Through the Glass Ceiling to the Stars

Through the Glass Ceiling to the Stars
© 2021 Eileen Collins
314 pages

Eileen Collins was obsessed with flying. Maybe it was an unusual preoccupation for a girl, but her parents – despite their struggles with mental illness and alcoholism – always encouraged her to pursue her own path. Despite a slow start, an unremarkable high school career, Eileen found her drive as she approached the end of her teens….and threw herself onto a path would take her to the US Air Force, and into Earth orbit, an accomplished pilot and well-respected mission commander. Through the Glass Ceiling to the Stars is the remarkable biography of a young woman who overcame the challenges of a difficult, mis-spent youth to become a pioneer in aviation, clearing the way for other women who wished to become military pilots…or even astronauts.

If anything marks Through the Glass Ceiling, it’s dogged hard work. Throughout, Collins takes on enormous workloads and commits herself to being The Best. In retaliation for wasting her high school years on pipe courses, Collins continually challenged herself every year thereafter. She never settled for less: when she realized that the Air Force held women to lower standards of fitness and physical performance than the men, she requested permission to train with the men – not willing to be anything less than she could be. These were not easy years for a woman to pursue a career in the armed forces, particularly the Air Force: not only did Collins experience campus hostility when she wore her ROTC uniform, but the Air Force had only recently opened pilot training to women, and even then it was scrupulously avoiding pilot assignments that would put women anywhere near a combat zone. That made navigating into NASA particularly challenging, because it required pilots to have fulfilled Test Pilot training, and that program’s requirements weren’t readily fulfilled by the support aircraft Collins was allowed to fly as a woman. But even if was just flying a transport, she’d be the best transport pilot imaginable – studying manuals to know her systems in and out, hanging out with the mechanics to absorb information that most pilots overlooked. As it happened, her time spent flying ‘trucks’ was excellent background for the shuttle program.

Getting into NASA when she did was an extraordinarily close thing, between fulling her service obligations to the Air Force and avoiding the age cut-off for the Test Pilot program. Collins’ commitment to excellence and unwavering hard work won her allies, people who realized she had what it took to make go further – she had the right stuff. Collins was often given choice opportunities, like flying in an F-15. After joining NASA, she performed well in her first two missions as a shuttle pilot, and then became the first woman to command a shuttle mission: she was chosen to be the ‘first’ because NASA knew whatever the stress, Collins could handle it. It helped that she had moral support from other pioneers, like Sally Ride – the first American woman in space, and someone who knew the immense pressure Collins was under. Ride reached out to Collins both before her first shuttle mission, and before her first command. Most notably, Collins’ command was the first Shuttle mission following the Columbia post-mortum: she carried not only her crew’s lives, but the future of the program on her shoulders.

Through the Glass Ceiling will rank as one of my favorite astronaut memoirs, though Collins offers more content than just a recap of her missions. Cognizant of her role as a pioneer – being the first woman to fly an F-15, for instance, or command a shuttle – she frequently offers lessons to the reader, and she doesn’t shy away from sharing her mistakes, either. She goes into considerable detail about all the various aspects of her career, which – to any reader fascinated by aviation – makes this a potluck of interesting planes and observations about the challenges of pushing them to the limit. This one is absolutely recommended, especially for parents who want to encourage their teens to go beyond what they think is possible.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Into the Black

Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia
© 2016 Rowland White
480 pages

Two decades from Gagarin, twenty years to the day
Came a shuttle named Columbia to open up the way
And they say she’s just a truck, but she’s a truck that’s aimin’ high
See her big jets burning, see her fire in the sky!
(“Fire in the Sky”, Kristoph Klover)

As the Apollo missions neared the completion of their goal, NASA looked ahead and charted a bold new course for the future: a manned research station, a permanent lunar lab, and possibly even a Mars expedition: underpinning it all would be the Space Shuttle, a reusable orbiter capable of landing under its own power. Little of that dream would be realized, in the face of budget competition in the Vietnam War, economic disruption, and waning public interest in bankrolling increasingly grand endeavors* — but NASA wasn’t alone in pushing for greater American versatility in space. From Sputnik on, the Air Force looked to the skies as well….and its own spacetime interests would become a key part of the Shuttle’s story. A comprehensive history of how the shuttle program to be, Into the Black draws on recently declassified material to provide a rare look into early militarization of space.

