What a magnificent book! It’s been my bedtime reading for the past week. And what a ride.
Almost four hundred pages are divided into ten chapters and a pile of references. Each chapter offers from one to a few brief biographies of the main figures of the early human era of the Space Age. Astronauts, both American and Soviet, are given insightful profiles. Mostly, these are quite positive, but the authors do not shy away from flaws. The drinking, the womanizing, and the cynicism of superiors does not overtake the prose or turn it into a trashy tell-all. It’s just part of who these people were.
Mr French and Mr Burgess include other figures who played key roles behind the scenes, including Mercury Seven nurse Dee O’Hara, and a few of the engineers on the Soviet side.
I appreciated the frank and full stories behind three of the controversies of this era: Did Gus Grissom’s capsule sink because he panicked? (Not hardly.) Was the NASA vow to never put Scott Carpenter in space a fair assessment of his flight? (Again, emphatically no. Carpenter had a deeply flawed ship that required top-notch flight skills to bring it back to Earth with a living astronaut inside.) Did the Soviets almost have a dead spacewalker when Alexei Leonov stepped outside the Voskhod capsule in 1965? It was interesting to read how propaganda concerns for keeping ahead of the Americans endangered their cosmonauts to a degree NASA would have found unacceptable.
Even non-space geeks will appreciate the interplay of biography and stories of the fourteen missions that gave human beings their first taste of the orbital frontier above us.