.

The only shortcoming of this book: It posits simply that a crew member sabotaged the Hindenburg by planting a bomb—and does not address the fact that this is only one possibility and that the cause of the explosion is still uncertain.

I’d not realized that the Hindenburg emerged from Nazi Germany (which would explain the creepy swastikas on its tail—which I never before realized were present). Some of the events surrounding the early days of the Hindenburg are downright chilling: Goebbels insisted on the swastika being placed on the tails of the various Zeppelins, and the Nazis issued a decree banning any mention of the company board chairman’s name in the press, after he offended Hitler with his reluctance to allow the Zeppelins to be used as propaganda tools during the 1936 election.

So add Nazi menace to the overall “this ain’t gonna end well” story, and you’ve got yourself one doozie of a page-turner.