Archive for 2005

Domo arigato

13 December 2005
Categories: Self-referential

This month’s web site traffic strangeness involves… Mister Roboto.

My goofy, six-year-old musing on an old Volkswagen ad is currently the number 3 page on my site. Six months ago it wasn’t in the top 30, but since then it’s been on a steady climb. Until this month.

Suddenly, my top ten search keyphrases include “volkswagen mr roboto”, “volkswagen roboto”, “volkswagen mr. roboto”, (note the dot) “mr roboto”, and “mr. roboto”. I know that the first three all place my page in the top 3 results on Google, and I think maybe “volkswagen mr. roboto” scored #1 earlier this week. But I have no idea whether it’s an improvement in Google ranking, or a resurgence of interest in an old ad, or a combination of the two, that has spurred this rise.

I do know one thing, and that’s that it feels a little weird to me. I wrote that silly piece of crap at age 30, and wrote it solely for the sake of writing it (oh, and to exorcise a bit of nostalgia for my youth as I entered my third decade). I don’t think I’d bother today, and it’s a tidbit of personal trivia that I don’t doubt is of zero interest to the many visitors who stumble in. Certainly, none have sent a response.

The Test by Walter Adams

18 November 2005
Categories: From the armchair

coverA memoir of his nine-month tenure as president of Michigan State University in 1969, this book by Professor Walter Adams lies at a perfect crossroads of several of my interests. I’m a graduate of that pioneer land grant institution, with a deep-seated interest in MSU history. I have studied the antiestablishment movement of that era. Plus as a former member of the Spartan Marching Band, I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Adams. He was, after all, the Number One Band Fan.

Sadly, the closest I ever got to taking a class from him was hearing his commencement address at my graduation ceremony. This book is certainly no Econ. 444, but it is a terrific glimpse into Adams’ general disposition: it is, like him, witty and self-effacing, yet deeply insightful. It leads me to believe that, despite his being “encumbered neither by administrative expertise nor experience,” his deep and broad understanding of the university’s role in society, and his genuine love for MSU, its students and faculty, made him a more-than-able administrator. I might even go so far as to argue a point to which Adams himself would have undoubtedly taken offense: that the three greatest presidents of the university were Abbot, Hannah, and Adams.

Theophilus Capen Abbot (1826–1892) presided for twenty-two years during the very early era when the State Agricultural College was still taking its first, tentative steps. He worked hard to make sure the school maintained its focus on scientific agriculture—even when that science was more theory than praxis. He successfully defended the school against forces in the legislature and the general public that wanted the Agricultural College dissolved and reestablished as a department of the University of Michigan.

John Alfred Hannah (1902–1991) was a former chicken farmer and poultry specialist who, almost single-handedly, transformed the school from a little cow college (MSC) to a world-class megaversity (MSU). During his twenty-eight-year reign—and this is the proper term for his office, as he held virtually all the power—enrollment increased from 6,000 to nearly 40,000; the Basic College, among other forward-thinking programs, was established; a massive campus building program was undertaken; and a branch campus was formed, which later gained its independence as Oakland University.

Upon Hannah’s departure, the university faced a difficult juncture. The Board of Trustees, composed of elected officials from across the state, had been pushed to the periphery by the Hannah administration, and the board wanted to reestablish its power base where it belonged, at the top of the pyramid. They were reluctant to maintain the status quo by selecting one of Hannah’s hand-picked successors. In addition, the days of the king-makers, of the trustees choosing a new president in a cloistered setting beyond outside influence—which arguably was how Hannah, the son-in-law of the previous president, had gained the throne—had gone the way of the small-time cow college. After twenty-eight years, not only was the selection process obsolete, but no one had a clear idea of what it had been, or what it should be.

And of course, it was 1969, a time of nationwide unrest, and student protest and uprising. This was a factor that the trustees, and their choice of president, could not safely ignore.

To buy time, the trustees asked Distinguished Economics Professor Walter Adams to serve as interim president. Dr. Adams had been a member of the faculty for twenty-two years. His senior-level undergraduate economics class was widely regarded as one of the most difficult—and most rewarding—courses available at MSU. His stance on the inadvisability of “bigness” in corporations and government, combined with a consummate teacher’s ability to convey complex ideas in accessible terms, made him a frequent expert witness at Congressional budget hearings. But as an administrator, he had effectively zero experience.