From the beginning, the United States Air Force had an active interest in developing its own space capabilities, and recruited its own pool of eight astronauts. The “Magnificent Eight” would never get the name recognition of the Mercury 7 (or any recognition at all, for that matter), but many earned astronaut wings flying test planes outside the ‘atmosphere’ envelope, and when Nixon pulled the plug to focus spending on a next-generation surveillance satellite, several of its astronauts were grandfathered into NASA, and became key contributors to the operation of Skylab. (There, they drew on their experience in helping form the Air Force’s decade-long obsession, a Manned Orbiting Laboratory, a project made obsolete in its ultimate purpose by increasingly sophisticated satellites.) More importantly, however, their long experience with near-space planes made men like Dick Truly and Bob Crippen perfect contributors to the development of the Shuttle: when Enterprise and Columbia proved the shuttle’s worthiness as an plane and orbiter, respectively, MOL veterans were side-by-side of Apollo legends like John Young.

Creating a vehicle that could both operate in space effectively and glide safety to Earth in full atmosphere was a daunting, decade-long process, as problems with wing design and insulation were slowly ironed out. (Very slowly:  the attrition of insulating tiles would be a constant problem for the Shuttles).  Not all of the problems were technical; because of the constraints of fly-by-wire, pilots invariably fell into a vertical fishtail that ‘destroyed’ countless flights in the simulators.   Into the Black  comprehensively covers the test-flights both Enterprise and Columbia, the latter to an astonishing degree — but, given the stakes, an understandable one. Columbia entered orbit for the first time already bearing pockmarks from where her tiles had fallen off, and NASA had serious reservations as to whether the orbiter could return safety. Ultimately that was a problem that caught up to the shuttle twenty-two years later.

Although Into the Black tackles technical information to a degree that might spook the most casual reader, for the aviation buff and space enthusiast, it’s a title with an enormous payload. I’ve read a dozen or so space books and have never encountered any information about the Air Force’s MOL program, or even its astronaut pool. The coverage given to the technical development of ‘the space plane’ is also unusually thorough, making Into the Black a remarkably useful book for the enthusiastic student.

*Just one Endeavour, as it turns out, and only to replace a Challenger.

Posted in history, Reviews | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Oops, I did it again

Last week a publisher contacted me on goodreads about reading one of their soon-to-be-released titles, The Social Instinct. Accessing it meant reviving my old NetGalley account, and before I knew it..

Well, I did say that science would be making a return this month…

Posted in General | 2 Comments

The Philosopher Book Tag

Spotted at Thoughts on Papyrus, and couldn’t resist borrowing!

Thales is considered the first known philosopher. Which text introduced you to philosophy or which text would you like to read to get you into philosophy?

Oddly enough, a sermon from a Unitarian Universalist minister titled “Humanist Spirituality: Oxymon or Authentic Path to Enlightenment?” After leaving my childhood church at age 20, I became a devout reader of books on religion, spirituality, and philosophy — attempting to figure out why people believed what they did, and to see if there was an underlying truth behind all this, a viable way to live on purpose. It was Muder who introduced me to Stoic and Epicurean thought, though I wouldn’t seriously begin to read the Stoics until a year thereafter. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations were the first philosophical text I ever read.

Which political event or event in history would you like to read more about in fiction?

The American, French, or Russian revolutions — for different reasons. I’m fascinated by the debates during the Founding period, the varying ideas these men had for structuring a government capable of maintaining liberty against internal corruption and external attack. The French revolution unleashed a pandora’s box upon Europe and the world, and of course the Russian one was horrendous but worth knowing more about.

Which book or author forced you to think more critically?

