Heroes Of The Space Age by Rod Pyle (book review).

Author Rod Pyle explains in his introduction to his latest book, ‘Heroes Of The Space Age’, that the real problem was who to leave out and that whoever he chose would disappoint others. So one of the criterias he applies is having some diversity so they would necessarily have similar backgrounds. As such, you have a mixture of then Soviet and American astronauts and a vital software engineer.

Of course, the first one has to be Yuri Gagarin because he was the first person to orbit the Earth. Seeing his life after that mission and the desire for the USSR to keep their first astronaut hero from going up into space again must have been exceedingly frustrating to him. After all, he was trained to be a pioneer and then stopped in his tracks.

It’s hardly surprising that John Glenn as the first American astronaut gets a chapter but as it also follows the entire Mercury astronaut recruitment and training as well, you get a bigger part of the early American space programme. Glenn also has the distinction of being their first astronaut and, later, also their oldest to go into space. A record that is unlikely to be ever equalled by humans again, well, not unless we consider going faster-than-light which could become another double first. It’s also of note that Glenn wanted to take a camera with him to take some photographs and had to convince NASA of its importance. As they were unable to find a suitable camera, Glenn bought a cheap $45 Minota 35mm camera near the Cape and used it.

Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first lady in space and the last for 19 years. The next being the American Sally Ride. The Russians were intent on getting a woman in space before the Americans and the main qualification was skydiving experience which was what all Russian cosmonauts had to do mid-air coming down. Of the four final candidates, Tereshkova toed the communist line. Reading how she gained science degrees later, she was also smart as well.

Just in case you think this book is all about astronauts, Gene Kranz was the ‘white team’ Flight Controller at NASA ensuring that the Apollo missions landed successfully on the Moon. Prior to that, he was involved with the Mercury and Gemini missions, so he saw it all. It’s rather revealing how much work was done behind the scenes and rather more worryingly faith that some things would work.

This brings us to Margaret Hamilton, the only woman software programmer on the Apollo missions. When you consider it was an all-male scene, makes her more remarkable but she was good at writing algorithms. However, the most important thing she contributed was after seeing her daughter, whom she brought to work, over-power the trainer computer, realised it needed an error correcting program to prioritise what was done first. Bear in mind the Apollo computers had a 36kB memory (think how much we have today in terms of gB), overloading instructions was a big problem. Mission controllers didn’t think they would need such software saying their astronauts were perfect. However, it was needed many times to show error message were just that and her software would go to the priority programming. Hats off to the lady because it’s also a demonstration not to always trust the people who press the buttons to get it right and she also saved lives in the process. Seeing the information in this chapter also reveals much of it was a hardwired system.

I should also point out that you need to set yourself plenty of time to read the chapters. The one with Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin is especially tense. Mike Collins career is also covered and you can see from their backgrounds why they were thought to be best team for the Apollo 11 landing. Armstrong was especially cool under pressure we already know from previous reviews but he would make up his own mind when things had to be done, including landing and finding samples to return to Earth when he thought the Moon Lander might have contaminated some areas when touching down.

Aldrin was determined to practice as much as possible for every contingency for EVAs while part of the Gemini program which served him in good stead. It was Collins’ EVAs and crossing over to the Agena that lacked footholds to cling to that got him noticed as well. All of this before getting to Apollo, which makes for a great divide before sitting down for an hour to read the rest.

Finally, we look at the life of Pete Conrad, the commander of Apollo 12 and a stark contrast to Neal Armstrong. His failure to get into the Mercury Program, largely for resenting the intense medical tests given, but didn’t stop him trying again when they became less intense. He shared a record with Gordon Cooper in the Gemini for the beating the first extended stay in space by the Russians. Added to that he was also commander of the first team on Skylab, sorting out its damaged solar panel. As a navy pilot, he also had something of a pottymouth but learnt how to restrain it when it came to messages back to NASA.

An interesting selection of people and you also learn a lot about the space programs on both sides of the divide. As I commented above, give yourself plenty of time to read each chapter because the book is hard to put down when you see the situations these people get in.

GF Willmetts

April 2019

(pub: Prometheus Books. 298 page enlarged paperback. Price: $18.00 (US), $19.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-63388-524-0. Ebook: Price: $11.99 (US), $13.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-63388-525-7)

check out website: www.prometheusbooks.com


USA: 07 May 2019

UK: 20 May 2019


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