Nevertheless, Adams accepted the job, with the understanding that his term would be truly interim and would not extend beyond the end of the year, by which time the selection process would be complete. A self-professed pragmatist and optimist, Adams took up the presidential mantle using, as he put it, a combination of intuition and insight. (One must add “intelligence” to this list.) His watchwords became “openness, honesty, and accessibility.”

Adams’ opening chapters of The Test describe some of the broad subgroups with which he had to deal. They were “the white radicals,” “the black militants,” “the moderate majority,” and “the outside agitators.” The first three are some of the typical factions found on nearly every university campus in the late-’60s. But Adams’ method, of directly engaging these groups in dialogue, paying attention to understand their grievances (and often finding that all they really wanted was a listening ear), was far from typical. He treated them all, even the most antagonistic agitators, as friends and colleagues.

Perhaps ironically, it was his experience as a soldier in World War II, serving with distinction to earn the Bronze Star and a battlefield commission as lieutenant, that informed Adams’ tactics in resolving confrontations peacefully. One of his colleagues, also a veteran, chastized him for walking straight into the fray of a protest against police recruiters at the Placement Bureau, saying “it’s O.K. to sacrifice a second lieutenant in a fire fight, but you never take a chance on the general falling into enemy hands.” The thing is, as a professor Adams saw himself as one of the rank-and-file faculty, in effect a second lieutenant—and that attitude allowed him to think on his feet, with flexibility, in the midst of tense and fluid situations.

The results—open dialogue and a sense that the university was receptive to change, rather than (self) destructive student protest and the inevitable hardline establishment response—make me wish that this book had been available to the governors of Ohio and Mississippi in the year that followed Adams’ tenure.

A chapter titled “The Outside Agitators” could easily lead one to think of radical infiltrators, such as SDS members from other campuses, coming to MSU to cause trouble (like those rumoured to have burned down the ROTC building at Kent State in May 1970). Not so. To Adams, the outside agitators were other members of the establishment: the press, the state legislature, the Nixon administration. Even alumni, whom one would have thought had the best interests of the school at heart, were a “potential source of divisiveness and polarization.” One by one, he shut down their negative rhetoric.

He invited press representatives to the president’s box at an MSU football game, after which they attended a cocktail mixer at the president’s manse where the other guests were members of the student government and leaders of “white radical” and “black militant” student organizations. The social setting (and free-flowing spirits) led to frank, friendly discussions that opened the lines of communication, after which “no newspaper represented at the gathering printed a student-baiting editorial” during his tenure, nor for some time afterward. Coverage of student protests and disruptions continued as before, but now the press understood the issues with greater depth and were able to editorialize without resorting to a simplistic viewpoint and divisive tone.

When a state senator, in the wake of a racial incident at one of the school’s cafeterias, introduced a bill that mainly served to fuel the polemics (and improve his own political visibility), the MSU student government wrote a rebuttal for proclamation on the senate floor. The open letter espoused both improvements in racial equality on campus and the fact that the incident had been swiftly dealt with by the students themselves in a way that satisfied all parties (in part due to Adams having prompted, once again, an open discussion between the factions). A large group of student leaders announced their intention to attend the senate session where the rebuttal would be introduced, and the Senate President-pro-tem, fearing a riot, asked Adams to attend the session. This he did, although he believed his presence was not much of a factor in the students’ behaviour. Justifying his trust in them, the students acted as model citizens as they filled the senate gallery and listened attentively to the entire session. (After it was over, the battalion of state police that had been standing by in the basement of the Capitol—in full riot gear and armed to the teeth—was quietly dismissed without incident.)

In October 1969, campus activists organized a Vietnam Moratorium Day that wound up being a peaceful, focussed protest—thanks in large part to Adams’ involvement. Despite being expressly forbidden to do so by President Nixon, Michigan Governor William G. Milliken (a Republican) attended the on-campus activities, stating clearly—without ever taking the microphone to speak—his opposition to the violent, polemical rhetoric of Vice-President Spiro Agnew and others in the Nixon government. The gathering attracted the full gamut of students (the radicals and the moderate majority), faculty, and even an octogenarian East Lansing resident who, just by being there and showing that she cared, became something of a heroine to the students during the march to the Capitol. President Adams, of course, led the way.

