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Indispensable Reading on The US Space Program
on August 4, 2012
Before purchasing this book I read some of the reviews, and a number of the reviewers seemed to be irked by what they thought was the over-egotistical character of both the book and the author of the book. I didn't get this sense at all. Sure, Kraft wrote about his life and achievements, his contributions to the space program, and the history of the space program from his personal viewpoint, but what else is to be expected of an autobiography? After all, in reading his book, this is exactly what we want.
I found this to be a very interesting and informative account, especially of the pre-NASA NACA, of the formation and early days of NASA, and of the earliest manned missions of the Mercury and Gemini programs. Others have said it skims quickly over the Apollo missions, but I felt this was more a strength than a weakness, as there are hundreds of books on Apollo, but not so many that give such strong and detailed accounts of Mercury and Gemini. Kraft was in a unique position to know the inside stories of these missions and he gives us these stories, while most books skim Mercury and, especially, Gemini, in their rush to get to the moon landings.
There are a few surprising thoughts and revelations here. To me, the biggest eye-raiser was his discussion of President Johnson's contribution to the space program. Now, in my opinion, Johnson was about the worst single American since Benedict Arnold, but, having read other books on the space program, I always gave him credit for his strong support of that program. Other writers have even postulated the theory that Johnson was a stronger supporter of our space goals than was Kennedy and deserved more credit for their success. Not so, says Kraft. He doesn't go into it too deeply, but he felt that Johnson lost interest in space as he bungled his way through his miserable White House years, and that he oversaw the cutting of the space budget, and the lessening of our goals in space, as time moved on from the heady days of the Kennedy presidency. This budget cutting was continued rather than instituted by Nixon, who is often the villain of these space books.
The main talking point and controversy of this book is its very angry account of the Mercury flight of Scott Carpenter. While reading it you may find yourself saying, "OK, this was 50 years ago. It's time to let go of that hostility." There is also the need to take Carpenter's version of the story into consideration. However, the frustration of dealing with an astronaut in a space capsule, his life in dire peril, who will not follow instructions and will not communicate with those on the ground who are trying to save his life, is understandable. For a neutral account with no personal axe to grind, the Alan Shepherd biography "Light This Candle" goes into Carpenter's flight in detail, because Shepherd was a capcom on that mission, and the agony of trying to get Carpenter home alive comes through just as strongly in that book as in this, as does the verdict that, whatever the Carpenter apologist say, the general opinion amongst the astronauts themselves was that Carpenter screwed up. But the average reader can feel justified in thinking Kraft's account of the mess became too personalized, and when, at the end of the book, Kraft can't resist the urge to take one last shot, saying, in effect, that every single astronaut who flew did an outstanding job "except for Carpenter", it took on the aspect of piling on.
A couple of other incidents that this book brings some clarity to. One is the whole Schirra/Apollo 7 dust-up. Kraft, who has a naught but praise for Schirra's performance on his Mercury and Gemini flights, admits to being mystified by Wally's intransigence before and during the Apollo 7 mission. He makes it clear that Schirra's bad temper was not just the result of a head cold, as was reported in the press at the time, but began well before the mission, endured throughout training, and just continued during the flight itself. Kraft's conclusion was that Schirra suffered a temporary loss of nerve following the Apollo 1 fire, something understandable, since Schirra was on the back-up crew for that flight and had beeen training in the same spacecraft, doing the same tests, as that which killed Grissom, White & Chaffee, and it was pure luck that the fire killed the primary crew instead of the back-up crew--all that on top of losing, in a stupid, preventable accident, three fellow astronauts with whom he was training closely, and especially fellow original 7 astronaut and close friend Gus Grissom.
Kraft goes into the so-called stamp scandal following Apollo 15, and resented being made the goat for the whole mess. Reading about this "scandal" now, we have to wonder why such a big deal was made of it in the first place. Also, other reviewers have raised an issue with Kraft's portrayal of Wernher von braun & his German contingent. I don't. Kraft was fair to von Braun, giving him proper credit for his contributions, if he didn't like him personally. I think this book serves as an antidote to the cult of von Braun that exists amongst some space junkies. Von Braun was the mastermind of the Saturn V rocket, but he had little to do with Gemini, nothing to do with computer guidance systems, the LEM, the Apollo Command Module, the radio tracking system, etc. The Saturn V would have been useless without these other developments, as they would have been without the Saturn V. Each was a necessary component of the successful moon missions, but none more noteworthy than the others. One can argue that James Chamberlin and the Canadian & British engineers who came to NASA after the cancellation of the AVRO Arrow project, were as important and made as great a contribution to NASA's success as did von Braun and his Germans. Their story is not as interesting, Chamberlin not as charismatic as von Braun, so we hear little of them. Kraft gives them a fair mention here, but even he gets caught up in von Braun, if a bit on the anti side.
An indispensable volume for those interested in the space program, and more valuable for its emphasis on the early days. Like others, I think this should be read together with Gene Kranz's book. They form an excellent background on the technical side of the Mercury, Gemini & Apollo programs.