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space shuttle


James Oberg
Washington Times, January 3, 1999

Rockets and space vehicles are so overwhelmingly impressive that they often dwarf the human figures associated with them. Aside from images of smiling, steel-jawed astronauts whose vocabularies consist mainly of ``What a fantastic sight,'' the people behind the space dramas rarely are seen.

For the current generation of space-station astronauts, ``Dragonfly'' should change all that. Bryan Burrough weaves a smoothly readable, intimate portrait of the highly varied individual Americans who faced the most difficult and dangerous space missions since the first moon landings and shuttle flights - the expeditions aboard the Russian Mir space station in

Through Mr. Burrough's skilled narrative we come to know intimately a parade of strong-willed, creative and intelligent individuals who one by one spent months aboard the Russian space station. There's solid Norm Thagard, desperate for confirmation as the official ``first American to Mir,'' who methodically trains himself to carry out research that in space leads him to the brink of malnutrition and well past the edge of boredom. There's ``grandmotherly'' Shannon Lucid and her friend John Blaha, the ``old reliable'' pilot, whose friendship doesn't survive their back-to-back flights on Mir.

We meet Jerry Linenger, the intense physician who nearly is killed in a flash fire in space and then agonizes over evidence that NASA and the Russians are covering up the severity of the crisis, and we meet British-born Michael Foale, nearly s best prepared Mir visitor ever - so much so that when he returns from space, NASA yanks him off future space station missions with the Russians.

Lastly there is David Wolf, the brilliant medical scientist whose personal foibles doomed his astronaut career until he had one last chance to get back into space, by volunteering for Mir, where he triumphantly redeemed himself. Because of the book's publishing schedule, the last American on Mir, Australian-born Andy Thomas, gets only brief mention.

Under unanticipated threats and dangers, each of these astronauts had to rely on their highly diverse personal strengths to get themselves through both sudden crises and long-term psychological stresses. How they all did so - and how close some of them came to being overcome - is an exploration narrative worthy of the traditions of Lewis and Clark, of Scott and of Amundsen, of Hillary and Cousteau and Lindbergh.

Beyond the deeply human accounts, Mr. Burrough provides vivid descriptions of a NASA bureaucracy caught off guard again and again by the problems of long space flight and the politically inspired ``space partnership'' with Russia. Preparations were inadequate, personnel were picked with no previous Russian experience (sometimes deliberately with no such experience, on request of the Russians) and outside advice was not sought, nor accepted when it was offered.

The author also provides, for the first time in any publication, a portrait of one of NASA's most mysterious figures, George Abbey. Considered the Machiavellian ``power behind the throne'' of Administrator Daniel Goldin, Mr. Abbey is currently the head of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and hence in practice the head of both the space shuttle and space station programs.

Mr. Abbey's reported leadership style, promoting and rewarding personal loyalty far more than professional competence, has had a curious effect on the astronaut corps. With rare exception (Mr. Burrough mentions Jerry Linenger and the doomed Blaine Hammond, but neglects to give credit to Apollo veteran John Young, who speaks out freely even as few listen), it seems to have converted men and women courageous enough to sit atop millions of pounds of rocket fuel into timid ``team players'' afraid to show any contrary opinions.

Mr. Burrough describes how this consequent corps of ``Stepford Astronauts'' almost unanimously goes along with every major management decree for fear of losing future space-flight assignments, even while privately discussing safety and efficiency concerns among themselves.

As a 22-year veteran of the space shuttle program, I read Mr. Burrough's book with a mixture of gratitude and envy. I'm grateful he was able to tell this story accurately and fully, as I know his account to be. And I'm envious at his exhilarating, exhausting experience in digging through the radio and meetings transcripts, talking at length with many of the principals and many of the support personnel, and assembling a coherent, comprehensible narrative of this dramatic phase of American space history.

There are a number of disturbing aspects of our space program that this book reveals, sometimes only implicitly. Most worrisome is the simple fact that much of what the author discovered truly is new and original, but shouldn't be. During the course of the crises aboard Mir in 1997, NASA should have released more of this material, or the American news media should have dug it out.

For example, for the first time in NASA history, reporters are no longer allowed to listen to live voice conversations from space - and requests to obtain summaries often require filing Freedom of Information Act letters. But neither NASA nor the press corps did their duty, and it is only with the publication of this book that the ``full story'' can in any way be said to be available to the public.

Meanwhile, NASA's passion to indoctrinate the American public with its narrow and self-serving view of its programs (often based on sincere self- deception rather than deliberate mendacity) comes across in example after example, as do the determined Russian campaigns to dodge blame for major failures.

In a book of more than 500 pages, the minor gaps and oversights are remarkably rare. Occasionally characters show up without being introduced or explained. Mr. Burrough has mastered almost but not quite all of the space technology he explains so well, but the bloopers are only for lifelong rocket scientists to worry about - I didn't find a single error of any real significance in the entire book.

The first Americans aboard Mir had a remarkably high attrition rate - most quit, a few were transferred to other types of work at NASA. But the leadership at NASA remains unchanged from the Mir flights as the agency begins to implement plans for the International Space Station. Whether they have learned enough from their past experiences to perform better under the even heavier challenges to come is a critical question for NASA and for the country. Readers of this book will be in the best possible position outside of NASA to understand the institution's shortcomings as we prepare to face the greatest space-flight management challenge since Apollo.

James Oberg, a 22-year veteran of the space shuttle program, is now an independent consultant and author in Houston.


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