Ravi Zacharias; I was introduced to his podcast in 2006 by a skeptic friend of mine who was interested in my response to his critique of Richard Dawkins. Although at the time I was still devoutly anti-religious, I’d never before heard arguments based in formal logic. Attempting to argue with him in my head forced me to continually check my own statements for underlying assumptions.

Voltaire once said: ” I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” Which is a popular book everyone seems to love but you didn’t?

Hard one to answer, as most of the books I’ve one- or two-starred were schlock fiction to begin with, like Dan Brown or James Patterson titles. Not exactly philosophical fare!

Hannah Arendt – Doomed controversial even by her friends, Hannah Arendt did not shy away from telling what she thought was true. Name a book that will leave readers uncomfortable, but tells an important story.

The dystopias come to mind — 1984, for its evaluation of the control of language, history, and desire by political powers; Fahrenheit 451, for its depressingly accurate prediction that people were far more comfortable burrowing under the lure of entertainment than to be challenged by books and outside thought; and Brave New World, with its wholesale destruction of the human Person and the manipulation of the masses through pleasure. Of course, The Fountainhead also bears mentioning, forcing readers to consider their own motives and lives.

“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” A wonderful quote from Nietzsche out of “Thus spoke Zarathustra” Which book do you go back to for its beautiful writing?

Alain de Botton and Anthony Esolen, while holding very different worldviews (de Botton is a secular humanist, Esolen an traditionalist Catholic), both have exquisite ways of expressing themselves. A sentence from each, inspired by the airport:

(Esolen) “But when I am in an airport, that most harried image of the eternal tarmac of Hell, crowded without community, noisy without celebration, technologically sophisticated without beauty, and see people engaged in loud conversations not with one another but with a business partner in Chicago or a spouse and children far away, I see not freedom but confinement.”

(de Botton) “I explained — with the excessive exposition of a man spending a lonely week at the airport — that I was looking for the sort of books in which a genial voice expresses emotions that the reader has long felt but never before really understood; those that convey the secret, everyday things that society at large prefers to leave unsaid; those that make one feel somehow less alone and strange.”

Jean-Paul Sartre raised the question “What is literature?” in one of his books. What is good literature for you?

Literature is text that speaks to truth — whether in formal arguments, or stories that bear witness to human universals. Some level of artfulness is required; a flat recital of facts is simply that, something to be parsed rather than read and studied.

Which book did you have to keep pushing through because you really wanted to understand it’s meaning?

The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky. I very much doubt that I succeeded, because I don’t know if the book has a Singular Meaning; it’s replete with arguments about God, man, morality, and the state. Atlas Shrugged is another, because arguably its primary content is argument.

Which are the three philosophers you would love to sit down and have a chat with?

Alain de Botton, C.S. Lewis, and Epictetus. The first two are fantastically interesting, and Epictetus strikes me as the most potentially entertaining of the Stoics — though Seneca and Cicero were probably first-rate party guests.

Posted in Reflection, Religion and Philosophy | Tagged | 2 Comments

Wisdom Wednesday: Stop playing other people’s games

“[….] the system will set out honeypots, for people to get trapped in, the system will set out the ideas of retirement, the ideas of the golden years, providing you benefits, providing you a healthy working environment, WHY? Well, because they want people to work for them. They don’t want people to realize their own dreams and escape. They are going to hire more people and train them. They want to set it up so that you can stick around. Stick around in some sort of unsatisfying world.

It’s up to you to see that video game problem, to see that issue as it comes up on the map. And I think this is the right term, to see all the problems that could potentially be in front of you and calculate your future and also look around on people who didn’t do it, look at the misery they are in, and learn, you don’t want to be like them. And then also look at the people who have kind of taken chances, navigated their way, what did they do differently? What objectivity did they have that maybe you lack, what insights into their own mistakes are they willing to delve into that you are not?

The person who is able to look at himself the closest is going to get the most rational results.”

(Joe Rogan. Podcast episode unknown; I heard this excerpt in a remix made by Akira the Don.)

