Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The remarkable, collaborative effort to put man in space in Rocket Men

From The Week of April 29, 2013

We all endeavor to inject life with meaning, to ensure that, after we are gone, we will be remembered as more than just a single link in a near-infinite generational chain. For some of us, this legacy is rooted in concrete notions of meaning:the rearing of children, the writing of books, the holding of public office. Such deeds cannot easily be forgotten. But for others, meaning is found only in less tangible locales, in ideas of achievement, of philosophy, even of freedom, concepts so ethereal as to be dismissed by our concretists who can only endow meaning in what they can hold.

And yet, this would be a narrow view. For while the concretists keep our world moving, the dreamers inspire us to heights of accomplishment and understanding that their contemporaries could have never fathomed. They accelerate, sometimes literally, the progress of civilization towards its enlightened endgame. There is no higher legacy. And that much Mr. Nelson demonstrates in his excellent history.

The 20th century's relationship with the rocket was one of moral and technological complexity. Originally born centuries ago in Greece and China, this awesome assemblage of violent propulsion took modern form in the fertile mind of a German scientist who, in the 1930s, had his dreams funded by a Third Reich seeking a means to defeat a pugnacious and physically isolated Britain. This destructive partnership produced the V-2, a machine of terror that launched from Germany and France and landed explosively amidst English industry, seeking both to cripple and subjugate that nation. This advancement was so notable in its day that, when the Second World War ended, those scientists and their families and fellow rocketeers were secreted away from a defeated Germany, protected from charges of war crimes and relocated to the American south to kindle a new dawn in military technology.

That dawn, though not without its consequences, kickstarted a revolution in 20th-century technology. For the powerful rockets, developed for the US military, not only made possible a whole range of satellite technologies, they bore aloft, for the first time, man from the planet upon which he evolved. In the early days, these missions were quick and dirty, barely controlled flights through near orbit of largely symbolic value. But as time advanced, and with efforts focused by a president's vow to land on Earth's only moon by the end of the 1960s, man finally left Earth orbit and joined the stars, planting a flag on the moon and, in doing so, igniting the imaginations of generations to come.

A history of both the rockets and the men who built and flew at their behest, Rocket Men is a sublime and exhilarating work of non-fiction that both inspires and enthralls. Drawing heavily from the personal accounts of astronauts and engineers from NASA's space program, it is, at times, an oral history of the Apollo program, one that documents deeds of already famous and well-chronicled men in a manner that is as refreshing as it is unbiased. For there is no lionization here. Mr. Nelson certainly admires the dedication of the 400,000 souls who worked to send these precious few into space, but he's equally willing to acknowledge not only their faults, but the early faults of NASA which saw the Apollo missions conducted with a substantial degree of disorganization and disunity.

Despite the rhetorical strength of Rocket Men's first-hand accounts, Mr. Nelson's effort to step back and adopt a wider, more historical view is equally potent. The reader is furnished with a brief but thorough summation of the Soviet rocket program that raced the United States to the stars. Moreover, he is filled in on historical details such as how the defeated German scientists found themselves working in Alabama, how that transition took place and what became of it. Finally, he is blessed with a broader view of NASA's cultural impact on the United States of the 1960s and 1970s, a time when American power, excepting the Vietnam War, seemed endless.

Rocket Men is not a perfect history. But for a brief mention of the means by which women were senselessly disqualified from the Apollo program, Mr. Nelson pays almost no heed to the rampant sexism of NASA during this period. Moreover, he dispenses with the rocket's pre-20th-century history with a few casual paragraphs about the deeds of past civilizations. A harsh marker would certainly characterize these as unforgivable omissions from a work such as this. But one senses that Mr. Nelson was more interested in the taste and feel of Apollo, the enormity of the rockets that powered it, the complexity of the systems that nourished it and the exceptional natures of the men who populated it, a reality which makes these omissions understandable if regrettable.

A riveting history of an inspiring era that makes clear all that America has lost in turning away from its dangerous and difficult manned missions. Excellent work... (4/5 Stars)

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