Book Review: Into That Silent Sea

I’m still trying to figure out if the news in the days preceding the release of Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965 symbolizes irony or progress.

As the subtitle indicates, the book examines the first efforts by the U.S. and the Soviet Union to put humans into space. One of the areas in which the book excels is reminding us just how hazardous those initial steps were and how they grabbed worldwide attention. The book arrives shortly after the 46th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human to travel into space, an anniversary mentioned at best in passing. In addition, the anniversary came amidst the latest exchange of crew members on the International Space Station. At least in America, that event seems to have drawn attention for one reason — celebrity Martha Stewart planned a meal for the crew because a billionaire buddy of hers is the latest to pay millions to be a space tourist.

Does the latter show how far we have come since Gagarin’s flight or reflect that the media and public today are more interested in celebrity news than the persistent dangers, difficulties and achievements of space flight?

Into That Silent Sea is an excellent reminder of just what Gagarin and other trailblazers did and how they became international celebrities in their own right. We seem to have forgotten just how new the frontier of space was. Would merely orbiting the Earth produce harmful and irreversible changes in the human body? Could astronauts or cosmonauts be expected to physically control a spacecraft? What psychological effects would the darkness and isolation of space produce? While the space station allows continued study of the effects of space on humans, questions such as those seem almost naive today. Yet they were important and substantive unknowns during the time period covered by the book.

Not only does Into That Silent Sea remind us of how primitive our beginnings in space were, it does so by focusing on the astronauts and cosmonauts who risked (and some of whom lost) their lives advancing science. Unlike last year’s Space Race, which looked at the entire lunar race largely from the perspective of the heads of the programs, Into That Silent Sea delves into the very first steps into space largely from the viewpoint of the astronaut/cosmonaut. (Co-authors Francis French and Colin Burgess are working on a follow-up book covering the programs from 1965 through 1969.) Although there is at times a formulaic feel to the chapter structures, we learn about the personal lives and families, the training and the missions of each of the astronauts and cosmonauts who ventured into space in those first years. Their backgrounds reveal not only what helped make them pioneers, but differences between the U.S. and Soviet programs.

French and Burgess also look at the role (or lack thereof) of women in both the U.S. and Soviet space programs. Although certainly without the detail of The Mercury 13 or Promised the Moon, which were devoted to the subject, they explore how a variety of women were misled as to the possibility of becoming part of NASA’s Mercury program. They were misled not by NASA but, rather, a NASA-connected contractor doing studies on the physical differences between men and women insofar as space flight might be concerned. For good or bad, astronaut standards at the time precluded the involvement of women because they had no experience as jet test pilots. In addition, NASA did not view the space program as solely a propaganda tool that justified launching a woman into space simply for the purpose of saying we did so first.

That stands in sharp contrast to the Soviet program. Although those in it were undoubtedly motivated by science, the Soviet political system viewed the space program as one of almost immeasurable political and propaganda value. While certainly not undercutting the efforts and training of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, Burgess and French take a fairly objective look at her mission and what it reflects about the differences between the two space programs. They also examine how the propaganda aims of the Soviets could cause them to cut corners, such as in the harrowing experience of Alexei Leonov, the first person to walk in space and who had to rely on his own innovation to make it back into the spacecraft.

At the same time, Into That Silent Sea may also remind us of the limits of our steps into space over the years. The goal and accomplishment of the missions explored in the work was putting man into orbit around the Earth and returning him successfully. Yet today manned spaceflight remains limited to Earth orbit. No manned spacecraft has left Earth orbit since the end of the Apollo program 35 years ago. Recent proposals to return to the moon and go on to Mars have met with tepid public support that is far short of the attention given the flights detailed in this book or the lunar program.

The last 40 or so years have produced plenty of histories and memoirs of both the U.S. and Soviet/Russian space programs. Some are great, some are good and some are not so good. In some regards, Into That Silent Sea is unavoidably duplicative of some of those works. It is just the nature of the beast. Regardless, there is undoubted benefit in having authors unassociated with either program examine just how enterprising and daring those early missions were. Many people today seem to view space programs as an extravagance or with disinterest. For those who remain interested in those programs and have read the prior histories and memoirs, it never hurts to be reminded of just how pioneering the first steps were.

When venturing into the unknown, the first step taken is often the biggest and the boldest.

Francis French and Colin Burgess, Into That Silent Sea

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