Posted in quotations | Tagged | 3 Comments

A year in space: some quotes and something completely different

Scott Kelly had his brother send him a gorilla suit so he could pull pranks on his coworkers. Pranks look…a little different on the International Space Station.

And now, some quotes.

The space shuttle, fully fueled with cryogenic liquid, creaked and groaned. Soon this sixteen-story structure was going to lift off the Earth in a controlled explosion. For a moment I thought to myself, Boy, this is a really dumb thing to be doing.

We called this abort mode “return to launch site,” and it required the shuttle to fly Mach seven backwards. No one had ever tried this and no one wanted to. (John Young, when he was preparing to command the first shuttle launch, said he hoped never to attempt an RTLS because it “requires continuous miracles interspersed with acts of God.”)

It’s a strange sight, glinting in the reflected sunlight, as long as a football field, its solar arrays spread out more than half an acre. It’s a completely unique structure, assembled by spacewalkers flying around the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour in a vacuum, in extremes of temperature of plus and minus 270 degrees, the work of fifteen different nations over eighteen years, thousands of people speaking different languages and using different engineering methods and standards. In some cases the station’s modules never touched one another while on Earth, but they all fit together perfectly in space.

I tug and push and pull for a few minutes, and finally the hatch cracks open. The reflected light of Earth rushes in with the most abrupt and shocking clarity and brightness I’ve ever seen. On Earth, we look at everything through the filter of the atmosphere, which dulls the light, but here, in the emptiness of space, the sun’s light is white-hot and brilliant. The bright sunshine bouncing off the Earth is overwhelming. I’ve just gone from grunting in annoyance at a piece of machinery to staring in awe at the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen.

At one point I post a picture of one of the zinnias on social media and get back criticism of my botany skills in return. “You’re no Mark Watney,” quips one smart-ass commenter, making reference to the stranded astronaut in The Martian. Now it’s personal.

It’s a great Twitter moment, unplanned and unscripted, and it gets thousands of likes and retweets. Not long after, a reply appears from Buzz Aldrin: “He’s 249 miles above the earth. Piece of cake. Neil, Mike & I went 239,000 miles to the moon. #Apollo11.” There is no good way to engage in a Twitter debate with an American hero, so I don’t.

NASA plans for everything—we even have an early pregnancy test and a body bag.

This is one of the things that some people find difficult to imagine about living on the space station—the fact that I can’t step outside when I feel like it. Putting on a spacesuit and leaving the station for a spacewalk is an hours-long process that requires the full attention of at least three people on station and dozens more on the ground. Spacewalks are the most dangerous thing we do on orbit.

I’m acutely aware that if I become detached and run out of fuel and the station is just one inch from my glove tips, it may as well be a mile. The result will be the same: I will die.

Posted in quotations | Tagged | 2 Comments

It’s not so lonely out in space: three to celebrate Apollo 11

Fifty-two years ago, men from Earth touched down on the moon and inaugurated a new era in human exploration. I usually re-watch From the Earth to the Moon (a Tom Hanks docu-drama that is in my “Everything is burning but I want to take this with me album, along with Cosmos and Civilisation) for the occasion, but this year I chose to do celebratory readings, first.

H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, published in 1900, recounts the extraordinary journey of an ambitious prospector and a scientist, who — after the scientist discovers a way to create a metal ‘transparent’ to gravity — fashion a ship to take them to the Moon. Although the scientist Cavor is purely after knowledge for its own sake, his companion Bedford sees the ship as a source for unlimited wealth: think of all the minerals out there waiting to be mined! No sooner have the men landed on the lunar surface, though, have they gotten lost, intoxicated, and …a little tied up by the locals. Wells’ curious title, First Men In the Moon? That’s not a typo; Wells’ moon has life, a civilization existing within its core, and in due course the curious scientist and his avaricious cohort are both in mortal danger, and rather humbled by it. First Men impresses in several regards; Wells seamlessly transitions from technical speculation to social , and considers the human drive to explore (and sometimes, exploit) enroute. Although Wells’ speculations about a lunar atmosphere and life were off, he’s much closer to the mark in anticipating, say, the intense experience of encountering a lunar sunrise, or the stars without the obstructive filter of Earth’s atmosphere. Very much recommended for classic SF fans.

