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SPACE by James A. Michener


by James A. Michener

Pub Date: Oct. 12th, 1982
ISBN: 0449203794
Publisher: Random House

America's space program, from WW II roots to the 1980s, is the subject of Michener's new mega-faction—so those readers who relished the dynasty/historical-romance aspects of his multi-century epics (Chesapeake, The Covenant, etc.) are likely to be disappointed by the smaller scope and quieter action here. Others, however, may appreciate the close-up focus—the same handful of central characters for 640 pp.—or the relatively in-depth treatment of the science/issues involved. And those put off by Tom Wolfe's jivey, semi-hostile approach in The Right Stuff will certainly prefer Michener's more positive (though not uncritical) view of the astronaut program. In 1944 US engineer Stanley Mott is the man responsible for locating and secretly rescuing Germany's top rocket scientists: the real-life von Braun (a background figure here) as well as the fictional Dieter Kolff, who manages to sneak out of Germany with formulas for long-range rocketry. So Mott, with wife Rachel, oversees the research program once the Germans are resettled in Alabama. And, meanwhile, we also meet future astronaut John Pope, a brainy, "straight arrow" Navy test pilot (with raunchy Korea buddy, Marine Randy Claggett) whose lawyer-wife Penny is a vital aide to stolid Sen. Norman Grant, a WW II hero on the Senate's space committee. In the early '50s, however, Mott is removed from the program (he switches to the embryonic NASA, studies celestial mechanics and ablation); the three major military branches feud about space-program control; and Ike's Defense Secretary virtually calls off all rocketry plans. Then . . . Sputnik—and everything changes. Ike revises his tune. After debate, space-program control is given to NASA. Mott and Kolff violently argue about goals and methods. (Manned vs. unmanned flights? Flashy moon-shots vs. wide exploration? Earth-orbit rendezvous vs. lunar?) And John and Randy are in one of the first astronaut batches: their Gemini mission, with flight-walks, is detailed; career-woman Penny is harassed for not conforming to the chosen astronaut PR-style; the raunchy goings-on at Cocoa Beach are touched on (a beautiful muckraking Korean journalist sleeps around); and, on a fictional Apollo 18 mission to the moon's "dark side," Randy and another pilot die from sun radiation. In an apparent attempt to provide relief from the dense, unvaried material here, Michener supplies a few limp subplots—e.g., Mott's worry over his sons (one homosexual, one drug-dealer). And one subplot—the doings of a con-man UFO guru who switches to anti-Darwinism in the '80s—becomes increasingly important, with a wind-up debate on Faith vs. Science. Finally, however, this is Michener's customary education-in-an-epic package: less romantic/exotic than usual, typically stiff in dialogue and narration, inferior to many non-fiction sources of popularized astro-science—yet sure to draw a vast Big-Book readership.