Thursday, October 6, 2011

Old Space Books

It's an obsession: I read every bad space book from the 60's I can find. Church bazaars, library sales, used book stores - - all are rich hunting grounds for some of the worst science writing ever glued between book covers. Based on the sheer mass of these awfully written "true-life" space novels, the 60's seemed to have an exemption for publishing houses who wanted to print books without the typical expectations of plot, characters, or storyline.

Last week, The Captain and I visited a great antiquarian bookstore in the tiny town of North Hatfield, Massachusetts. Whately's Antiquarian Book Center has become my new favorite place to burn an afternoon rummaging through old hardcovers and paperbacks.

A major find for me was "Apollo at GO" by Jeff Sutton. Written in 1963, just after Lunar Orbit Rendezvous was settled upon by NASA as the way to land on the Moon, this novel tries its best to be the most exquisitely precise, pedantically literal story about the first three men to visit the Moon.

The book is a classic yawner: the astronauts are all rock-steady test pilots, each the top of his graduating class. The wives are weepy but patriotic and understanding about why their men have to go to the Moon. The flight is described endlessly, with every course correction and sleep cycle explained until it's difficult to tell where the storytelling ends and the cutting-and-pasting from the Apollo Spacecraft Operations Guide begins.

Apollo at GO sold tens of thousands of copies. People actually paid to read this book. Allow me to give you a random selection from the story:

The timer hand moved on. At T minus 6 minutes he issued a brief order. Closing his faceplate and inflating his suit, he spoke into the radio: "Apollo calling Cap. Com..." He repeated the call several times.
"Roger, we read you." The voice, faint but clear, unmistakably was Burke's.

"Beginning attitude correction preparatory to retrothrust," he reported.

"Roger, keep in touch."

"Will do."
183 PAGES of this stuff.  And yet, it still manages to be fascinating, but for reasons entirely unintended by the author.

These books are like mini time capsules: reading them  (while keeping an eye on the copyright date) gives a great chronology about how science writers viewed the technology of the Moon voyage at given points in time. Apollo at GO presupposes that the first manned trip to the Moon on a Saturn V would naturally be the first attempt at a Moon landing. The astronauts, although trained in the operation of the spacecraft,  have no familiarity with each other and somehow never bothered to talk with each other about the spacecraft in which they're flying to the Moon. It's as though they never used simulators or attended construction meetings with the prime contractors. The author apparently  believed that it was a necessary conceit to allow for exposition, but the personal distances placed between crew members seem to be very odd to us in the post-Apollo, post-Shuttle world.

There's also a curious lack of foresight in the book. Although the author knew that Project Gemini would occur before Apollo ever launched, he failed to realize that most of the Apollo astronauts would not be rookies in space. Instead, he writes the characters as though they were newbies, reliving John Glenn's flight while they were in Earth orbit, right down to watching for the lights of Perth on the first pass over Australia.

Another blind spot is the role of the Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston. By 1963, Houston was established as what would be the new home of Mission Control -  a role that it took over during the Gemini IV mission. However, the author still wrote the book as though all mission planning and operations were still controlled from Cape Canaveral. I'm not sure why he missed this, unless he had written portions of the book before the proposed role of  Houston was approved.

I'm not quite done with the book - - it's quite a slog to read more than a dozen pages at a sitting, but I'll post more when I get to the (hopefully dramatic) conclusion.

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