Taking the opportunity of a bully pulpit provided by this memoir, Adams goes on to discuss his attitude toward what a university’s goals and place should be in modern society. With the indisputable dialectic of a master economist he rails against the dilution of a university’s intellectual capital by acceptance of government grants for outside work; among other arguments he shares a particularly interesting tale of MSU contracting to conduct police training in post-colonial, pre-war Vietnam—and its involvement, not unwittingly, with the CIA. He wrote, some thirty-five years ago, that the land grant philosophy pioneered by MSU, holding at its core a mandate to provide higher education to the “industrial classes,” i.e. education for the people and not solely for the elite, was as relevant and important in 1969 as it was in 1869. And it remains a vital goal of the American land-grant university to this day.

A tangent about another legacy of Walter Adams. Beyond his prowess as economics professor, and his tenure as university president, Adams was widely known for his unwavering support of MSU sports teams. Many have told the tales of his vitriolic attacks on Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight (and their subsequent friendship). Fellow econ prof “Lash” Larrowe mentions in his introduction to The Test that Adams once so antagonized a visiting baseball coach that the coach had to be restrained by campus police so that he couldn’t charge into the stands, red-faced and fists clenched, to silence Adams.

It wasn’t so much that he was vocal, although he was, but that he knew a team’s (and a coach’s) weaknesses and would play off of them. For example, he would find the slowest, or shortest, player on a basketball team and loudly suggest to the coach to put that player in on offense. In The Test, in his typical way of being both understated and perfectly accurate, Adams uses this adjective to describe his fandom: “assiduous”—as in “marked by careful unremitting attention or persistent application.” Indeed.

His wife Pauline, professor emerita of American thought and language, recently gave a speech in which she contended that one of the most momentous changes in MSU history was when home basketball games moved from Jenison Fieldhouse to the Breslin Center, because Walt’s season tickets were moved from seats directly behind the visitors’ bench to about the tenth row. This distance, of course, made his needling much less audible and effective.

In fact, nowadays the NCAA has a rule that schools must “reserve or protect the seating or spectator areas immediately behind the visiting team bench for fans of the visiting team, whenever possible.” Rumor has it that Adams might have been a direct cause of this rule. I like to think of this as the “Walter Adams Buffer Zone.”

In conclusion, I found The Test by Walter Adams to be a very fun, interesting read. His shrewd views of the roles of the American university, and its president, are universal and still timely today, and his humour is infectious. He could be an irascible curmudgeon when teaching undergrads—or taunting opponents—but it was his genuine love for his students that drove Adams to teach, and made him such a great president. As professor, he had maybe a few hundred students each term that he considered his “children.” As president, that family numbered 40,000—and he treated each one he met, even in the briefest moment, with love, care, and individual kindness.

Another Blues Brothers linker

10 October 2005
Categories: Self-referential

whitesoxinteractive.com

Sun, 9 Oct, 17:13 CDT (GMT-5)
Conversations claiming that Jake and Elwood were Sox fans, rather than Cubs fans. Although this is almost a certainty since they were Southsiders, the errors in the accompanying text make me skeptical that there was ever a line like “Wrigley Field is the last place the cops would find us, we’re Sox fans.” (If there was, at the very least it’s a good line to cut, being much too self-obvious to the characters.) As usual, lots of misinformation flying around this thread—must resist the urge to set these bozos straight. Oh, and it now includes an attempt to bandwidth-steal my image of the parking tunnel, so I get a 403 error with every hit on that posting. (permanent link)

Weblogs take notice of my Blues Brothers location map

16 September 2005
Categories: Self-referential

Off and on over the past few years, I have conducted research on the Chicago-area filming locations used in The Blues Brothers. Much of it has been frustrating, especially given the many web sites with spurious “facts” based on “my neighbour’s cousin knew this truck driver who worked on the shoot and he said it was somewhere around here.” Things like claiming the Nazi rally bridge was in Garfield Park, rather than Jackson Park… or the filmed Pinto drop was at 115th and Doty (which is near, but not necessarily exactly where, the test drop was conducted). There are shitloads of bad info out there. Even the fanatical Blues Brothers Central site (BBC) has never put together a comprehensive list. It’s amazing how many threads on that site’s forums ask the same damn questions—such as “Where was Mrs. Tarantino’s house?”—yet never seem to come up with something definitive.

So I put it all together, and being the kind of detail-oriented guy who loves finding all the missing pieces of a puzzle, I think I did a pretty damn good job of making a comprehensive list. But how to share it? I sent a copy of my spreadsheet to Chris at BBC, who thanked me effusively… but months later has still not managed to get it posted.

