Books by Chaikin, Andrew

Bean, Alan and Andrew Chaikin. Apollo. Shelton, CT: The Greenwich Workshop, 1998. ISBN 978-0-86713-050-8.
On November 19th, 1969, Alan Bean became the fourth man to walk on the Moon, joining Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad on the surface of Oceanus Procellarum. He was the first person to land on the Moon on his very first space flight. He later commanded the Skylab 3 mission in 1973, spending more than 59 days in orbit.

Astronauts have had a wide variety of second careers after retiring from NASA: executives, professors, politicians, and many others. Among the Apollo astronauts, only Alan Bean set out, after leaving NASA in 1981, to become a professional artist, an endeavour at which he has succeeded, both artistically and commercially. This large format coffee table book collects many of his paintings completed before its publication in 1998, with descriptions by the artist of the subject material of each and, in many cases, what he was trying to achieve artistically. The companion text by space writer Andrew Chaikin (A Man on the Moon) provides an overview of Bean's career and the Apollo program.

Bean's art combines scrupulous attention to technical detail (for example, the precise appearance of items reflected in the curved visor of spacesuit helmets) with impressionistic brushwork and use of colour, intended to convey how the lunar scenes felt, as opposed to the drab, near monochrome appearance of the actual surface. This works for some people, while others find it grating—I like it very much. Visit the Alan Bean Gallery and make up your own mind.

This book is out of print, but used copies are available. (While mint editions can be pricey, non-collector copies for readers just interested in the content are generally available at modest cost).

October 2008 Permalink

Light, Michael and Andrew Chaikin. Full Moon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. ISBN 0-375-40634-4.

July 2002 Permalink

Chaikin, Andrew. John Glenn: America's Astronaut. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2014. ISBN 978-1-58834-486-1.
This short book (around 126 pages print equivalent), available only for the Kindle as a “Kindle single” at a modest price, chronicles the life and space missions of the first American to orbit the Earth. John Glenn grew up in a small Ohio town, the son of a plumber, and matured during the first great depression. His course in life was set when, in 1929, his father took his eight year old son on a joy ride offered by a pilot at local airfield in a Waco biplane. After that, Glenn filled up his room with model airplanes, intently followed news of air racers and pioneers of exploration by air, and in 1938 attended the Cleveland Air Races. There seemed little hope of his achieving his dream of becoming an airman himself: pilot training was expensive, and his family, while making ends meet during the depression, couldn't afford such a luxury.

With the war in Europe underway and the U.S. beginning to rearm and prepare for possible hostilities, Glenn heard of a government program, the Civilian Pilot Training Program, which would pay for his flying lessons and give him college credit for taking them. He entered the program immediately and received his pilot's license in May 1942. By then, the world was a very different place. Glenn dropped out of college in his junior year and applied for the Army Air Corps. When they dawdled accepting him, he volunteered for the Navy, which immediately sent him to flight school. After completing advanced flight training, he transferred to the Marine Corps, which was seeking aviators.

Sent to the South Pacific theatre, he flew 59 combat missions, mostly in close air support of ground troops in which Marine pilots specialise. With the end of the war, he decided to make the Marines his career and rotated through a number of stateside posts. After the outbreak of the Korean War, he hoped to see action in the jet combat emerging there and in 1953 arrived in country, again flying close air support. But an exchange program with the Air Force finally allowed him to achieve his ambition of engaging in air to air combat at ten miles a minute. He completed 90 combat missions in Korea, and emerged as one of the Marine Corps' most distinguished pilots.

Glenn parlayed his combat record into a test pilot position, which allowed him to fly the newest and hottest aircraft of the Navy and Marines. When NASA went looking for pilots for its Mercury manned spaceflight program, Glenn was naturally near the top of the list, and was among the 110 military test pilots invited to the top secret briefing about the project. Despite not meeting all of the formal selection criteria (he lacked a college degree), he performed superbly in all of the harrowing tests to which candidates were subjected, made cut after cut, and was among the seven selected to be the first astronauts.

This book, with copious illustrations and two embedded videos, chronicles Glenn's career, his harrowing first flight into space, his 1998 return to space on Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-95, and his 24 year stint in the U.S. Senate. I found the picture of Glenn after his pioneering flight somewhat airbrushed. It is said that while in the Senate, “He was known as one of NASA's strongest supporters on Capitol Hill…”, and yet in fact, while not one of the rabid Democrats who tried to kill NASA like Walter Mondale, he did not speak out as an advocate for a more aggressive space program aimed at expanding the human presence in space. His return to space is presented as the result of his assiduously promoting the benefits of space research for gerontology rather than a political junket by a senator which would generate publicity for NASA at a time when many people had tuned out its routine missions. (And if there was so much to be learned by flying elderly people in space, why was it never done again?)

John Glenn was a quintessential product of the old, tough America. A hero in two wars, test pilot when that was one of the most risky of occupations, and first to ride the thin-skinned pressure-stabilised Atlas rocket into orbit, his place in history is assured. His subsequent career as a politician was not particularly distinguished: he initiated few pieces of significant legislation and never became a figure on the national stage. His campaign for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination went nowhere, and he was implicated in the “Keating Five” scandal. John Glenn accomplished enough in the first forty-five years of his life to earn him a secure place in American history. This book does an excellent job of recounting those events and placing them in the context of the time. If it goes a bit too far in lionising his subsequent career, that's understandable: a biographer shouldn't always succumb to balance when dealing with a hero.

April 2014 Permalink