Almost Heaven by Bettyann Holtzman Kevles (part 1)

almost heavenWith the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing only a few days away, this book addresses an overlooked aspect of the space race.

While America and the world were following the achievements of an all-male astronaut cadre, most of us were unaware of attempts to have a female contingent added to their number.

A group of hopeful women submitted themselves to AND PASSED exactly the same selection interviews, medicals and physical tests taken by the men; and yet their candidacy was dismissed.

When asked about the possibility of the inclusion of women in space missions, the responses from senior men ranged from the predictable comments about space exploration being “men’s work”, to the acknowledgement that women would have to be included at a later stage to cook the meals and keep house on any prospective space station.

Those were the more savoury responses. Others were along the lines of a comment from rocket genius Werner von Braun, who agreed to the inclusion of women because there should be room for 110 lbs of recreational equipment on any mission.

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Sally Ride

The Russians weren’t quite as reticent to fly a woman into space, but they had no altruistic, gender-equality, reasons for doing so. All they wanted was to check another first off the list. After they’d already achieved the first man in space, they wanted to beat America again with flying the first woman into orbit. Once that was done, women were sidelined again, until many years later when America eventually announced that Sally Ride would become the first American woman in space aboard the shuttle Challenger.
The Russians hurriedly rearranged their launch schedule to include their second female cosmonaut in a mission to their Salyut space station.

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Rhea Seddon

Even after women had started to become accepted members of space shuttle crews, attitudes still needed change. When Rhea Seddon had to make an impromptu space walk to literally stitch up part of a damaged satellite, someone in  Mission control commented on the value of her home-maker skills. On hearing that, Sally Ride corrected the man’s suggestion, advising him that Seddon’s stitches “were the work of a heart surgeon”.

 

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The Devil’s Edge, by Stephen Booth

devils edge

A series of home invasions seem to be getting increasingly violent. 
Labelled “The Savages” by the press, the gang responsible, who tend to target the rich, start to get a fan following on social media, being portrayed as modern day Robin Hoods.

In the village of Ridding, overlooked by an escarpment known as the Devil’s Edge, the gang seem to have escalated the violence, leaving a woman dead and her husband critically injured.

Ben Cooper, recently promoted to Sergeant, leads his new team in the investigation, while his former boss DS Dianne Fry has basically been sidelined and sent on a bureacracy-laden course.
Cooper has his suspicions that the local deadly attack had nothing to do with the previous violent robberies, but it’s a view not shared by his superiors.

When it seem like there has been a breakthrough in the case, DS Cooper’s position becomes precarious due to disturbing personal developments, and DS Fry is returned to the local fold to liaise with investigators brought in from another division.

A minor quibble: the author seems to have forgotten that Dianne Fry changed her car in the previous book, in this one the traded Peugeot returns.

Whenever I’ve written about Stephen Booth’s books, I’ve mentioned their mix of local folklore, history and landscape. Also frequently mentioned is the difficulty faced by the farming community, having to face significant change  in the business landscape, often making untenable the farming life that has been passed down from generation to generation. Ben Cooper listens to the following song towards the end of the book.

 

 

Revenge and Dysfunction

kill callThe Kill Call and Lost River are almost two parts of a single story, linked by Dianne Fry having to revisit an event in her past that has shaped her life and career, and is deemed to be affecting her work as a Detective Sergeant.

In The Kill Call there seems to be links between the discovery of a body in a field, and the local fox hunting traditions. Around the time of the suspicious death, blasts of a hunting horn had been  heard, signalling the “kill call”, that in earlier days heralded the killing of a hunted fox.

Booth’s stories mix contemporary issues, folklore, tradition, and elements of recent history into police crime investigations. This book includes references to cold war era nuclear warning procedures as well as modified, present day fox hunt practices (where the trappings and colour of the chase are maintained without the cruelty of killing a fox).

These things are woven around central crimes in which extra-judicial attempts to right past wrongs seemed to have played a part.  How could these disparate elements of traditional and history have a bearing on the investigation of the man’s death, and how do they explain why an important witness seems to have gone into hiding, without trace?

