A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts

September 5, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

moonA Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin

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I’ve been fascinated by space and space travel since I was a kid. I used to have a copy of Our Universe, and it became one of my most-read, most dog-eared books, since I would pore over it any chance I had. When I was browsing Audible looking for my next audiobook, I stumbled across this one, and figured it would be a good way to pass the time driving to and from work. It wound up not just being a good choice, but the best choice.

Chaikin approaches the story of the missions in an interesting way, focusing on whatever makes the next mission different from the next. He covers in great details the minutiae of the journey to and from the Moon with Apollo 8, the first mission to complete the trip, but by the time he gets to Apollo 11, he skips those parts and focuses solely on the landing and the moon walks. Apollo 13 is covered in great detail, since the mission was one of survival, not of achievement, and the later missions were covered by their moon walks and goals, which grew with each subsequent mission.

The author takes a risk by writing about the Apollo missions in order, since Apollo 1 resulted in the fire that killed three astronauts. It’s a downer of a story, and isn’t the best one to capture the hope and glory that surrounded later missions. Still, this was how the Apollo program happened in real life, and the program opened with this tragedy, which is tragic not just due to the loss of three lives, but due to what it represented to the program, the organization, and even the country. The loss of the mission was as huge as the loss of life, and Chaikin captures that well in his telling of the story.

Chaikin writes about the astronauts and other key figures of Mission Control and the program overall as they become relevant to the story. He tends to focus on their characters, touching on other related people in their lives only briefly. He mentions that one astronaut from the early mission had a wife who turned to alcohol to help deal with the stress of being an astronaut’s wife, but he doesn’t mention how — or if — that was something ever resolved. Chaikin keeps his focus on the astronauts themselves. This makes sense based on his source material (he interviewed all of the astronauts to research the book), but at the same time, these are important facts about the story that are never discussed beyond bringing them to our attention. Wives, children, and support staff are only mentioned when it’s relevant to the astronauts’ stories.

One thing that threw me about the narrative was how Chaikin would write about events from the past, as if they were happening at that moment. He would sometimes use words like “yesterday” or “tomorrow” or “later” to describe a different event, even though the rest of the story was told in the past tense. It was an odd choice (why not “the previous day” or “the next day”?), and it’s not something that happened all the time, but it was frequent enough to raise my eyebrows.

Bronson Pinchot narrated the audiobook, and I don’t think there’s a better narrator they could have chosen for the book. When the story gets tense, he narrates with excitement and breathlessness; when the story tells of the astronauts’ reactions to the grandeur of space and the Moon, his voice becomes soft and awestruck; when the story covers life-and-death decisions that must be made quickly, Pinchot tells us so quickly, frenetically. He doesn’t just tell the story, he performs it, and I’ve about decided that I will listen to any audiobook if Pinchot is narrating it.

The book concludes with an epilogue that shares what the Apollo astronauts did with their lives after going to the moon. It’s an enlightening finish, as some of them became religious, others dropped out of space aeronautics all together, and others dropped out of the public life all together. Only one of the astronauts would stay with NASA long enough to participate in the space shuttle missions, while the bulk of them moved on to business ventures as wide-ranging as real estate to becoming CEOs. It helps to show how grounded the astronauts were, and how their trips to the moon were as much of a job to them as the rest of us have to our own daily grind.

A Man on the Moon is a book for anyone fascinated with space or history or engineering or dedication. We’re nearing the 50th anniversary of the first moon walk, and when we reach that date, it will have been forty-seven years since we last sent someone to the Moon. By then, it will be forty-seven years since we sent a person to any other object in our solar system. As Chaikin writes in his afterword, “How could the most futuristic thing humans have ever done be so far in the past?”

Started: August 8, 2018
Finished: August 30, 2018

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Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

May 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

dotPale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan

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I read something recently about Carl Sagan and atheism. I always suspected he was adamantly atheist, but it turns out that he avoided labeling himself as such. In short, Sagan’s position was that he didn’t have enough evidence to say God didn’t exist, so he couldn’t say for certain that he wasn’t. Those close to him said that he was as close to atheist as one could get without using the word, but that he didn’t do so tells us a lot about how he viewed the world — with evidence.