Enter Google, and the wonderfully hackable Google Maps.

Using code developed by other, slightly more adept programmers, I built a simple little site and pinpointed all the locations. I even made some scouting trips, including one to Cicero to confirm exactly where Mrs. Tarantino lived. (And by the way, every online mapping site places the marker for 1623 S. 51st St. in the wrong position.) The whole thing went live around 1 June, although for the first couple of weeks it required lots of tweaking to keep it alive when Google made changes to their API interface as it transitioned out of beta.

It slowly started to get noticed. Of course, I mentioned it in several threads on BBC. Then Google started putting it near the top of their results in searches for “blues brothers chicago locations” and similar variants. The climb was gradual: 122 visits in June, 216 in July, 294 in August.

Then, on Wednesday, 14 September, the site got noticed on the weblog circuit. Not sure who posted first, but within a few hours several sites, including ones on Illinois politics, filmdom, and even something in Italian, all posted mentions of it. The site took a big hit—not exactly a slashdotting, but still a serious leap in traffic: 753 hits on that day alone. For the first time ever, I saw a message in my error logs saying “server seems busy, you may need to increase spare servers.” Traffic tapered off pretty quickly—by the weekend, it was back to only slightly above normal—but for the month of September the site ultimately saw some 1,718 visits.

Some of the postings follow.

googlemapsmania.blogspot.com

Tuesday, 13 September, 18:00 (EDT?)
Where it apparently began: no comment, just a link… via a thread in Google groups, where Stéphanie Dumas wrote “Someone had [sic] put the filming locations of the Blues Brothers movie by using Google maps, it’s at http://kevinforsyth.net/film/blues.htm” on 11-Sep, 10:03. (permanent link)

capitolfax.blogspot.com

Wed, 14 Sep, time unknown (via Google Maps Mania)
The number one linking site. “Look up Chicago locations for the original Blues Brothers movie with this great Google Maps mash-up.” (permanent link)

cathodetan.blogspot.com

Wed, 14 Sep, 11:20 (TZ? PDT?)
“A blow by blow of Chicago events in The Blues Brothers, mapped out.” (permanent link)

cinematical.com

Wednesday, 14 Sep, 12:21 EDT (GMT-4)
“Someone has put Google Maps to good use. They’ve used the service to pinpoint all the Chicago locations Jake and Elwood visited while evading Nazis, the Illinois State Police, The Good Old Boys and an M-16 wielding Carrie Fischer [sic] in the Blues Brothers. Just about every place seen in the movie for more than a minute is highlighted, and it even includes stills from the movie to give it some perspective. They’re even in order.” (permanent link)

caymag.com

Wed, 14 Sep, 22:20 CEST (GMT+2)
Not sure why Italians would care, but this link caused ‘.it’ to become the top-ranked two-letter country domain for the month of September. (In August it tied for ninth with the Netherlands.) “Se sei un cultore dei Blues Brothers probabilmente apprezzerai questa hack di Google Maps che posiziona le varie location del film direttamente sulla mappa di Chicago, *Illinois*.” (permanent link)

weblog.penguins-and-polarbears.com

Thu, 15 Sep, 16:16 (TZ?)
Making my head swell: “Some genius (named Kevin Forsyth) put together this page which shows all of the shooting locations used in “The Blues Brothers.” I like to think of it more along the lines of using Google Maps to track Jake and Elwood on their mission from God.” (permanent link)

feanorsworkshop.com

Fri, 16 Sep, 11:50 (TZ?)
Some of the kindest words to date: “Cinematical actually posted this a while ago, but I happened to come across it again this morning and decided it was really worth linking to: a fan of the Blues Brothers has created a Google map of pretty much every location in the film. Most of the virtual pushpins come with pictures and expository captions. I like the Blues Brothers, but what mainly impresses me about this page is the amount of time, research, and care that was taken in creating it.” (permanent link)

Book recommendations: Space Exploration

16 July 2005
coverA Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin

If you only ever read one book on the Space Race, this must be it, the book that was the basis for the award-winning HBO series From the Earth to the Moon. Chaikin explains the events and difficulties of the Apollo project with such detailed understanding that one might think he was himself one of the astronauts, except that no astronaut ever had such a gift for storytelling. Both the exhilirating highs and the disastrous lows will bring tears to your eyes.