Next up, Scott Kelley’s Endurance. Captain Kelly and a Russian comrade were both part of the Year in Space experiment, in which they spent 365 consecutive days aboard the International Space Station to study the effects of long-term space habitation on the human body, a question studied since the Skylab days. The scientific contribution of Kelly’s mission isn’t the core content here, though, as the data is still being evaluated; instead, Kelly offers a two-part memoir, alternating between his year in space and the life that brought him from being an academic nonstarter to operating on the literal front lines of science — helping service the Hubble and conducting botany experiments of his own, abroad the ISS. Having read Mark Massimino’s memoir so recently, I was amused at the commonalties — their mutual obsession with The Right Stuff and the inspiration of Shackleton’s voyage — but Kelly has an altogether different background from the engineer-turned-astronaut Massimino. Kelly is almost a throwback to the Right Stuff days, approaching NASA via service as a Navy test pilot following service in the Merchant Marine. This memoir is enjoyable, but most of its interest lies in the Year in Space project.

Lastly, a different ‘spaceman’ — a friend’s loving reminiscence of the life of Leonard Nimoy, more popularly known as Spock. Kirk and Spock’s friendship was mirrored in the bond their actors shared, one forged not merely through a three-year stint on a science fiction show, but decades of conventions and shared battles. It’s unusual for an actor to have that kind of bond, Shatner admits at the outset; it’s far more common for actors to become very close on set, and then drift away as soon as the launch party is over. Star Trek‘s unusual history, though — its premature cancellation, its new life in syndication, its return in the eighties and ninenties with more shows and serials — continued to reinforce the working relationship Nimoy and Shatner had established, and over the years it became a personal link; they were tied by affection and history, not merely their resumes. Having previously read (and re-read-, and re-read) I Am Spock, Nimoy’s autobiography, I knew of his attachment to Shatner, and the jokes they were fond of playing on one another, so it was doubly amusing to see Shatner’s take on that history — but Shatner goes into more detail than Nimoy on much of Nimoy’s other work, from poetry to photography. The wonderful thing about Nimoy, Shatner writes, beyond his extraordinary kindness and the seriousness with which he took his work, was his diverse energy: Shatner could never tell what Leonard might be doing in his off-hours — flying a plane, exploring a given subject in a photographic theme, or traveling to the Soviet Union to connect with his distant relatives. Absolutely worth reading for Trekkies, or anyone who admires Nimoy’s work — or merely the character of Spock. I read this immediately after watching For the Love of Spock, which is also very much recommended. Its only problem is it has interviews with JJ Abrahams, which can endured by booing at the screen.

Space Camp will continue with more of the right stuff and a set of two books on a very special vehicle.

Posted in Classics and Literary, Reviews, science fiction | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments


Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey
© 2016 Mike Massimino
336 pages

All his life, Mike Massimino wanted to be an astronaut. He was six when he saw Neil Armstrong’s famous small step, and he wanted to be out there with the men of Apollo and those who followed.    But the way to the stars, then as now, isn’t a straight line:  unlike, say, becoming a lawyer, there’s no flagged path, with obvious intermediate goals to aim for.  “Mass” was unlikely to ever be an astronaut, anyway – he was a working-class kid from Long Island who had had barely left his neighborhood.  He couldn’t even see that well – so how did he not only find his way into the astronaut corps, but distinguish himself to the point that he was chosen to work on the Hubble Space Telescope – twice?    Spaceman is a memoir of dogged persistence in the face of adversity and mistakes, followed by moving reflections on his time in space, and the meaning space exploration has for the human spirit.    It is far and away the best of the post-Apollo astronaut memoirs,   will be remembered as one of my favorite astronaut books, period, and is a must-read for any space enthusiast, or those who want to be reminded of the fruits of discipline, determination, and sheer  stubbornness.  

