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starship-design: Fwd: Review of "Dragonfly"


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Review of "Dragonfly"

                               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 1995-1997.

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

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,
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
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
consultant and author in Houston.  

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