austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

Me and my baby stayed up late while the Jupiter-C popped into space

I declared one of my recent reads, Live From Cape Canaveral: Covering The Space Race, From Sputnik To Today by Jay Barbree to be an outstandingly mediocre books. Let me try to defend that.

Jay Barbree's a reporter for NBC specializing in space stuff. That has to be a tough beat: to understand what's going on you have to be conversant in a baffling array of personalities, locations, technologies, and programs; to report on it at all, you have to be able to put it in the language of people who might be interested in the subject but haven't learned enough to be conversant in any of this; and the audience is really interested in space for maybe a day or two at a time, one or two times a year, and forgets all about it the rest of the time. That's a rare set of constraints on his reporting, which (say) medical or general-science reporters don't suffer under; and he was there for all the big interesting events. Just telling how one works as a reporter should be a compelling, original angle.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to have told Barbree this. How is it trying to do responsible journalism when, for NASA at least, there's one official source for everything and they can pretty much grant or revoke access at will? Not much of that. He mentions learning it would be Alan Shepherd, rather than Gus Grissom or John Glenn, from the ``Red Team'' that would be the first American in space, but he couldn't use the scoop, so this lucky feat of breaking through NASA's odd secrecy about the Chosen First Mercury Astronaut ended up being ... nothing. And that's as much of the Life Of A Space Reporter that we get. There are a few more bits of his Journalism, but all those stories amount to, ``I found out about this and reported/didn't report it.''

So what's left? A routine pop space history of the kind I could probably write without waking up. Worse, it's a lazy routine pop space history: Barbree for example talks about the decision to launch America's First Space Satellite on Vanguard rather than a Jupiter as though it were an inexplicable mystery by dopes who didn't understand how important The First Satellite Would Be. But it's been, sheesh, three decades now since the ``establishing flyover precedents'' explanation came out and, as far as I'm aware, satisfied all the major lingering mysteries about the Jupiter-versus-Vanguard decision. Did Barbree somehow miss one of the big puzzle-piece revelations of space history?

Possibly. His concluding chapter is all about the Glorious Future In Space of how the Orion project is going to take us back to the Moon and the Mars and glorious destiny in space blah blah blah and finally there were visionaries back at the space program. Apparently he missed the big slatherings of vision that gave us the X-38 and its Glorious Future In Space, or the CRV and its Glorious Future In Space, or the Space Exploration Initiative and its Glorious Future In Space. I'm not saying that the Orion/Ares program being one that goes nowhere and does nothing was obvious in 2006/07 when the book was written, but ... actually, yeah, it was pretty obvious back then. There were True Believers who still insisted it was going, but the level of skepticism in a person seemed to rise quite rapidly with the person's background in technology or space history.

All right, he's entitled to his optimism, but shouldn't that optimism have been tempered by any experience? ``Astronauts will ... head back to the lunar surface as early as 2018''? ``The first Martians are already here. They are your sons and daughters, and ... they'll be saddling up to fly to our planetary neighbor on rockets and interplanetary ships named Aries and Orion''? And why are you so very certain of that fact, Mr Barbree? Perhaps I'm the non-professional journalist but I would write ``the next Olympic games are scheduled for 2012'', and be more hesitant about proclaiming the certainty of less inevitable events.

(He also includes a page announcing that the Strategic Defense Initiative deserves its credit for the peaceful ending of the Cold War. I know this is a popular view among Strategic Defense Initiative fanboys. I've yet to be convinced that the Soviet Block was doing unstoppably well until they had to face the threat of a missile-defense system that worked one time out of four when the tests were rigged, at which they gave up and declared everything was hopeless and let's get Coca-Cola in here. I'm inclined to rate as more important decades of economic, political, diplomatic, cultural, and ethnic mismanagement combined with a leadership that was by the 1980s either senescent or searching for the least rioting-mob-prone way out. In any case I need more than the assertions of two high-ranked SDI project officers to be convinced that SDI was the reason the Cold War ended peacefully.)

I can't really point to stuff that's specifically wrong --- even the Jupiter-versus-Vanguard summary could be argued is just one of interpretation rather than fact --- but it's full of sloppy work (one passage mentions that Martin Caidin was in the Soviet Union, and the fourth N-1 rocket exploded, in the same paragraph, as though he were responsible; I'm rather confident Caidin wasn't a witness to the explosion, so why mention where he was?) and average trivia presented without fresh insight. What was he doing around NASA for a half-century to have this little to say about it?

Trivia: Soviet General Ivan Suslopatov, who signed the German Instrument of Surrender, had arrived at the Supreme Headquarters, Allie Expeditionary Force, in May 1945 not to receive the German surrender but only to discuss details of the Yalta agreement regarding Soviet repatriations. Source: 1945: The War That Never Ended, Gregor Dallas.

Currently Reading: The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, Candice Millard.


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