Friday, February 7, 2020

"Failure Is Not an Option," by Gene Kranz--Nonfiction Review

Morning my dear, dear internet strangers, this Friday, we’re doing another non-fiction review. We’re establishing a pattern here, like serial killers. Today’s review is of “Failure Is Not an Option” by Gene Kranz.

It’s the book about space, specifically about when we went to the moon. I bring this up because, after just a cursory search, there are like four other books with this exact title. So just remember, we’re not talking about retirement or self-esteem or whatever—we’re going to the moon, Alice, to the moon! I heard that in an episode of Futurama and can’t possibly imagine it could be a reference to anything else—ever.  

Gene Kranz

What I love about this book:

Let’s get the obvious done right away. It’s got space stuff, and like I’ve said before, I love me some space stuff. The author, by the way, Gene Kranz, is one of the ultimate insiders in the early days of NASA. He was the flight director on not just Apollo 11 but also Apollo 13. Also, he was the guy in a white vest played by Ed Harris in the Ron Howard movie, also called Apollo 13—go figure. So he’s the man, as in the man in charge during some of the most significant moments in early space flight.

I love that this book takes you sequentially through the early days of the Mercury, Gemini, and, finally, the Apollo programs. Kranz breaks down the three early space programs, from the technology they used to their specific objectives. In Mercury, the first, we here in the United States were playing catch up in just getting an American astronaut into space, orbit the earth and getting him back down again. This goal was compounded by the problem that we were still getting over our “everything just blew up in a fiery ball of hellfire” phase of rocketry. Gemini was different in that all of its objectives, as a program, were to be a proof of concept that would prove the Apollo program was possible. Finally, Apollo, the program everyone knows, is where we actually landed on the Moon.

In addition to all that—the author also tells the very human stories behind the men and women who fought for, sacrificed for, and tragically in some cases—died for the dream of setting foot on another world separate from the Earth. It’s great to remember how Neil Armstrong stepped foot—for the first time ever—on land that was not from our world. However, it’s far less pleasurable to remember how “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died on the launch pad during a plugs-out test of Apollo 1. Their sacrifice is just as necessary to remember, in my opinion.

It isn’t all heroic pioneering stories or tragedy laced accidents, you learn interesting things about the people who lived and worked at NASA. For instance, Gene Kranz himself is a judo aficionado, something he got into because of a coworker and as a way to blow off steam. There are plenty of interesting little details about the people who actually lived through these events, and it isn’t all sterile facts about rockets and capsules.         

What I don’t love about this book:

Kranz is a wealth of information, and that’s a good thing—but he does tend to get bogged down in minutia. He doesn’t just know exactly what part or piece of machinery was used during a particular mission, but what he wrote on forms and memos to his superiors. This level of detail isn’t all that fascinating. It is a little amusing that either his memory is just that good or his level of personal notes that he kept was that complete, but the actual details themselves can get tedious. For me, it’s a blurry line of when he crosses over from being thorough to too much, a choice much like how many Reeses peanut butter cups are too many Reeses, never all the Reeses, eat all the Reeses!

He also has a tendency to talk around events, restating certain pieces of information multiple times before diving in directly with what actually happened. Overall, the whole book feels a bit overly long, and each story he tells could be tightened up and edited down.

Parting thoughts:

I believe that landing on the moon was the single greatest moment in human history—up to this point. It was one of those few moments in human history where we did a thing not for basic biological needs, or purely out of cynical socioeconomics. True, it is impossible to say that we weren’t motivated to beat the Russians there, because yes, that competition is what pushed us, in the United States, over the top. However, I don’t believe we did it purely just to say we did it before the Russians, we did not spend billions of dollars, people did not dedicate their lives and in some cases die, just for bragging rights. We did it because it had never been done before. We went somewhere no one had ever been before to go see what was out there. It was that adventure that thirst for exploration that drove us to go to the moon.

Like everything, though—as a society, we’ve become complacent with the idea that we’ve been to the moon. Everything loses mystique eventually, and I find most people just take it for granted, like sure they personally haven’t been there but they know someone has, a lot like they probably rationalize they haven’t been to Madagascar but someone clearly has been there. My point is this complacency saps enthusiasm, motivation, and those are the very qualities that got us there when our best computers couldn’t even be considered a useful calculator today. Like the man said, it was a hard choice to go to the moon. Every time we slash NASA’s budget to go fight another endless war over hydrocarbons, it becomes easier to not make that choice going forward. Why is this important? What has space exploration ever given us for how much it costs? The thing you are reading this blog on can trace its genesis back to the technologies NASA first pioneered and helped to develop directly and indirectly. The GPS you use to find your Aunt Sally’s house in Maine likewise comes from the same family of technology.

There is another class of people who go a different way than just run of the mill indifference. They outright deny that we ever made it to the moon. First off, even the Russians admitted it at the height of the cold war—we were not friends at the time, and they would have literally zero reasons to lie about this. That aside, this is one of those few conspiracy theories I narrow my eyes at immediately. Usually, I’m indulgent in listening to dumb conspiracy theories, bring on the ancient Aliens, but on this point—denying possibly one of the greatest achievements our species will ever attain—I become suspicious. I’m under no illusion that mostly this is a visceral emotional reaction on my part and therefore not totally rational. But when someone tells me that the moon landing was faked, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if, in their next breath, they tell me about their pet theory of how the holocaust was a hoax.

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