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.