Pale Blue Dot seems, to me, to focus heavily on atheism. The “Pale Blue Dot” soliloquy (if you haven’t read it, look it up; it’s freely available on the web) strongly suggests it, and Sagan himself dances around the idea that there is no God, even though he never comes straight out and says so. He looks at how our Solar System developed, how life developed on Earth, and how we’ve explored the Solar System, all from a very humanist, look-what-we’ve-accomplished perspective. Most of the book is Sagan explaining how we explored and examined our Solar System, but the first two chapters take a very careful, affirming look at atheism.

As much as I enjoyed learning about the other planets and how we explored them, I found myself missing the historical, philosophical perspective Sagan brought to science through Cosmos. Where there is history to discuss, Sagan does so, but it’s not on as grand of a scale as it is in his most famous book. We learn of the search for life in the Solar System, the highs and lows of discoveries and failures, and the persistence of humanity to want to get the answers to the question, “What’s out there?”

Four years ago, when we landed Philae on comet 67P/Churyamov-Gerasimenko, I said to some co-workers, “Humanity just landed a science lab on a comet traveling over 41,000 miles per hour, over 317,000,000 miles from Earth.” I was excited and inspired, seeing what the combined intellects of so many people from so many different countries could accomplish, and it was probably as close as I’ll ever get to a religious experience. One doesn’t need religion to feel inspiration or affirmation; sometimes we can get it from our major accomplishments. This, I think, is what Sagan is telling us through Pale Blue Dot.

Started: March 16, 2018
Finished: March 28, 2018

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A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes

May 8, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

timeA Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen W. Hawking

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I’m not going to lie: I was a little intimidated going in to this book. I had thought about reading it years ago, back when I started to get an understanding of relativity, and I put it off, knowing it was going to be dense and nigh-incomprehensible. Some twenty years later, having listened to two books about astrophysics, I decided to give it a go. As an audiobook.

Surprisingly, the book wasn’t as dense as I expected. I think it helped that I had listened recently to the books by Tyson and Sagan, but I had a pretty good understanding of the concepts Hawking covered in the book. There were a few chapters that eluded me (I think I’m going to need to read a whole book on quantum physics before I get a good grasp of it), but for the most part, I felt comfortable with the content. It was a good mix of familiar and challenging.

I was less impressed with Hawking’s obsession with who won which award, how often he collaborated with his graduate students, and how frequently he disproved other scientists. He comes across as petty and arrogant. I know Hawking is a smart man, and I know he’s accomplished a lot, but I prefer science books that talk about past theories and accomplishments, not the personal tally of the author. Neither Tyson nor Sagan came across that way, despite them both having (and discussing!) their own successes, so it’s definitely a personality thing, not a content thing.

In the later chapters, Hawking focused on his own theories almost exclusively, to the point where it felt like he was jumping to conclusions based on what I thought were some tenuous theories. Granted, I don’t spend all of my time thinking about theoretical physics, but it felt like Hawking was too eager to accept his own theories. As much as he admits changed in as little as ten or twenty years in the field, I would have expected him to show some more skepticism.

Also, the narration of the audiobook was strange, in that it sounded like it was recorded all in one take, without breaks or edits. The narrator stumbled over the pronunctiation of some words, slowed down at some words, as if he were sounding out the word, and there was even one moment where he was supposed to say “sixteen”, but started out saying “nineteen”. I don’t know if the production was pressed for time, or was low budget, or what, but it doesn’t sound professional.

If you’re interested in space and time and the science of both, A Brief History of Time is a book to read. I’m not sure I would recommend it as an audiobook, partly because of the sloppy narration, and partly because the concepts might be better absorbed through reading. If I have to make the choice between this and Cosmos, though, I’d definitely go with Cosmos. Not only is it more approachable, but its scope is also far more interesting.

Started: March 1, 2018
Finished: March 6, 2018

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Aliens

February 16, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Quotes) (, , )

“So why had we received no signal? … No extra-terrestrials anywhere? All those billions of worlds going to waste, lifeless, barren? Intelligent beings growing up only in this obscure corner of an incomprehensively vast universe?”

–Carl Sagan, Contact

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