“Mass” in his early years is a Joe Average:   liked by everyone, but not particularly distinguished in any other way.    Although he wanted to be an astronaut, it wasn’t a likely possibility – and so he pursued studies as an industrial engineer, but never forgetting his original desire.  He thought perhaps working as a contractor supplying NASA with equipment might be an ideal marriage of the attainable and the dream,   and from there he stumbled his way closer to space — falling often, but always picking himself up and moving forward.  Massinimo inspires the reader throughout the book – in the beginning, through his constant work to recover  from mistakes (enrolling in the wrong program,  failing tests),  soldiering through with help from mentors and frequent viewings of The Right Stuff, —  and in the second half, through his work as a bonafide astronaut. 

Mass offers a detailed ridealong through his application and training process as he rose from Astronaut Candidate to Mission Specialist. All this is of enormous interest to a space junkie, of course, but Mass makes it clear that what he values most about NASA is its sense of camaraderie, the intensity with which astronauts support one another.  The same spirit of brotherhood that was displayed when the Mercury 7 supported John Glenn  when higher-ups threatened to remove him from the roster after he refused to compel his wife to speak with Johnson, was still strong during Mass’s  time with NASA. It was never more clearly shown than in 2003, when Columbia broke apart in the atmosphere while returning to Earth. The destruction of Columbia  especially moved Massimino, because that flight could have been his, as his flight was swapped with 109’s given the higher priority of the job.     

Massimino has a gift for communicating the itch that drives the adventurer, the explorer on – the itch that has led humans to glory and death for millennia, driving us to  launch ourselves into the winds, to  struggle up mountains actively attempting to kill us, and even  to launch ourselves into the void of space.  He sees the astronaut life as a unique blend of scientific and physical exploration — Galileo meets Shackleton. When Massimeno saw the Earth for the first time – seeing it from the distance of the Hubble, and so able to see the full globe in all its splendor —  he was struck with reverent awe.  It’s one thing to be told the Earth is a planet, a fragile bit of dirt hurtling through space,  and quite another to see it.  The dreadful weight of its beauty has a profound effect on Massimino,  and through him we experience pure, overwhelming wonder.  Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the magisterial A Man on the Moon, by Andrew Chaikan, long my favorite astronaut book and still the king of Apollo memoirs; it’s just that moving.

I can’t imagine Space Camp getting better than this, but next up is Scott Kelly’s Endurance, followed by a little classic SF, and more.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Wisdom Wednesday: The choice is yours

As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation—or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown.

(Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It? )

Posted in quotations | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Space Camp!

It’s been ages since I went on a proper astronaut spree (Deke!, 2016), and lately I’ve been feeling the itch. With the Moon landing anniversary right around the corner (literally — it’s a week from today), why not have some fun and make fun week out of it? So….buckle up! What’s in the works? Early SF about the first men on the moon (you’ll never guess what it’s called), a history of the Mercury 7,(who had the right stuff), a modern astronaut memoir, annnnd maybe a few other things.

Previous “Space Camp” Reading

Deke! US Manned Space Flight from Mercury to the Shuttle, Deke Slayton (Mercury-Apollo and onwards)
Two Sides of the Moon, Alexei Leonov and David Scott (Mercury/Sputnik – forward)
Men from Earth, Buzz Aldrin and Malcolm McConnell. (Mercury through to the early Shuttle years.)
A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, Andrew Chaikin. THE Apollo history.
Moon Shot: The Inside Story, Alan Shephard and Deke Slayton (Mercury – Apollo)
Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, Jim Lovell (Apollo)
We Could Not Fail: The First African-Americans in the Space Program, Richard Paul and Steven Moss (Civilian/Support – Mercury onwards)
The Ordinary Spaceman, Clayton Anderson (Shuttle-ISS years)
Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir, Tom Jones. (Shuttle-ISS years)
Riding Rockets, Mike Mullane (Shuttle-ISS)

(“Space Camp” is borrowing its name from the Marshall Space Center’s juvenile and adult education and training programs of the same name…)

Posted in General | Tagged , | 3 Comments