Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Two Sides of the Moon

Two Sides of the Moon
© 2006 Alexei Leonov and David Scott
448 pages

Remember the fifties, those fat complacent days when the Future seemed a century away?
Then up went Sputnik, gave the world a butt-kick, and made it clear tomorrow starts today!
'Beep beep beep' -- hello there! Sputnik sails giggling through the skies
Red flags, red faces jump in the race as the space age begins with a surprise! 
("Surprise!", Prometheus Music)


In another setting, Alexei Leonov and David Scott could have been the cause of the other's death. Fighter pilots from empires at odds with one another, intermittently on the edge of war with the fate of the planet hanging in the balance, they would have surely entered combat against one another had the Cold War ever become hot. But instead, one manifestation of the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Space Race to the moon, made them first respectful rivals, then friends. Two Sides of the Moon is a joint biography of the pair, telling their experience as active participants in the race for the stars. Both men were highly accomplished: Leonov was the first man to walk in space, and Scott commanded Apollo 15, the first explicitly scientific lunar mission.  And yet they regarded the Apollo-Soyuz mission as their greatest achievement, for there they established to all the world their conviction the space race had been the triumph of humanity against the odds and the elements, not one nation or one group of men against another.

Readers will welcome Two Sides of the Moon as a rare look into the Soviet space program, and Leonov is the best man living to deliver an autobiographical account of it, given that everyone more famous than him in the Soviet program is long dead.  Each man takes turns telling his side of the story, from their boyhood days until the culmination of the race in Apollo-Soyuz, in which spacecraft from both powers unite, demonstrating the feasibility of international cooperation, to which the International Space Station is a tribute.  Although their stories are wholly distinct from the other, they do work in references to their shared experiences and this combined effort:  Scott comments upon seeing the Earth from space that they "should have sent an artist":  Leonov, appropriately enough, was a painter. Another reference is Leonov revealing an early death in the Soyuz program caused by a spark in a pure-oxygen atmosphere, a disaster that the United States experienced for itself when Gus Gussom, Ed White (first American to spacewalk) and Roger Chaffey were killed in a launchpad fire caused by the a spark same flammable, pressurized atmosphere. Their accounts offer comments and comparisons about the two space programs: despite their sensitive nature, information leaked through intelligence services reliably. By the authors' account, a feeling of cameradie between the astro- and cosmo-nauts established itself early: despite their being opposing military men, the would-be spacefarers from either side of the Iron Curtain were exposing themselves to extraordinary risks, and under extraordinary scrutiny. When one man from one program fell, they all felt it -- by this account.   The Soviet program was distinct in being lead in its early years by Sergei Korolev, the "Chief Designer": Leonov presents him as a driving force behind the Soviet's organization and planning, and when he died in 1966, their program began faltering. (It didn't help that by that point, ambitions were truly lunar and new rockets were being introduced into both programs -- NASA had far better success with its moon-bound Saturns than the Soviets did with their rockets.)   The American astronauts were wholly unaware of his role in the Soviet program, one of the few complete surprises their joint account reveals.  The book moves more swiftly through the post-Apollo 11 years, mentioning the Salyut project briefly before giving more attention to Apollo-Soyuz, in which the two men both took part.  The book ends with epilogues in which both men comment on the fates of their programs in recent years, and offer musings on what might lay ahead: David Scott offered the idea that nations might have to introduce orbital military patrols to investigate newly-launched satellites.

Two Sides of the Moon  recommends itself to those interested in the space race, chiefly for Leonov's contributions. Although Scott is a fair writer with helpful technical explanations and many interesting missions, there are so many Apollo biographies out there that his is hard-pressed to rise out among them. Leonov, on the other hand, is nearly alone in offering a Russian view for the English market, and as mentioned easily the best man living to offer an account, given that his close friends like Yuri Gagarin, and his old bosses (including Korlev) are deceased.  Two Sides makes the space race out to be an inspiring struggle between two powers whose accomplishments were noble even if their motives were suspect, and reinforces the fact that despite the distinctions and oppositions in our cultures and beliefs, humans are really not so different from one another: underneath the  suit of the American astronaut and the Soviet cosmonaut is the same human flesh.

"When Apollo 11 had soared away from Cape Kennedy I had kept my fingers crossed. I wanted man to succeed in making it to the moon. If it couldn't be me, let it be this crew, I thought, with that we in Russia call 'white envy' - envy mixed with admiration. [...] On the morning of 21 July 1969 everyone forgot, for a few moments, that we were citizens of different countries on Earth. That moment really united the human race. Even in the military center where I stood, where military men were observing the achievements of our rival superpower, there was loud applause."

p. 247, Alexei Leonov

Related:
Into that Silent Sea, Francis French and Colin Burgess, a history of both programs.
Moon Shot, Alan Shephard and Deke Slayton. Likewise a joint effort, this culminates in Apollo-Soyuz.
"Surprise!", Prometheus Music. This celebrates Sputnik and the space age; it's a rather lively tune.

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