NBC journalist Barbree, who holds the distinction of being the only reporter to cover every space mission flown by astronauts, recounts the fascinating, tragic and ultimately inspirational history of the U.S. space program.
The author lived among the astronauts, socialized with them and watched as they strapped themselves into small metal canisters perched atop unimaginable explosive force. His personal involvement with the men who conquered space distinguishes this book from Tom Wolfe’s classic, bumptious look at the space program’s early days, The Right Stuff (1979), curiously not mentioned here. Where Wolfe projected himself into the astronauts’ culture and mindset, Barbree shared them, and his enthusiasm for the material is irresistible. Stories of wild pranks, insanely reckless midnight drives and steadfast loyalty shared by the test pilots-turned-spacefarers leaven the impressively researched technical information, which is presented in a clear, accessible fashion. The author provides a trenchant analysis of the emotional underpinnings that initially drove the program, based on an epic rivalry with the Soviet Union. He isn’t shy about venting his frustration at the government and military bureaucracy that impeded the program’s progress and cost the lives of too many brave men and women. Passages on the tragedies that befell Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia are by turns anguished, outraged and cogent in their examination of what went wrong and what preventive measures might have been taken. Barbree (co-author, A Journey Through Time, 1995, etc.) was the reporter who broke the story on Challenger’s faulty O-rings, and his account of his struggle to get the story past NBC brass crackles with narrative tension. A final chapter on NASA’s plans for building a permanent lunar station, to be used as a base for future colonization of other planets, concludes the narrative on a note of awe and optimism—the very feelings that inspired humanity’s first steps into the Great Beyond.
It’s hard to imagine a more comprehensive or enjoyable history of the Space Race.