coverCountdown: A History of Space Flight by T. A. Heppenheimer

Just a fantastic overview of every aspect of space history: from the early theoretical days, through the German A-4 program, and beyond to both American and Soviet sides of the Space Race, unmanned missions and satellite development, and even the CIA’s satellite programs (see Corona). It benefits greatly from newly released Russian information, and includes commentary on the future of space exploration and the human role in it.

coverStages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles by Roger E. Bilstein

Part of the NASA History series, this is an excellent technological history of the development of America’s moon rocket, the Saturn V. This gigantic booster was the tallest rocket ever built, produced over 7.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, and was built by hundreds of contractors from nearly all fifty states. Huge leaps in engineering, metallurgy, computers, and myriad other fields were necessary to fly the Saturn V and its smaller sibling, the Saturn I-B. This book is unapologetically technical, but sparks the imagination as well. By the time I finished it I couldn’t look at any major construction—the Sears Tower, the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate bridge—without thinking, “compared to the Saturn, that was easy to build.” (Reissued in its entirety, including all photographs and diagrams, by the University Press of Florida. Order it today at Amazon.com.)

coverThe Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space by Eugene Cernan with Don Davis

A brilliant and entertaining read, the best astronaut autobiography I have read to date. Eugene Cernan, veteran of three space flights including two trips to the Moon, infuses his memoir with wit, humility, candor, and fascinating detail. Geno’s occasional use of blue language, a habit that got him into trouble during Apollo 10, makes it read like you’re sitting on his back porch listening to old war stories, and doesn’t seem at all out of place. (Who wouldn’t use the s-word if they thought their spacecraft was about to sink in the ocean?) And the events he lived through, such as the near-disastrous third spacewalk in history, make me wonder how he ever managed to cram his big balls into the Gemini capsule in the first place.

Unlike many in the genre that ignore the human element, the book details the strain borne by the family of an astronaut. Geno has nothing but praise for the difficult and untrainable role his gorgeous wife Barbara (now divorced) played as “Mrs. Astronaut.” It drives home the fact that Cernan’s career was, like most, really a team effort.

He doesn’t have much nice to say about Buzz “Dr. Rendezvous” Aldrin, though.

coverCarrying the Fire by Michael Collins

A refreshingly candid and insightful autobiography, and surprisingly so considering it was written in 1974, just five years after Collins’ flight aboard Apollo 11. By that time, he had severed his ties with NASA and was beholden to no one, a fact made clear by some of his frank comments regarding his former employer and some of his former fellow astronauts.

Collins affects a humble, gee-I-hope-I’m-good-enough tone through much of his book, particularly during the astronaut selection process. This is a common theme of astronaut autobiographies, and one begins to wonder if this is because there really is rampant humility in the ranks of the crème-de-la-crème of test pilots, or instead because the authors intentionally tone down their egos so as not to sound like total assholes when writing for posterity. I suspect the answer is somewhere in between. After all, these are certainly incredibly skilled, competent, intelligent men in a highly competitive line of work that must require powerful ego and strength of will to succeed; likewise, that competition, among a tightly knit group of similarly qualified individuals, would make even the most vainglorious egotist doubt his abilities.

He appears to have fared the transition from astronaut to historical figure in better form than his crewmates: Neil Armstrong actively sought a life outside the public eye and now lives quite reclusively on his farm in Ohio; Buzz Aldrin, according to Collins, tried to return to his Air Force career, found that having walked on the Moon doesn’t carry the cachet to write one’s own ticket in the service, and wound up in a state of clinical-grade depression. Collins, on the other hand, played the game with the cards dealt him, went to Washington, and joined the State department for a year as a foreign liason. He then became, appropriately enough, Director of the nascent National Air and Space Museum, which at the time of his writing had not yet opened to the public.

