Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

The following is a guest post by Tim Marzullo, Graduate Student in Engineering/Neuroscience at the University of Michigan.

“Tri, Dva, Odin, Zashiganiye!” (Three, Two, One, Ignition!)
A review of “Live from Cape Canaveral” by Jay Barbree

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“Live from Cape Canaveral” by Jay Barbree serves as a well-written introduction to the last 50 years of human spaceflight. Covering the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle missions in 307 pages makes for very fast, pleasant light reading, and the book also serves as a memoir of sorts for Jay Barbree, who was a correspondent for NBC from the first Vanguard test launches in the late 50’s to the Return to Flight shuttle launch of 2005.

As an avid space history reader, not much of the material was new to me, but the book is sprinkled with bits of insider information. His description of a Polaris test rocket blowing up in the late 50’s and raining debris all over Cocoa Beach, resulting in some frightened people running nude through the streets, is rather funny (don’t worry, no one was hurt, so it’s still funny). The author also makes the interesting point that the reason the Russians were initially ahead of the U.S. in space exploration was not because Russia had better engineers, it was because Russia’s nuclear bombs were cruder and heavier than American counterparts of the same destructive power. Thus, the heavier bombs required more powerful rockets to reach intercontinental targets.

One rather glaring error in the book is the description of famous “Shepard’s Prayer,” in which shortly before ignition of Freedom 7 and Alan Shepard’s famous flight as the first American in space, Shepard said, “Please, dear God, don’t let me f*ck up.” This line is quoted in Barbree’s book as “OK Buster, make it work.” Perhaps Alan Shepard made both statements, but it seemed odd to not include the famous racier statement in the book (spicy language does appear in other places, most of it when describing the cowboy days of the 50’s and early 60’s NASA).

However, aside from one of two other minor errors, the book was a nice read, and if you are new to space history and want a quick survey of NASA’s last fifty years, Jay Barbree’s work would probably be the first work I would recommend. Barbree very enthusiastically captures the “can-do” spirit of the early days of NASA, which today’s space enthusiasts are recreating with private industries and foundations such as Scaled Composites, the Ansari X-Prize, the Google Lander, and others.

On a final note, I am not a journalist, and near the end of the book I experienced an odd sort of detachment. Jay Barbree was the first to get inside information, just a few days after the loss of Challenger in 1985, that the cause of the failure was most likely due to the O-rings on the solid rocket booster. “Tom Brokaw and I broke the story, the biggest of my life, and I did it with the New York Times reporter Bill Broad standing at my feet, taking notes.” From my perspective, as a scientist/engineer in training, it’s not as if he discovered the problem, he just had the fortune of finding out a day or two before NASA released its findings. It all seems rather bizarre to me to call such a thing an achievement, like being the first to know your next door neighbor is pregnant.

You can buy the book from Amazon, here.