Review: Heroes of the Space Age

Heroes of the Space Age: Incredible Stories of the Famous and Forgotten Men and Women Who Took Humanity to the Stars
by Rod Pyle
Prometheus, 2019
paperback, 315 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-63388-524-0

One of the reasons that the Apollo 11 50th anniversary got so much attention last month was often unstated yet quietly understood: it was a goodbye of sorts. Many of the people involved with the lunar landings are still with us today, thanks in part to astronauts who were in their thirties then and flight controllers in their twenties. But you don’t need to consult actuarial tables to know that by the next major anniversary—say, the 60th in 2029—far fewer will still be with us, sadly.

That thought came to mind while reading Rod Pyle’s recent book Heroes of the Space Age, a collection of mini-biographies of figures from the early years of spaceflight. Of the eight people profiled over seven chapters—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin share a chapter—four are still alive and well today: Aldrin, Margaret Hamilton, Gene Kranz, and Valentina Tereshkova. The heroes of the Space Age, as defined by this book, are slipping into history.

Those four, plus Aldrin, Pete Conrad, Yuri Gagarin, and John Glenn, are profiled in the book’s pages. Those profiles are pretty straightforward, based largely on existing accounts: the chapter on Kranz, for example, makes extensive use of his autobiography and an oral history interview with NASA. While there may be some interesting anecdotes here and there, the book primarily reinforces what’s already known for each person rather than uncovering new information or providing new perspectives about their lives.

A bigger issue is who is included, or excluded, from the book. With a subtitle reference to “famous and forgotten” people, one can make a case for all eight people. Some, like Gagarin and Armstrong, are obvious; Hamilton is the closest to being “forgotten” although her contributions to Apollo have become better known recently, particularly during the 50th anniversary celebrations this year.

Notably absent, though, are rocketry pioneers like Sergei Korolev and Wernher von Braun, without whom the Space Age would not have started how it did and when it did, nor have progressed so quickly in those early years. Without James Webb at the helm of NASA for much of the 1960s, Apollo would have been far less likely to meet President Kennedy’s goal of landing men on the moon by the end of the decade.

Pyle anticipates such criticism in the book’s introduction, stating that deciding who to include “has been a curse” and blames “editorial triage” for any omissions. “I selected some of the most amazing people I knew of, and I have tried to bring them to life in this book,” he writes.

As long as the reader keeps in mind the qualifier “some of,” this is very much the case: the profiles of these eight people do treat them as human beings and not just historical figures, even if their lives are already familiar to many readers. That’s all the more important as that generation slowly fades into history.

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