Colin Burgess, Kate Doolan, Bert Vis. Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon, Revised Edition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. 416 pp. $36.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-8509-5.
Reviewed by Walter E. Grunden (Bowling Green State University)
Published on H-FedHist (October, 2017)
Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann
During the Apollo 15 mission, in early August 1971, two astronauts placed a plaque and a small tin figurine on the surface of the moon to memorialize those who had perished in the attempt to get there. The plaque bore the names of US astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts alike, including: the Americans Charles A. Bassett, Roger B. Chaffee, Theodore C. Freeman, Edward G. Givens, Jr., Virgil I. Grissom, Elliot M. See, Jr., Edward H. White, and Clifton C. Williams, Jr., and the Russians Pavel Belyayev, Georgy Dobrovolsky, Yuri Gagarin, Vladimir Komarov, Viktor Patsayev, and Valadislav Volkov. The names Valentin Bondarenko and Grigori Nelyubov were not included on the plaque, as the circumstances of their deaths remained uncertain at the time, but their stories are included in this collection of biographies written to commemorate the lives of these “handful of men who died reaching for their ultimate goal--the moon” (p. xxv).
The book is divided into six main chapters, five of which are dedicated to a narrative reconstruction of the tragic incidents that took the lives of the Americans, and one devoted collectively to the Soviets. Written largely in biographical style, the book meticulously details the lives, careers, and deaths of the principals in the chronological order of their passing. The coverage is fairly well balanced, with about thirty to forty pages dedicated to each astronaut. The Apollo 1 accident, which resulted in the tragic deaths of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, receives the most attention with nearly a hundred pages, while the eight Soviet cosmonauts are discussed in less than fifty, which may be understandable given the greater challenges of obtaining primary source material from Russian archives. Several photographs are included of the astronauts and give the reader a face to remember with the name.
As a tribute to these fallen heroes and pioneers of space exploration, this book is a welcome addition to the vast literature on the US space program and the “space race” in general. Apart from those who perished in the Apollo 1 accident and Yuri Gagarin, who gained fame as the first man in space, many of the principals are not household names, and it is only fitting that they be recognized and their sacrifices recorded for posterity. The authors should be commended for shedding more light on these lesser-known heroes.
That said, the book is not without its flaws. Targeted at a general audience rather than a more specialized academic readership, the book’s narrative style trades scholarly reliability for readability, and the prose often tends toward the creatively descriptive, like a novel, such as recounting a principal’s thoughts or emotions on a particular occasion, something that could only be known from an interview or memoir, or a comparable source. For example, in the chapter on Freeman, the authors present an anecdote about his wife’s curious and superstitious habit of shouting “Rabbit!” on the first day of each month to bring good luck, and the pilot’s thinking of it as he taxied out for a flight: “Suddenly a funny little thought tweaked at his memory and made him smile” (p. 6). Such emotive passages are not inherently problematic in themselves, but many go without attribution, and without a single formal citation in the entire book, one is more often than not left to guess the source or simply to contemplate how the authors could know such a thing. This is unfortunate, because the authors conducted extensive research for the book, including numerous interviews. But substance is often buried by style here. The bibliography doesn’t help much either, as it does not separate primary from secondary sources, nor does it provide a list of interviewees for quick or easy verification, and one often has to search for or guess at attribution.
This reviewer also found some of the authors’ editorial decisions questionable. Biography is not as easy to write as it may seem, but simply including more details of a person’s life doesn’t necessarily make a biography better. In every chapter there are extraneous details that do not add substantively to our understanding of the principal, nor do they necessarily move the narrative along. In some cases, the inclusion of certain details feels downright voyeuristic, such as with the vivid description of Bondarenko’s slow death by burning (pp. 233-234), or one of the American astronaut’s widows going on to remarry several times before succumbing to a slow, horrible death from mouth and lung cancer. Why do we need to know this, and how does it honor the heroes of this book? Serious scholars will also find no central thesis among the many anecdotes here, and there are no substantive arguments developed throughout.
Such issues should give a university press pause when deciding to publish for a wider audience. Given the challenge of selling academic books and the declining readership of print media over all, however, it is an understandable business decision. But blurring the lines between professional and popular history comes with a cost for both publishers and scholars alike.
This is the second edition of this book, with a full decade having passed since the publication of the first. The authors should be commended for committing themselves to additional research and for dedicating more effort to this topic. While the emotional appeal of the book is obvious, and the tribute to these heroes well deserved, in this reviewer’s opinion, the book still falls short of the treatment these heroes are due. Perhaps the third edition could tell us more about the back story of the plaque itself, and give fewer prurient details of the lives that these heroes and their families might wish to keep to themselves.
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Walter E. Grunden. Review of Burgess, Colin; Doolan, Kate; Vis, Bert, Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon, Revised Edition.
H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews.
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