Monday, June 25, 2012

Liftoff - Michael Collins

"The boundary line between a blue and white planet, and one that is gray and tan, is fragile. Is the riverbank a delight or an obscenity, a place for diving ducks or greasy truck tires? I cry that the technology that produced this marvelous machine we call Columbia leaves in its wake the detritus of a century of industrial abuse. It need not be that way. We can use technology to cleanse, to repair, to maintain – even as we build, as we spiral out into the universe."

Written by Michael Collins, the often forgotten third astronaut on the Apollo 11 mission who didn’t get to land on the moon, this book spans the years of the beginnings of NASA, to the start of the space shuttle program. It encompasses the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions as well as the various men involved in the program from the astronauts to the engineers and includes drawings and diagrams of various vehicles, spacecraft and characters. It was fascinating to learn about the inner workings of the agency, from the original module designs to the disagreements over policy to all of the complexities of such an ambitious undertaking as going to the moon.

The idealism and passion behind the program was palpable in the writing. It didn’t hurt that the book was peppered with quotes from various people of the period, including employees which created atmosphere and a sense of urgency. They make the story of the space program come alive and show that the agency was the optimistic hope of a younger nation with hopes that stretched out beyond the boundaries of the Earth. As time wore on you could see and feel how NASA changed, adapting to a changing world and ever evolving technology. I liked how we got to see how NASA matured as an agency and how the original aspirations and plans changed over time due to budget constraints and political opinion. I also found the section concerning Apollo 1 very educational. I was aware of the troubles that Apollo 13 had faced thanks to the movie but was unaware of the tragic ending of the first Apollo mission. It was interesting to see how NASA handled the situation and how the world reacted.

Collins is very good at detail. The problem is he’s too good. While I was trying to work my way through the book I was constantly bogged down by all of the numbers and figures Collins peppers throughout the book. At one point I was so frustrated I didn’t want to finish the book. I understand the book was written by an analytical mind about a real time in history but the main point to take into consideration is that it’s a book first. If it’s not readable, people won’t read it and then instead of being a book it’s just tree pulp sitting on a shelf somewhere. My other complaint is that there isn’t an addendum to this book with an update of NASA over the past twenty years. So much has changed in that span of time that the space shuttle program isn’t even running anymore.

I will say that there were some dramatic moments that made for some good reading. I wasn’t even aware that SkyLab existed until reading this book. Overall it was a fascinating read.
Whether prescient or not, Collins does have a section where he says that Mars is the next frontier, which appears to be where some think we should be heading next. Others want to head back to the moon, whether to mine it for materials such as helium or water or whether to set up a permanent base. Whatever we decide to do, we’re still fascinated by space and I hope we continue to look up and wonder about what might be out there, just waiting to be discovered.

If you are interested in the history of NASA’s space program and don’t mind extra detail included with the narrative, pick up this book.

Rating: 3/5

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