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‘I have slipped the surly bonds of earth’
on 16 February 2017
Based on his experience as a flight director for the American space programme from Mercury through to the Apollo moon landings, Gene Krantz has written a gripping biography of those years. He takes us behind-the-scenes and we see the pressures faced by the controllers and everyone – not just the astronauts – connected with the programme. The resources involved are, quite literally, vast.
After 16 successful launches they overcame the death of three astronauts in the pad fire that destroyed Apollo 1. But, despite that disaster, the programme continued and we are given a gripping account of the moon landings, subsequent lift off and rendezvous. There’s also an near-light-hearted summary – remember the film? – of the way in which the astronauts put together that air scrubber using a fan, bits of cardboard and a fair amount of duct tape. But it worked and averted another near disaster.
At the end of the book Gene Krantz expresses – strongly – his views about the way in which the United States terminated that particular part of the space programme. But, of course, he was unaware of the way in which projects like the International Space Station and Mars explorations would ultimately follow. And that Russia, China and India would play a major joint role in ongoing space exploration.
In the book he also quotes the opening line (the title to my review) of the poem ‘High Flight’, written by the 19-year-old Canadian pilot John McGee, who was killed when his Spitfire 1 collided with a training aircraft close to RAF Cranwell on 11 December 1941. ‘High Flight’ is now the official poem of both the RAF at the RCAF and was quoted by President Reagan in his speech following the Challenger disaster on 28 January 1985.
I believe the final few lines of the sonnet epitomise the entire space programme:
“Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.”