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Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon, Revised Edition (Outward Odyssey: A People's History of Spaceflight) Hardcover – May 1, 2016
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Learn more
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Of all the astronauts and cosmonauts who have lost their lives in space program related accidents, only one is under a cloud. While the others were killed because of malfunctioning equipment, politically driven upper management decisions, or a combination of both, Elliot See was (and is) blamed by some for the accident that took his life and that of his Gemini 9 crew mate Charlie Bassett.
It takes some speculative knowledge of the astronaut hierarchy that existed in NASA in the early-to-mid sixties to understand the controversy, and why certain members of that hierarchy took the sides they did. While the original seven Mercury astronauts were all serving members of the military, the next group of nine included two civilians--Neil Armstrong and Elliot See. The other astronauts who graduated from service academies took the traditional, prestigious route through West Point and Annapolis, while See graduated from the then new and less prestigious Merchant Marine Academy at King's Point. While the others had served as test pilots with the military, either the Navy or Air Force, or, in Armstrong's case, with the forerunner of NASA, the NACA, See's test pilot experience was with General Electric. The other astronauts were all line officers in the "regular" Navy, Marines or Air Force while See was a Naval Reserve flyer.
So, in the case of Elliot See, it seems people lined up according to their military background. It's no coincidence that his staunchest defender has been Armstong. While See was well liked personally by his fellow astronauts, it seems many had doubts about his abilities as a pilot. That's not to say he was incompetent. That he was a very good pilot is not in doubt, but it seems the others, who were the absolute best flyers in the world, did not believe he was in their league, and one can imagine the kind of behind-the-back talk that went on before his fatal accident, and that there was much second guessing after the accident is no secret. This was exacerbated by the fact that highly regarded Tom Stafford landed his T-38 safely on the same day, at the same time, in the same place, and in the same weather conditions in which See crashed. In addition, there was/is the speculation that if Bassett, considered a coming star in the NASA firmament, had been flying the plane, he, like Stafford, would have brought it down safely.
Civilians in the astronaut corps were, it seems, seen, at the time, as odd ducks. One need look at the career paths of See, Walt Cunningham, Jack Swigert, Harrison Schmitt, to realize this. There seemed to have been a stigma attached to them that only Armstrong escaped, and a hesitancy to assign them to flight positions. We see that See is defended by not only Armstrong, but by the civilian head flight director Chris Kraft, while the über-military head of the astronaut office, Deke Slayton (who, by all accounts, liked See personally) made the somewhat snide comment that he assigned Bassett to See's Gemini 9 flight because "Bassett could carry him." See was flying the T-38 because he was the commander of Gemini 9, but he was commander over Bassett mostly because as pilot instead of commander, the younger, more physically fit Bassett would be assigned the space walk, and because See, as a member of the second astronaut group (Bassett was a member of the third) had more seniority than Bassett. See's qualifications as flight commander, in Slayton's book, were negative, and his assignment to the flight was because of sentiment rather than ability.
This book does not delve too deeply into these issues, but it does an excellent job of telling the story of the astronauts, not only in the case of See and Bassett, but in all of its chapters. It does an especial service in restoring to public knowledge the story of Ed Givens, who has otherwise faded into obscurity and anonimity.
There is, necessarily, less detail in the stories of the Russian cosmonauts, because of the secrecy shrouding the Soviet space program, but we at least get something where nothing existed before. I was particularly curious about the case of Vladimir Komarov, considering the highly sensational accounts of his fatal flight, and I think in this book we come as close to the truth as we're ever going to get. What is particularly interesting, in reading and comparing the life stories of the astronauts and cosmonauts, is the differing philosophies behind the choosing of flight candidates by the two competing programs. The NASA astronauts had, it seems, a much higher degree of qualifications than did the Soviet cosmonauts. This isn't a knock on the cosmonauts. While NASA looked for older, more experienced test-pilots with graduate level degrees in engineering, the cosmonauts seemed to have been picked for their physical and mental fitness for what were grueling early missions. They were, on average, about 10 years younger than the Americans, and sometimes the resulting lack of maturity showed up in discipline problems. The Russians were picked to be "passengers" on flights tightly controlled from the ground while the Americans were expected to be flyers who had great input not only during the flights, but in the design of the space craft and the equipment with which they worked. This is an insight not into the abilities of the men involved, but into the political systems behind the two programs.
An excellent book which answers questions but which also provokes a good deal of thought. It is also interesting to note that at the two co-authors who wrote the US astronaut biographies are Australian and that a number of outstanding books on the US space program have been written by Australians. There seems to be an interest down there in US space history that doesn't exist here in the US itself.
It was an enjoyable read and a welcome addition to my collection. These were my heroes when I was a kid.
The book covers all the fatalities in the US space program up through the death of C. C. Williams on 5 October 1967, plus the Soviet fatalities from the same era. Bert Vis has done extraordinary work uncovering the history of the Soviet space fatalities, which were (and to a degree still are) hidden in secrecy. The passing of Valentin Bondarenko is especially painful to recount, not only for the tragic circumstances and disturbing details of his death, but for the realization that had the USSR been more open about the hazards of working in a pressurized 100 percent oxygen atmosphere, the deaths of Grissom, White, and Chaffee might have been prevented.
This book is both detailed and concise. It provides genuine insight into these men who paid the ultimate price for space exploration, and recounts their lives and deaths with compassion, accuracy, and a sense of gratitude. The book easily deserves five stars, and I recommend it without any reservations.