Every Age Gets the Mythology It Deserves

January 19, 2022   •   By Michael D. Gordin

The Greatest Adventure: A History of Human Space Exploration

Colin Burgess

EVERY AGE GETS the mythology it deserves. Our age, it seems, deserves human spaceflight. The “our” requires qualification, of course: not everyone is enthralled by humans hurtling into the frigid nothingness of the outer void atop a pillar of exploding gases, and then returning to Earth with a splash (or a billowing parachute) — but there is no denying that a vast portion of humanity is indeed gripped by this narrative. It has all the drama that European chroniclers used to ascribe to colonizing other continents, but this time no indigenous people get expropriated or slaughtered. Human spaceflight is a capacious container for the aspirations of mortals.

The outlines of the narrative are much the same in the United States or in Russia, in Cuba or in China, in France or in South Africa, but the heroes and the timing vary. The most frequently encountered version — called the Space Race — is confined to a dozen years over half a century ago. Its heroes are basically the two-and-a-half dozen American astronauts — white, male, and overwhelmingly Protestant — who participated in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs of the 1960s and early 1970s. Their story occupies the bulk of Colin Burgess’s The Greatest Adventure: A History of Human Space Exploration. When Gene Cernan leaves the Moon’s surface on December 14, 1972, we are two-thirds of the way through this book, and less than 10 percent of the way through the over 550 people who have been in space. Burgess races through to SpaceX with diminished enthusiasm.

What is a Space Race if there is nobody to race with? Compared with most accounts of this period, Burgess devotes significant attention to the Soviet Union. If you think of a space “first” that is not about setting a human on the Moon, then the Soviets nabbed the laurels: first artificial satellite, first animal in space, first human in space, first woman in space (also the second, after a significant gap), first multi-person orbit, first spacewalk, first person of African ancestry (the Cuban Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, 1980), first Asian (Vietnamese pilot Phạm Tûan, 1980), first Indian (Rakesh Sharma, 1984), first multinational crew, and so on. Burgess’s account has somewhat surprising emphases. Yuri Gagarin was the first human in orbit, but his trip gets less attention than that of Alan Shepard, whose suborbital flight is marked as a first only because he was the first American (and he didn’t go as high or for nearly as long as Gagarin). You can be sure that Russian-language histories of the same events characterize matters rather differently.

Burgess, who hails from Australia, demonstrates that the appeal of the American version of the Space Race is global (although more common in the Anglophone West). He has written over three dozen books on military, airflight, and space history, and he knows how to spin a tale. This is especially true for the early years when the number of astronauts and cosmonauts is more manageable, allowing him to offer full characterizations. The narrative tightens again when space voyagers are killed, as with the Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) Shuttle disasters: the book is dedicated to their memory, as well as the fallen crews of Apollo 1, Soyuz 1, and Soyuz 11. The rest of human spaceflight becomes so routine in Burgess’s telling that he rushes through other Shuttle missions in staccato bullet points, making it to privatized spaceflight with pages to spare before concluding. If you are looking for a comprehensive history of human spaceflight, this book will come up short. If you want to revisit the drama of the Space Race, Burgess’s account is excellent.

As of January 2018, over 550 people have been in orbit, and somewhat more have reached “space.” That distinction itself is a matter of American parochialism. NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration consider the boundary of space to be 50 miles (roughly 80 kilometers) up, the line set by Hungarian-born physicist Theodore van Kármán. The rest of the world, and also the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), go metric, and pick their arbitrary point as 100 kilometers (or 62 miles). Regardless of which boundary you choose, 60 of those were women (an additional 12 women have joined their number since 2018). That speaks to a radical asymmetry in who gets to leave Earth, which calls for an explanation and discussion. Burgess doesn’t offer one.

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For Burgess, the only people who matter in the history of human spaceflight are those who actually travel. This is much like telling the history of an iceberg by focusing on the part above water.

A good example is his treatment of the group of American women pilots who underwent the physical tests for astronaut training at the clinic of William Randolph Lovelace in 1959. The cohort that cleared the tests, later dubbed the “Mercury 13” — in analogy with the seven male astronauts in the Mercury Program of orbital launches — were never permitted to begin the next level of training, ostensibly because none of them met the minimum qualification for spaceflight: logging a significant number of hours piloting a jet. The catch, naturally, is that women were not permitted to fly jets and so could never gain such experience. The debate made it to the floor of Congress, where the sexism on display was egregious even though you knew it was coming. Not least reprehensible in the whole affair was the public testimony of John Glenn — one of Burgess’s primary heroes — that women not being astronauts “is a fact of our social order.” (You also had to have an engineering degree to be an astronaut, a fact held against the women but not Glenn, who never graduated college.) All of this is well narrated in the 2018 Netflix documentary Mercury 13, directed by Heather Walsh and David Sington. You won’t learn much about it in The Greatest Adventure, where it is relegated to parentheses on page 99. Because the women never made it to space, they are not part of the history. Their significance lies in the fact that Soviet General Nikolai Kamanin got wind of the project and rushed Valentina Tereshkova into orbit, making her the first woman in space. The rules about which humans count in “human spaceflight” is not a matter of great moment to Burgess, although when concerns for diversity prompted the Americans letting a few women, fewer Blacks, and one Asian American into NASA’s astronaut program over 100 pages later, he praises it. (Sadly, one of each category would die on the Challenger.)

