Editorial Note: Led by Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.
Our latest podcast discusses our favourite books of the year with Dr Ross Mahoney, Editor-in-Chief of From Balloons to Drones. Each of us discusses our top three reads of 2022, and we take a look forward at some topics we would really like to hear more about in the future.
Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent scholar specialising in the history of war, particularly concerning the use of air power and the history of air warfare. He is currently the Senior Historian within the City Architecture and Heritage Team at Brisbane City Council in Australia. He has over 15 years of experience in the heritage and education sectors in Australia and the United Kingdom. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the inaugural Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum in the UK. In Australia, he has worked as a Historian for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and taught at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University based at the Australian War College. His research interests are focused on the history of war, specifically the history of air warfare, transport history, and urban history. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He has a book review website here and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.
Header image: One of six FMA IA 58 Pucará’s destroyed on 15 May 1982 after a raid by the Special Air Service on Pebble Island during the Falklands War. (Source: Wikimedia)
James M. Scott, Black Snow: Curtis LeMay, the Firebombing of Tokyo, and the Road to the Atomic Bomb. W.W. Norton: New York, NY, 2022. Hbk. 420 pp.
Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie
There will always be an inevitable struggle between popular historians writing for the general public and academic authors whose writing is often aimed at those working in the so-called ‘ivory tower’ of academia. However, the work of academic historians inform that of popular historians whose work reaches a wider audience of readers, some of whom are thus, in turn, inspired to become academics. This was certainly how I became interested in the profession of being a historian. Nevertheless, every so often, an author comes along who is that rarest of creatures: the unicorn, or that rare writer who blends academic credentials and methodology and the ability to spin a readable tale. James Scott is that unicorn with his new book, Black Snow: Curtis LeMay, the Firebombing of Tokyo, and the Road to the Atomic Bomb. Scott, a journalist and former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, is the author of several best-selling history books, including Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita, and the Battle of Manila and Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history.
The history of America’s strategic bombing during the Second World War has recently been sensationalized with the publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia (2021). However, Black Snow is, in reality, the Bomber Mafia book you have wanted to read. Indeed, if Gladwell’s book was an appetizer, then this is the main course and dessert. Scott more fully explores the background and motivations of Generals Haywood Hansell and Curtis LeMay and, given the length of Scott’s work, produces a much more coherent explanation of how and why each man acted in accordance with their desires to end the war. Black Snow, focusing on the experience of Japan’s civilian population on the ground, is also reminiscent of Stephen Bourque’s Beyond the Beach (2018) and Richard Overy’s The Bombers and the Bombed (2014). Each of these volumes provides well-needed reminders of the horrific suffering faced by those on the receiving end of bombings. Moreover, Scott is at his best when describing the situation on the ground from the perspective of the Japanese who lived through the bombing. To achieve that end, Scott interviewed 11 survivors and spent research time at archives in the United States and the Center for the Tokyo Air Raids and War Damage, the Kyoto Museum for World Peace, and other institutions in Japan.
While other books have focused on the strategic bombing campaigns against Japan, such as Herman S. Wolk’s Cataclysm (2010), Barrett Tillman’s Whirlwind (2010), Daniel Schwabe’s Burning Japan (2015), and Kenneth Werrell’s Blankets of Fire (1996), few have done as well as Scott has in presenting a comprehensive treatment. Once again, Scott’s focus on those on the ground is where this book truly adds to the conversation and the historical record. While the morality of the bombing of Japan is not the subject of this review, and there is, again, a wide literature on the subject, Scott’s ability to detail and compare the actions of some of Japan’s citizens against those wing commander – and future commander of the United States Air Force’s Strategic Air Command – Thomas Power is thought-provoking rather one is an expert in the field or coming to this area fresh. Power called the bombing of Japan ‘the greatest show on earth’ (p. 248).
Black Snow is geared towards a wide audience and not for the expert in the field. Given this, one area where the book may be seen to fall down to those with more detailed knowledge of the subject is in the book’s biographies of Generals Henry “Hap” Arnold (pp. 13-9) and LeMay (pp. 97-109). These are slightly overextended to someone who is not approaching the subject for the first time. However, this is really a minor critique.
Overall, Black Snow is a terrific addition to the historiography of the use of air power in the Pacific War of the Second World Ward. As mentioned, the work will appeal to both buffs and scholars alike, and both will find much to engage within these pages. Black Snow is a needed addition to the conversation of what air power can and cannot do, but more importantly, what air power can do when restraints are removed and why the United States must guard against unrestricted aerial warfare in future conflicts.
Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.
2022 will mark the 50th anniversary of the LINEBACKER campaigns – the last major bombing campaigns of the Vietnam War. As such, in our latest podcast, we interview Dr Brian Laslie about his latest book, Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam and his evaluation of the legacy of air power’s contribution to the Vietnam War.
Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). He is also the Book Reviews Editor at From Balloons to Drones. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (2017) and The Air Force Way of War (2015). The latter book was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header Image: 3/4 front view of a US Air Force RC-130A of the 1st Aerial Cartographic and Geodetic Squadron parked on aluminium matting at Tuy Hoa Airbase in South Vietnam in 1970. (Source: NARA)
It is rare for the team at From Balloons to Drones to cover machines that run across the ground. After all, our name literally describes the history of aircraft. I feel somewhat sheepish, then, in covering a book that is essentially about a car, but here we are. That being said, in his new book Across the Airless Wilds: The Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the Final Moon Landings, author Earl Swift has produced an important, much needed, and excellent history of the lunar rover vehicle and its excursions on the final three Apollo missions. In addition, Swift has written the seminal history of the concept, design, and creation of perhaps the most unique automobile ever built.
Swift’s thesis is straightforward. As the author states:
It comes to this: Remembered or not, the nine days the final three missions spent on the moon were a fitting culmination to Apollo, and a half-century later remain the crowning achievement of America’s manned space program.
While the world remembers Neil Armstrong’s “One Small Step” and Apollo 13’s “Houston, We’ve had a problem here,” the visits, footprints, and rover tracks at Hadley–Apennine, Descartes Highlands, and Taurus–Littrow Valley are certainly less well-remembered. Even the individuals who took these steps, including Jim Irwin, Charlie Duke, and Harrison Schmitt, are not the easiest of names in the Apollo Program to recall. Of note, Irvin, Duke and Schmitt all authored excellent books later in life that are worth adding to your collection. Each of the commanders of these missions: Dave Scott, John Young, and Gene Cernan, Gemini and Apollo giants that they are, are oft-forgotten for those who do not read and study this particular section of space-exploration history. It is also worth mentioning that, although not covered in Swift’s account, the Command Module Pilots: Al Worden, Ken Mattingly, and Ron Evans spent the longest amount of time flying solo around the moon and conducting their own scientific experiments.
Swift divides his new work into seven different sections, more or less covering the principal characters, the ‘Practical Considerations’ of building a lunar automobile, which also details the various designs and concepts for lunar vehicles never produced – Oberth’s moon car is worth looking up – and two sections on building the rover. However, it is section six, ‘Across the Airless Wilds’ where Swift really shines. Here the book is strikingly similar to the ‘Outward Odyssey’ Series by the University of Nebraska Press. If you enjoyed these books on the Apollo program, Swift’s work is definitely one you will want to read. The final three Apollo missions (the ‘J’ missions) were the ultimate in scientific exploration. Swift’s account of the rover’s operations clearly demonstrates that much of the discoveries made during these missions were not possible were it not for the Lunar Rover.
There are some minor drawbacks to be found herein. Swift admits this is not an academic work. Since the version provided to From Balloons to Drones was an advanced reader’s copy, I cannot speak for his bibliography. Swift often breaks into the first-person perspective, and for a work of non-fiction, this can be slightly distracting. However, since these sections discuss Swift’s travels across the country to meet with the creators of the rover or visit the locations where it was tested, this is a relatively minor distraction.
Across the Airless Wilds is part history, part travelogue, but one hundred per cent terrific space history. Swift has written a book that provides unique, personal accounts and, at the same time, is deeply researched and throws fresh light onto a well-traversed subject.
Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Command Historian at the USAF Academy. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of three books with his most recent being Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (2021). His first book, The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header image: One of a series of images taken as a pan of the Apollo 15 landing site, taken by Commander Dave Scott, 1 August 1971. Featured is the Lunar Roving Vehicle at its final resting place after EVA-3. At the back is a rake used during the mission. Also note the red Bible atop the hand controller in the middle of the vehicle, placed there by Scott.
Five years ago, on 15 June 2016, From Balloons to Drones was launched. From Balloons to Drones was established with the simple vision of providing an open access online platform for the analysis and debate of air power history, theory, and contemporary operations in their broadest sense, including space and cyber power. Since establishing From Balloons to Drones, we have published 195 posts of various types ranging from articles to book reviews. More recently, in 2019, we started producing a popular podcast series with interviews with leading air power specialists. Overall, the site has received over 130,000 hits since 2016.
None of the above would have been achieved without the support of our editors, contributors, and readers. Personally, I am grateful to all the members of the From Balloons to Droneseditorial team for their continuing hard work, especially as it is all done voluntarily. Indeed, when the site was established, it was run by one person, our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney. However, over time, the editorial team has grown and evolved. In 2018, long-time contributors Dr Brian Laslie, Dr Michael Hankins, and Alex Fitzgerald-Black came onboard as editors. While Alex has moved on, we have continued to build and strengthen the editorial team with the addition of Victoria Taylor and Dr Luke Truxal to the team. As we look forward to the next five years of From Balloons to Drones, I am pleased to announce the addition of two new editors to the team: Dr Maria Burczynska and Ashleigh Brown. Maria is a Lecturer in Air Power Studies at the University of Wolverhampton in the UK, while Ashleigh, a PhD student at UNSW Canberra, is a researcher for the Official History of Australian Operations in Iraq & Afghanistan and Australian Peacekeeping Operations in East Timor. The addition of Maria and Ashleigh will help strengthen the team in several areas, and we are looking forward to what the future holds with them.
I am also grateful to all our contributors and readers. Without our contributors, there would be nothing to publish and, as such, no website. However, we are always on the lookout for new contributions either from established authors or from new and emerging scholars within the air power studies community. If you are interested in contributing, then visit our submissions page to find out how to contribute.
So, what about the future? More of the same but better. We still hold true to our original vision of providing an avenue for debate and discussion about air power. We will aim to continue to refine what we offer in terms of content and build on the success of the past five years. We have more articles, book reviews and podcasts in the pipeline. However, we are always keen to hear your views on what we publish. If there is an area of research that needs to be given more coverage, please let us know.
Finally, as a bit of fun to celebrate our fifth birthday, here are the top five most-read posts since our launch in 2016:
Header image: Pilatus PC-21A aircraft from No 4 Squadron based at RAAF Base Williamtown fly in formation on return from Sydney in support of an Air Force 2021 commemorative service held at the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)
Editorial note: In this series, From Balloons to Drones highlights research resources available to researchers. Contributions range from discussions of research at various archival repositories to highlighting new publications. As part of this series, we are bringing you a monthly precis of recent articles and books published in air power history. This precis will not be exhaustive but will highlight new works published in the preceding month. Publication dates may vary around the globe and are based on those provided on the publisher’s websites. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at firstname.lastname@example.org or via our contact page here.
The founding director of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Museum, John Tanner, was the driving force behind its creation and development between 1963 and 1987.
The RAF Museum’s successful opening at Hendon in 1972 – more than 40 years after the idea was first mooted – led to expansion, through museums dedicated to the Battle of Britain and Bomber Command. It managed the RAF’s Aerospace Museum at Cosford where Tanner, working with British Airways, built up a collection of airliners. His final collaboration created the Manchester Air & Space Museum – now part of the Museum of Science and Industry.
Tanner’s overarching aim was to create a national aviation museum for the United Kingdom, comparable with those in France, Canada and the USA. Negotiations in the early 1980s with government departments failed, ironically partly due to concerns similar to those that prompted calls for an RAF Museum in the 1930s.
This chapter details the tortuous birth of the RAF Museum, and examines the conflict between an air force museum and one covering all forms of aviation. Drawing on files in the National Archives, and the Museum’s own archive, I explain why Tanner’s vision was not realised, despite his passion, dedication and forthright advocacy.
Mere months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a volunteer group of American airmen to the Far East, convinced that supporting Chinese resistance against the continuing Japanese invasion would be crucial to an eventual Allied victory in World War II. Within two weeks of that fateful Sunday in December 1941, the American Volunteer Group – soon to become known as the legendary “Flying Tigers” – went into action. Audaciously led by master tactician Claire Lee Chennault, daring airmen such as David Lee “Tex” Hill and George B. “Mac” McMillan fought enemy air forces and armies in dangerous aerial duels despite being outnumbered and outgunned. Aviators who fell in combat and survived the crash or bailout faced the terrifying reality of being lost and injured in unfamiliar territory.
In Fallen Tigers: The Fate of America’s Missing Airmen in China during World War II, historian Daniel Jackson, himself a combat-tested pilot, sheds light on the stories of downed aviators who attempted to evade capture by the Japanese in their bid to return to Allied territory. In gripping detail, he reveals that the heroism of these airmen was equaled, and often exceeded, by the Chinese soldiers and civilians who risked their lives to return them safely to American custody. His comprehensive research shows the drive to aid these airmen transcended ideology, as both Chinese Communists and Nationalists realized the commonality of their struggle against a despised enemy.
Fallen Tigers is an incredible story of survival that insightfully illuminates the relationship between missing aircrew and their Chinese allies who were willing to save their lives at any cost. Based on thorough archival research and filled with compelling personal narratives from memoirs, wartime diaries, and dozens of interviews with veterans, this vital work offers an important new perspective on the Flying Tigers and the history of World War II in China.
Undaunted is the second volume of Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air 1939-45. It combines detailed studies into the tactics, techniques and technology that made British air power so effective, together with the personal accounts of the aircrew themselves. Undaunted includes chapters on air intelligence, photographic-reconnaissance and Special Duties operations. It then covers how the British Commonwealth Air Forces supported ground operations in the Western Desert, Italy, NW Europe, Burma and the SW Pacific. The book contains a number of chapters on the development of airborne forces from an air perspective and covers the use of air transport in support of General Slim’s operations in Burma. Undaunted concludes with poignant chapters on the ‘Guinea Pigs’, Prisoners of War, Air Sea Rescue and the efforts of aircrew to escape and evade when shot down. Exceptionally well-illustrated with over 150 photographs and 15 maps and diagrams, this book will undoubtedly appeal to the general reader, as well as the aficionado, who will find considerable new information.
Filling a substantial void in our understanding of the history of airpower in Vietnam, this book provides the first comprehensive treatment of the air wars in Vietnam. Brian Laslie traces the complete history of these air wars from the beginning of American involvement until final withdrawal. Detailing the competing roles and actions of the air elements of the United States Army, Navy, and Air Force, the author considers the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war. He also looks at the air war from the perspective of the North Vietnamese Air Force. Most important for understanding the US defeat, Laslie illustrates the perils of a nation building a one-dimensional fighting force capable of supporting only one type of war.
Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.
The recent publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia has generated much interest in the topic of strategic bombing during the Second World War. In our latest podcast episode, three of the editors at From Balloons to Drones, Dr Mike Hankins, Dr Brian Laslie, and Dr Luke Truxal, discuss the book and go beyond it to talk about various issues related to bombing during the Second World War.
Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator of US Air Force History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.’ He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.
Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Command Historian at the USAF Academy. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of three books with his most recent being Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (2021). His first book,The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Dr Luke Truxal is an adjunct at Columbia State Community College in Tennessee. He completed his PhD in 2018 from the University of North Texas with his dissertation ‘Command Unity and the Air War Against Germany.’ His previous publications include ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ in the Spring 2018 issue of Air Power History. He has also written ‘The Politics of Operational Planning: Ira Eaker and the Combined Bomber Offensive in 1943’ in the Journal of Military Aviation History. Truxal is currently researching the effectiveness of joint air operations between the Allied air forces in the Second World War. He can be reached on Twitter at @Luke_Truxal.
Header image: Boeing B-29 Superfortresses drop bombs over Rangoon, Burma in 1945. The nearest aircraft is a B-29-25-BA of the 871st Bomb Squadron, 497th Bomb Group, 20th Air Force. (Source: Wikimedia)
There has been no cooling in the publication of space-related material in the aftermath of the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary. Partially in response to NASA’s returning astronauts to space from American soil this year and partially in response to an undeniable zeitgeist, NASA is enjoying renewed popular support. This provides an excellent opportunity for the publication of further scholarship about the history of the organisation. Academic presses (Florida, Nebraska, and Purdue) have been working hard to expand, and further our understanding of not only crewed exploration of the cosmos, but also the choices made in advance of rockets leaving the launch pad. To that end, Purdue University has recently published John Houbolt: The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings by William F. Causey. Causey’s Houbolt examines NASA’s decision-making process through the lens of an individual. This approach places emphasis on the members of NASA–this is their story and not the story of the astronauts riding rockets. That being said, Causey’s book is no less amazing than the stories of the astronauts themselves and by pulling back the curtain, Causey deftly reveals the backstory and offers a fresh look at how NASA ultimately decided the method that would lead to footprints on the moon.
My introduction to the mind of John Houbolt, and I would wager some our readers as well, came in the form of the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon (based in part off the book A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin). In the episode ‘Spider,’ Houbolt is shown as the ‘voice in the wilderness’ who bravely stood against senior NASA leaders to preach the gospel of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) as the preferred method of sending astronauts to the moon.
Causey’s work demonstrates that the history of LOR is richer than just Houbolt’s contributions and the entire work is as much a history of NASA’s early years and its decision-making process as it is about Houbolt himself. This is a book about how we got to the moon, or rather, about how NASA decided how we would get to the moon. Causey’s work covers the period from roughly 1957 to 1963 and represents a comprehensive and readable history of NASA’s early years, but one that still brings a fresh and nuanced perspective to a familiar story.
This is a vital book as it refocuses attention on the thousands of people who aided our ascension to deep space for the first time. While the written record has generally favoured the importance of the astronauts themselves in numerous books, biographies, and autobiographies, the recent trend in focus on the individuals behind the scenes has improved our understanding of the golden age of NASA and crewed spaceflight. Causey’s biography of Houbolt now sits alongside other recent publications including Sonny Tsiao’s Piercing the Horizon: The Story of Visionary NASA Chief Tom Paine, Richard Jurek’s The Ultimate Engineer: The Remarkable Life of NASA’s Visionary Leader George M. Low and Rick Houston and Milt Heflin’s Go, Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965-1992. This is important for several reasons, but perhaps most of all because these books continue to expand our understanding of NASA as an organisation composed of thousands and not as one whose principal employees are those at the end of propellant-fueled rockets.
Causey writes with a deftness and a flair that keeps the narrative moving forward even when the subject matter is the Space Task Group, the Goett Committee, the New Projects Panel or any number of other bureaucratic organisations in the NASA hierarchy. This work never feels like you are reading the history of an organisational board meeting, but adroitly describes how the workers at the various levels of NASA made the important decisions necessary that made the entire Apollo program possible. If you are picking up this work, there stands a good chance you have more than a passing understanding of NASA’s history and organisation, and while you might be familiar with the LOR story, Causey’s telling through the lens of Houbolt is worth a read even if you think you have read it all already and neither the scholar nor the buff will be disappointed. This is an essential and much-needed addition to the history of the Apollo Program. Causey’s John Houbolt: The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings is a critical and stimulating look at the individual of John Houbolt, but also at NASA writ large.
Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. He is also the author of Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found online at www.BrianLaslie.com
Header Image: A view of the Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle as it returned from the surface of the moon to dock with the command module Columbia. A smooth mare area is visible on the Moon below and a half-illuminated Earth hangs over the horizon. The lunar module ascent stage was about 4 meters across. (Source: NASA)
Rebecca Siegel, To Fly Among The Stars: The Hidden Story of the Fight for Women Astronauts. New York, NY: Scholastic Focus, 2020. Bibliography. Hbk. 340 pp.
Academic book reviews, at least those found in the back two-thirds of academic journals, tend to follow a predictable pattern. The good: ‘The author deftly demonstrates…’ Followed by the not so good: ‘What the author misses though is…’ Finally, the wrap up: ‘In the end, this work…’ It is, to a certain degree, the nature of the ‘business’ of academia, the manner in which one professional must praise and critique the work of a peer to the wider audience of colleagues. Removed from this predictable outline of reviews are more personal opinions. One will likely not find the phrase, ‘I enjoyed….’ I have often lamented to friends that nothing will ruin your love of history like the professional study of it. So, it is with great pleasure that every so often a book lands on my desk that is at the same time a well-written history and a thoroughly enjoyable book. Rebecca Siegel’s To Fly Among the Stars: The Hidden Story of the Fight for Women Astronauts is just such a book. For something a bit different here at From Balloons to Drones, I will follow the predictable pattern not so often found on blog posts.
The Good. The author deftly demonstrates that the search (and desire) for women astronauts has been almost entirely overlooked. In this book, written for the upper Middle Grade to Young Adult audience, Siegel weaves the well-known story of the Mercury 7 alongside the contemporaneous story of the virtually unknown ‘Mercury 13’ – the moniker was never official and added much later. This is not to say that the study of these pioneers has been entirely overlooked, and I would encourage our readers to get their hands on the following works: Martha Ackmann’s The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight and Margaret A. Weitkamp’s Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program. Do not allow the fact that this is a book written for a younger audience, dissuade you from its importance and what will surely be great impact. For starters, this is a good book. Even scholars of the field will likely find something new – and dare I say something to enjoy – in these pages. Siegel has not only done her homework, but she provides avenues for a new generation to do theirs: her bibliography, the place where the next generation scholars and scientists will turn, is diverse and exhaustive. Considering, the age group this book is intended for, the bibliography is the equal of scholarship on the subject.
The not so good. What the author misses though is…not much. Weaving the familiar with the lesser-known demonstrates the state of cultural and gender backwardness that was accepted as normal practice in the latter half of the 20th Century. Siegel presents a refreshing take on a familiar space story. Most female pilots struggled to find work and acceptance in the air, but for a select few being a pilot was not enough. While the names Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Cooper, Slayton, Schirra remain (more or less) recognisable, the names Cobb, Dietrich, Steadman, Sloan, Funk and others are not. Siegel’s timely work coincides not only with the 50th anniversaries of the Apollo flights but with a modern NASA seeking to inspire an American public as it sets its sights once again on deep space travel. It was only 37 years ago that the first American female astronaut launched into space, the first female shuttle pilot 25 years ago, and the first female shuttle commander 21 years ago. In the 60+ year history of crewed American spaceflight, these exploits and successes were built upon lesser-known figures whom Siegel brings to light for a younger audience.
In the end, this work will appeal to a wide audience: across specialties, across interests, across genders and across generations. To steal from another space-themed genre, this work will be the spark that lights the fire in the next generation of space explorers. We are all better for this book having been written.
Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His second book was Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header Image: Exuberant and thrilled to be at the Kennedy Space Center, seven women who once aspired to fly into space stand outside Launch Pad 39B neat the Space Shuttle Discovery, poised for liftoff on the first flight of 1995. They are members of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs, also known as the ‘Mercury 13’), a group of women who trained to become astronauts for Americas first human spaceflight program back in the early 1960s. Although this FLATs effort was never an official NASA program, their commitment helped pave the way for the milestone Eileen Collins set: becoming the first female Shuttle pilot. Visiting the space center as invited guests of STS-63 Pilot Eileen Collins are (from left): Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. (Source: Wikimedia)
Twenty-nineteen represented, for me, a golden age of space nostalgia. Twenty-eighteen through to 2022 represents the fiftieth anniversaries of the 11 human-crewed Apollo flights. Everywhere you turn you see someone in some NASA paraphernalia. Books on the Apollo program and NASA writ large are taking over the Science sections at local bookstores and larger chain stores. The government organisation is enjoying an undeniable resurgence and moment of ‘coolness,’ though I ponder whether anyone under the age of 40 uses that term. Perhaps no single individual enjoyed a greater resurgence in this regard over the last two years than the first man on the moon, Neil A. Armstrong. Twenty-eighteen saw the release of the film First Man, based on the authorised biography of the same name by James R. Hansen. The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission witnessed the release of CNN Film’s Apollo 11 documentary and those in Washington DC were even able to witness the Saturn V launch from the Washington Memorial.
Hansen returns to his topic with the release of Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind. At its core, the book is simply a collection of letters, a representative sample of the hundreds of thousands of letters that were sent to Armstrong before, during, and after his mission; a series of letters that lasted until his death in 2012. This correspondence is now held in the Purdue University Archives as part of Armstrong’s papers. Hansen indicated that this book is the first of at least two books covering the trove of correspondence now housed at Purdue University.
Hansen’s preface included the words given to Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin Aldrin printed on a small silicon-disc and left on the surface of the moon. Much like the rest of the book, Hansen only included samples. From Félix Houphouët-Boigny, President of the Ivory Coast (p. xiv), ‘I especially wish that he would turn towards our planet Earth and cry out how insignificant the problems which torture men are when viewed from up there.’ John Gorton, Prime Minister of Australia (p. xv), chose to quote Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses ‘to strive, to seek, and to find, and not to yield.’ The disc remains at the foot of the Lunar Module Descent Stage where Aldrin dropped it while climbing back into the Module.
The book is divided into thematic chapters: ‘First Word,’ presents correspondence that poured in during the weeks leading up to the launch of Apollo 11 and deals with letters giving Armstrong advice on what to say. ‘Congratulations and Welcome Home’ samples some of the hundreds-of-thousands cards and messages that poured into Armstrong’s inbox in the immediate aftermath of the mission from military service secretaries, general officers, old friends, and civic leaders. Chapter three entitled ‘The Soviets,’ contains selections from the letters that came in from behind the Iron Curtin including from leaders and citizens of Poland, Serbia, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Hungary. Congratulations from behind the wall also came from fellow Soviet Cosmonauts. Perhaps no better chapter demonstrates how the Apollo 11 mission was viewed as a globally unifying event. ‘For all Mankind’ contains the letters coming in from women, men, and children of all ages all around the globe.
The final three chapters go especially well together: Many Americans wanted a piece of what they considered to be their man on the moon and these letters are found in the chapters ‘From all America,’ ‘Reluctantly Famous,’ and ‘The Principled Citizen.’ Many of the appeals were harmless requests for autographs and at higher levels requests for appearances, but some requests were outright bizarre. For example, one letter requested an impression of Armstrong’s foot in clay (p. 161). Hansen has done a superb job of providing the breadth of requests made to Armstrong in the years following his return to Earth. The simple fact remains that too many of us asked for too much of this man who simply could not respond and give of all he was asked to do.
It would be remiss if I did not ponder what this book tells us about air and space power? As I poured through the selected letters and pondered the many thousands more that Hansen could not include, it became clear that there was and remains to this day something ephemeral and special about crewed spaceflight. The book brought to mind the importance of Joseph Corn’s The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation (1983); however, it also demonstrated that the romance with crewed spaceflight is not unique to America at all. In America and around the world, the love and excitement for space exploration were undoubtedly not monolithic, but Armstrong became the embodiment for those who recognised the crewed Apollo missions as something significant and special in the history of mankind.
Dear Neil Armstrong will appeal to those seeking a deeper understanding of what the Apollo program meant, much like Roger D. Launius’ magnificent Apollo’s Legacy, but Hansen’s reaches us on a deeper personal level here. Hansen’s First Man is and will remain, the definitive biography of Armstrong, but the collection Hansen has put together is a must-have for those seeking to understand the more profound social and cultural meaning of Apollo, namely how the world viewed this particular man and what it desired of him in return. As Hansen more eloquently reflected (p. xxiii), ‘[c]ertainly it is my own conclusion that the letters ultimately tell us more about ourselves than they do about Neil.’
Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header Image: Neil Armstrong is seen here next to the X-15 ship #1 after a research flight. Armstrong made his first X-15 flight on November 30, 1960, in the #1 X-15. He made his second flight on December 9, 1960, in the same aircraft. This was the first X-15 flight to use the ball nose, which provided accurate measurement of airspeed and flow angle at supersonic and hypersonic speeds. The servo-actuated ball nose can be seen in this photo in front of Armstrong’s right hand. The X-15 employed a non-standard landing gear. It had a nose gear with a wheel and tire, but the main landing consisted of skids mounted at the rear of the vehicle. In the photo, the left skid is visible, as are marks on the lakebed from both skids. Because of the skids, the rocket-powered aircraft could only land on a dry lakebed, not on a concrete runway.