Perhaps the most interesting and intriguing idea in Collins’ book is the notion that photographing the Earth from space is a double-edged sword. Yes, pictures of Earth provided fuel for the understanding that our planet is a tiny, fragile place without the arbitrary boundary lines that we impose on it and fight over; the environmentalist movement especially was spurred by Apollo photos of what Carl Sagan called our “pale blue dot.” However, Collins contends that these pictures—of the Earth and the Moon, and humans voyaging in between—breed a sense of complacency, of having “been there, done that,” of believing that we know all there is to know about the Earth, the Moon, and travelling in space. Of course, he was writing this during a time when we were turning inward again: Apollo was over, the unused Saturn V rockets were left to rot on the ground, and the public looked at Skylab with an attitude of “ho-hum, why bother?” Collins attributes some of this lack of vision and expectation for the future to people getting the sense that they’ve been there because they’ve seen the pictures. But as Michael Collins himself states,

“Seeing the earth on an 8-by-10-inch piece of paper, or ringed by the plastic border of a television screen, is not only not the same as the real view but even worse—it is a pseudo-sight that denies the reality of the matter. To actually be 100,000 miles out, to look out four windows and find nothing but black infinity, to finally locate the blue-and-white golf ball in the fifth window, to know how fortunate we are to be able to return to it—all these things are required, in addition to merely gauging its size and color. While the proliferation of photos constantly reminds us of the earth’s dimensions, the photos deceive us as well, for they transfer the emphasis from the one earth to the multiplicity of reproduced images. There is but one earth, tiny and fragile, and one must get 100,000 miles away from it to appreciate fully one’s good fortune in living on it.”


coverMoondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth by Andrew Smith

A different take on Apollo: rather than ask “What was it like to walk on the Moon?”, the author asked the nine remaining Moonwalkers, “What was it like to return to Earth afterward?”—and finds that they experienced a wide range of emotions and results. In the meantime, Smith ponders what Apollo means today—to him personally, and to human society at large. His conclusions are thought-provoking and, to some extent, iconoclastic. Here’s a further review.

coverFirst Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen

A fine biography of the first man to walk on the moon. This book benefits greatly from the fact that Armstrong himself authorized its writing, granted numerous interviews, and provided unprecedented access to his personal papers, yet did not edit nor censure the final product beyond simple fact-checking. Parts of it are almost dull, though appropriately so—Armstrong was, after all, an engineer, not a risk-taker or glory-monger. Hansen gently tears open the hero-worshipping mythology that has accumulated over the past few decades to reveal the genuine human being within, putting Neil’s life in perspective and explaining how a cautious attitude toward his fame could be misconstrued as being anti-social or reclusive. He even pokes holes in the various urban legends, both humourous (the Mr. Gorsky story) and pernicious (the ludicrous notion that the moon landing never happened), that never cease to find traction among the ill-informed. Recommended.

coverFailure Is Not An Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond by Eugene F. Kranz

We know Gene Kranz from the Hollywood portrayals—Ed Harris in Apollo 13, Dan Butler in From The Earth To The Moon. He’s a hard-edged, crew-cut, steely-eyed missile man. With this book, we find he’s also an excellent storyteller. Kranz was instrumental and present at many of the most momentous events of Gemini and Apollo (including the Eagle‘s landing and 13’s “we have a problem” moment). With his experience, he could have freewheeled this book and filled it with off-the-cuff anecdotes, but instead took the time to research his subject deeply and conducted dozens of interviews with his fellow flight controllers. The result is a book that chronicles with terrific detail and good character development the never-routine day-to-day life of Mission Control. Gene Kranz, Sabre jet pilot in Korea, Langley test pilot, and 24-year veteran of NASA, is an American hero, yet he never aggrandizes his role in history, referring at all times to the team effort and giving credit by name whenever it’s due. Without the apparent help of a ghost writer, this aeronautical engineer has given us an historic tale with a great sense of the human element that made it all possible. His book is well worth a read.

coverDragonfly: NASA and the Crisis Aboard Mir by Bryan Burrough

A fascinating chronology of the Shuttle-Mir program, during which seven NASA astronauts spent extended periods aboard the Russian space station. Most importantly, this book details the behind-the-scenes politicking that led to the program. NASA Administration, concerned over the survival of the International Space Station if Russia’s space industry went bankrupt, worked out a plan to send Americans to Mir and American dollars to Moscow. Sadly, ground support for the missions was barely an afterthought, leaving several of the astronauts high and dry in space. Some, like Shannon Lucid and Michael Foale, managed to thrive. Others did not fare as well.

coverLost Moon by James Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger

I read this book before seeing Ron Howard’s movie based on it, Apollo 13. So when the actors deliver lines which are layman’s explanations of technojargon someone else just said, it sounds redundant to me because Lovell explains it all in his book: GUIDO, FIDO, TLI, Main Bus B, and so on. Howard understood that the true story of the mission had plenty of drama, yet his movie still succumbed to Hollywood aggrandisement. The book sticks to the facts, and even without an all-star cast it is gripping, frightful, and entertaining. (Reissued in mass-market paperback as Apollo 13.)