Likewise, once astronauts land back on Earth, they exit the book, except for when the Soviets used cosmonauts such as Gagarin for “propaganda” value. When the Soviets cheered their space travelers, it was due to “the Soviet propaganda machine”; when the Americans did so, it stemmed from “pride in the nation’s space flight programme and the men chosen to fly them.” You will not learn from this book about the extensive overseas propaganda trips undertaken by the Gemini and Apollo astronauts, all coordinated by the US Information Agency. For that, you will have to turn to Teasel Muir-Harmony’s Operation Moonglow (Basic Books, 2020), which Burgess does not cite.

Much of human spaceflight happens on the ground. The actual content of the training is described only sketchily, however. We learn more about the personalities of the Apollo astronauts than about food, air, and waste disposal in their capsules. (The latter is encompassed by the rare mention of a catheter for the short early flights. Solid waste is literally unmentionable.) And what about the hundreds of people on the ground who make each human’s flight possible? Are they not also part of the history of human spaceflight?

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A key feature of human spaceflight — exceptionally well communicated by Burgess — is how dangerous it is. Almost every Soviet and American flight during the Space Race, with the important and almost miraculous exception of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, barely avoided disaster. Gagarin almost lost consciousness on reentry. Alexei Leonov’s suit puffed up on the first spacewalk and he had to depressurize his suit in open space in order to fit back into his capsule. Gus Grissom almost sank with his Mercury capsule. Scott Carpenter was almost lost when his capsule couldn’t be found in the ocean. And of course there was the near catastrophe of Apollo 13, turned into a tale of bravery and ingenuity (rather than recklessness) through the magic of Ron Howard. Upon reading account after account in Burgess’s vivid prose, you cannot help but wonder at the shocking peril that governments put these men (and a few women) through.

Burgess does not wonder. That people overcame the obstacles is proof of the arc of destiny bending heavenward. It is unclear how much the cosmonauts and astronauts knew about the dog and primate precursors who tested the life-support mechanisms of the Soviet and American vehicles, respectively. The dogs, strays recruited from the streets of Moscow under the (quite reasonable) presumption that they could withstand pretty much anything and endowed with charming names based on their appearance or character — Little Fox, Blackie, Barker (Laika, who traveled on Sputnik 2), etc. — fared pretty well. The Greatest Adventure is wonderful on this topic.

The American monkeys fared less well. Using captured German V-2 rockets, Project Blossom used these apes to test human survivability in space. On June 11, 1948, Blossom 3 launched a rhesus macaque named Albert. “Not only did the single parachute fail to inflate,” writes Burgess, “causing the nose cone to slam back into the ground, but it was later revealed that Albert had probably suffocated before lift-off.” His successor, Albert II, survived the launch only to perish in another parachute failure. Albert III died when his V-2 exploded within 30 seconds of lift-off. Albert IV was killed when the parachute system failed again. At the end of their V-2s, the Americans switched to Aerobee rockets. Albert V was another victim of parachute failure, despite months of engineering fixes. Albert VI made it up about 45 miles and landed, despite being thumped pretty hard on the desert floor. Rescue took too long to get to him, though, and he died of heat prostration. The Americans stopped naming the macaques “Albert.” This book is lavishly illustrated with staged photos of smiling astronauts looking directly into the camera before venturing out into space. I could not help comparing these to the photograph of the first Albert being inserted into his capsule.

Which raises a crucial question, one not seriously discussed in this book: why send humans to space at all? It is much harder (and heavier) to engineer their life support, and so much more wrenching when things fail. For Burgess, there is no debate to be had: the intrepid voyagers “realized that space exploration is a human imperative and that it would continue despite the losses.” It is worth underscoring that no human has been further than Earth orbit since 1972. Most of our advances in knowledge of the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and more have come from uncrewed probes. But, even so, Burgess maintains that shifting exploration entirely to robots shirks our “undeniable destiny, and given the spur of human curiosity to seek and explore, such aspirations are both beckoning and achievable.”

I expect many readers of this volume will share Burgess’s sense of confidence and destiny. How can we not choose human spaceflight, they might think.  Consider Elon Musk, one of today’s most visible proponents of human spaceflight and human colonization of Mars. In a livestream in 2021, Musk declared: “Going to Mars […] is a long journey, you might not come back alive. But it’s a glorious adventure, and it will be an amazing experience. […] Honestly, a bunch of people probably will die in the beginning.” He is right about the risks, but are they worth taking? One might consult the other Elon Musk, whose company Tesla invests huge resources in automatic vehicles to remove the danger to humans caused by everyday traffic accidents. Defensive driving is clearly not the mythology of the moment.

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Michael D. Gordin is a professor in Princeton’s history department. His latest book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience.