Book Review: Fallen Astronauts, Revised Edition

Fallen Astronauts

I’d read the original version of Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon four years ago. Originally published in 2003, the book is a candid, serious history of several NASA astronauts (and a few Soviet cosmonauts) who were in training to fly on Gemini or Apollo but died before they got the chance. You can read my original review here; however, given the time that has passed and the amount of new material that’s been added to the new edition, I’m giving the new edition its own slightly truncated review–adding for you, as a bonus, a ten-question Q&A with one of the authors, my friend Kate Doolan.

This book provides stories about some neglected players in NASA’s storied past. Knowing the agency the way I do, I’m certain they were not 100% thrilled with having these men’s biographies and tragic deaths shared, but I found the book compelling because of its portrayal of these men. Then as now, the NASA astronauts have come from among our best-and-brightest, primarily from the U.S. military test pilot community. Today’s astronauts are not all hot-shot pilots like the men portrayed in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, but also include highly accomplished scientists and people whose average biography will make even the most dedicated workaholic feel like a slacker. Even in school, they worked and played hard, participating in activities as diverse as Boy Scouts, archery clubs, school athletics, flying clubs, and student council. And yet with all this overachieving, they seemed to have approachable, affable personalities. The standards for becoming an astronaut were (and are) very high.

Perhaps this is what impressed me most about Fallen Astronauts: they allow the public to get to know, in some small fashion, the characters of the men who first went into space–or who died trying. Unlike Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Buzz Aldrin, or Neil Armstrong, none of these men are household names because none of them went to the Moon. Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee might be slightly better known because they died in a horrific fire on the pad during a routine test. Otherwise, who outside of NASA has heard of Ted Freeman, Charlie Bassett, Elliott See, Ed Givens, or C.C. Williams? This book is worth reading if only to learn their stories.

Given their need to prove their medical fitness (think of all the tests the astronauts are seen performing in the movie of The Right Stuff), it shouldn’t surprise you to know that none of these men died of natural causes; most of these men died flying aircraft. One lost his life in a car wreck. And, of course, three were killed by asphyxiation during a “plugs-out” test conducted in a 100% oxygen environment.

The original edition of the book gave readers a brief sense of what these men accomplished despite never making it to space: flying, graduation from West Point or Annapolis, combat, engineering school, promotion through the service ranks, test flying experimental aircraft, developing some of the systems their peers would use in space. The new edition gives us more detailed stories from the astronauts’ friends and family about their personalities, who they were as people, and what they meant to the people and organizations around them. The question hangs like a sad cloud over each of their stories: what more might they have accomplished had they lived to go to the Moon? 

And now, as promised, I’ve included an email interview I conducted with one of the authors, Australian Kate Doolan, which will provide some insights into this project.

First of all, thank you for writing Fallen Astronauts. It covers a poignant but previously unwritten chapter in space history. How did a couple people in Australia decide to write about lost American (and Soviet) astronauts?

In 1998/99, Colin was researching the life of Ed Givens for a magazine article. I had acted as research flunky for him gathering material from official sources.

He then decided that a book on the subject of the deceased astronauts would be interesting as many of all these men had been forgotten by history. Even official histories of NASA apart from the Apollo 1 crew, had made the briefest mention of these men. And many outside of the space community had no idea of who they were and why they were important to the space program.

Your own writing is focused on the astronauts from the Apollo 1 accident in 1967 (Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee). How did you get interested specifically in their story?

Believe it or not, I became interested in Ed White soon after Apollo 11. Dad had bought me a book on the flight and it contained photos of Ed. I asked Dad why Ed wasn’t on the Apollo 11 crew and he told me very carefully about the fire and its aftermath. As I grew up and my interest in space advanced, I learned about the Apollo 1 crew and the fire. And as I was (am) interested in Ed, I have attempted to learn as much as possible about the subject.

How long did the first edition take to write?

The first edition took about two and a half years to write. At the time, both Colin and I had full time jobs so it was just evenings and nights, Originally, it should have come out in 2001/02 but events out of our control prevented that from happening.

I know you spent some time in the U.S. conducting interviews and getting new material. Where-all did you visit? 

During my stay in Washington DC, I spent the majority of my time there, literally photocopying everything that the NASA History Office had on the astronauts. That provided a goldmine of material on each of the astronauts which was able to be worked into all of their stories. I was also able to find suitable photographs so they wouldn’t be repeated and would have been different from the first edition. The regret I have here is that I didn’t see more of DC as I am a total history nerd but it was an interesting experience. And it was a real treat to pick up books and material that is simply not available in Australia. I didn’t do formal interviews when I visited Spacefest V in Tucson but I did pick up material and stories in conversations with people who were involved with the Apollo 1 crew. I was hoping to research Ed more at West Point but the Archives were then being moved to the Museum. But I did visit his grave (howling my eyes out) and gathered some interesting tidbits and books. I also learned all about the joys of American beer. Not many people would say this but I had a blast up at West Point!!!

The first book showed how impressive these men were who were on track to go to the Moon. The revised version feels more personal. What were you and Colin hoping to accomplish with the revised edition?

I can’t speak for Colin but for me, a revised edition was important to make people aware of these men and how history could have been much different had the accidents not happened. I wasn’t very happy with how I had written about the crew and felt that I needed to add significantly more information particularly on Roger Chaffee and the aftermath of the Fire.

It’s been 13 years since the original Fallen Astronauts was released. Did your approach to the writing about this content change in that time (i.e., did you apply “lessons learned” for the new edition)?

With the advent of social media, it was easier to gather information than for the first edition. Facebook and Twitter hadn’t been invented at the time of the first edition. The internet was in its infancy and some material just wasn’t available to those outside of the US. With Facebook, it was fabulous to meet people with similar interests to swap information and to learn more. As for lessons learned, I hope learning more about the Fire has shown in what I have written. It was also useful to have non-space people proofing as if they didn’t understand what I was trying to get across, it was useless. I also wanted to write with some detachment about the subject as personally, I am not very warm but hopefully, I was able to personalise the men than I did with the first edition.

What’s the most important piece of advice you would give someone wanting to write a non-fiction book, history or otherwise?

If you want to write non fiction, my first piece of advice would be to research, then research and more research! I consider myself a better researcher than writer so if you can find good material, the writing is sometimes the easiest part of the project. It does become all consuming. During the research and writing of the first book, I literally had no social life and to this day still can’t remember much of the news and culture from those days.

If it’s not a secret, what do you plan to write about next?

Next up, I am contemplating writing about my family having found out very interesting developments after my mother died but family reaction may not be very good. I am still attempting to dig up material on Ed White and ideally would love to write a full biography on him, should I get enough material.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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