coverAngle of Attack: Harrison Storms and the Race to the Moon by Mike Gray

By the screenwriter of The China Syndrome. Harrison Storms led North American Aviation to build both the Apollo spacecraft and the Saturn V rocket’s giant and innovative S-2 second stage. Beating overwhelming odds, the company was ultimately successful, but at the cost of Stormy’s health and career. Somebody should make a movie out of this inspiring but tragic tale, and have James Rebhorn reprise the role he played as Storms in HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon.

coverKorolev by James J. Harford

Deke Slayton puts it well in Deke! when he says that Sergei P. Korolev was the Soviet Union’s “Wernher von Braun and Robert Gilruth and James Webb all rolled into one—not only a great engineer but a hell of a politician. He was good at zigging this way and zagging the other to get what he wanted, which was to go to the moon.” Korolev was a brilliant man who was kept a state secret until long after his death. This book is an excellent narrative of his life’s work, marred only by the author’s obsession with the fact that Korolev’s associates have grown old.

coverManaging Martians by Donna Shirley

Donna Shirley was in charge of the development team that created Sojourner Truth, the Mars rover that captured the American imagination in July of 1997. She later became head of the Mars Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the acme of a career that had been her calling since childhood. With an innovative management style she became the first woman to direct the production of a successful piece of space flight hardware, and was able to make more friends than enemies in the process. Part autobiography, part anecdotal management handbook, Ms. Shirley’s book dishes some interesting dirt about the politics involved in this sort of enterprise, and only lacks the Oklahoma twang I found so endearing on CNN.

coverDeke! (U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the Shuttle) by Donald K. “Deke” Slayton with Michael Cassutt

Astronaut Deke Slayton, one of the original Mercury Seven, was Chief of the Astronaut Office throughout the ’60s and was the man primarily responsible for crew selection. This book has far more character than Moon Shot (by Alan Shepard and Slayton), and allows Deke’s no-nonsense manner and individuality to shine through. Especially fascinating are descriptions of the logistical juggling of Gemini and Apollo crew assignments caused by changing mission expectations, hardware failures, and deadly accidents. A nice touch are the “Other Voices” blurbs, which add perspective from Deke’s family and colleagues.

coverAt the Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program by Milton O. Thompson

Milt Thompson piloted the experimental X-15 rocket airplane on fourteen flights from October 1963 to August 1965, making him one of only a dozen men uniquely qualified to tell the story of what continues to be the world’s fastest aircraft. Thompson, later to become chief engineer at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, is admittedly not a professional writer nor historian, and sometimes this shows through, especially in the book’s occasional repetition. (In fact, in an afterword he implies that he only wrote the book because it appeared that no one else involved with the program was bothering to do so.) However, not only does he do an excellent job of describing the systems of the plane and conveying the challenges of the endeavour, he adequately captures the pride and camaraderie of the people involved as well. He also has a deep trove of humourous tales. The X-15 program was the pinnacle of flight research and Milt Thompson pays it a much-needed tribute. Includes a complete log of all 199 flights and 32 pages of photographs.

coverChariots for Apollo: The Untold Story behind the Race to the Moon by Charles R. Pellegrino & Joshua Stoff

The tale of Apollo, told from the prespective of the people of Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation of Bethpage, New York, who built the Lunar Modules (LMs). Pellegrino is deeply immersed in LM history and thus his book is chock full of interesting and little-known facts, and worth a read on that basis alone. Unfortunately, I found the writing style annoying. It frequently makes use of repeated phrases, taken out of context and italicized, as if we’re hearing the echoes of someone’s memory. The intent seems to be to create drama, but the result is forced, reminiscent of a film treatment, and ultimately unnecessary since the events (such as the Apollo 1 fire… “problems waiting to hatch out” is such a poor play on words) have enough inherent drama as it is. I was also surprised that the authors glossed over the computer overload errors during the Apollo 11 landing, errors that brought a scramble of activity in Mission Operations and which were important events in LM development. Finally, the book is rife with typographical errors—“Wernher von Bran” and “Lenoid Brezhnev” are two of the more glaring examples—and for this reason the book makes the Shut List. Not to be confused with NASA SP-4205, Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft by Brooks et al.