During this investigation, DS Fry finds herself drawn into a scenario related to her personal history where she might finally see justice done, but what will be the personal cost?

lost river

Lost River continues Fry’s story.

In the latter part of The Kill Call she was approached by a rape cold-case team who are confident of finally getting a conviction for an attack on Fry several years before. She travels to Birmingham to help with the enquiries, as a witness instead of investigator.

However the investigation doesn’t progress smoothly and it seems like someone wants the truth to remain hidden.

DS Fry tries to find out why the case has stalled again, seeking help from a paranoid ex-colleague who leads her to look for answers from a disbarred lawyer. She discovers that finding the truth is potentially  not always the best outcome.

I was annoyed by the beginning of the book. Long parts of it seemed to be cut and pasted from sections of the previous book. Word for word repetition of significant slabs of text might not have been so noticeable if I’d had a break between books, but I started reading this one immediately after finishing the other. It was a laziness I didn’t expect, and the desired recapping ought to have been handled better.

While DS Fry has to follow her uncomfortable personal path, DC Cooper faces his own troubles after being present at, and unable to prevent, the drowning of a young local girl. He has flashbacks of the experience which seem to indicate the drowning wasn’t an accident, but can those apparent recurring memories be trusted?

Both Cooper and Fry, in their respective cases, discover the complications and hazards of family dysfunction and its potential to cause harm.

 

Apollo, Shuttle and ISS

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moondustAndrew Smith was interviewing Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke when word came through that Pete Conrad, the third man on the moon, had been killed in a motorcycle accident.

Smith set himself the challenge of interviewing the surviving moon-walkers to get their insight into the privileged experience so few men had.

The book is part biography, part road trip and part nostalgia, as Smith records his attempts to meet and speak to a variety of men, some of whom had always been reluctant to speak to the media.

As someone who had grown up with the space race, Smith’s quest is never an exercise of mere reportage. To him (and to me – a man of similar vintage) it is also one of personal reminiscence, but it is much more than a revisiting of the familiar.

It was through this book that I first found out that Apollo 12 had found life on the moon. Part of their mission was the recovery of parts from a Surveyor unmanned space craft that NASA had previously landed on the lunar surface. The recovered part was found to have a surviving colony of micro-organisms on it, possibly deposited by a sneezing earthbound technician preparing Surveyor for its lunar journey.

Smith also suggests that, despite the historical achievement, the rush to beat the Russians to the moon may have been detrimental to the US space program, leading to the development of a throw-away, one-purpose technology at the expense of developing a more sustainable approach to space exploration. The ongoing viability of the  later space shuttle program may also have been compromised in a similar way, as will be mentioned later.

*

high callingOn February 1st 2003, space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, killing all seven crew members. Rick Husband was the commander of the mission. A book about the investigation into this accident is the subject of an earlier post on this blog.

Evelyn Husband and their children, were waiting for Rick’s return at the Kennedy Space Centre, and it was clear that something was wrong when the clock counting down the time until the shuttle’s return, passed zero and started to count upwards.

She wrote High Calling only months after she lost her husband.
It is the story of Rick’s desire to become an astronaut, the difficulties he faced trying to be accepted into NASA’s space program, and the Christian faith motivating him, no matter what the career outcomes.

Rick Husband seems to have been a well-liked team leader of a very close-knit crew. Their bond strengthened by the extra time together caused by launch date delays. Husband’s STS-107 mission was leap-frogged by several other missions, their launch finally coming after STS-113.

The flight had added significance with the first Israeli astronaut being part of the crew, increasing security concerns prior to launch.

It’s a challenging book on many levels, potentially raising questions about God, faith in Him, and the value of prayer. “Why (or how) could God allow such a thing to happen to a crew headed by a devoted Christian?”

Rick Husband faced life with a favoured bible reference  in mind.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”  (Proverbs 3:5-6)

*

BoldThis is one volume of the Outward Odyssey: A People’s History of Spaceflight series. I think there are at least 18 different titles in the series.
Bold They Rise covers the space shuttle program from its beginnings through to the Challenger tragedy.

The authors write about the development of the shuttle and most of the missions within that time period.

The development of the shuttle was hampered by shortsighted political considerations and the ensuing design compromises that were made to ensure funding.

The shuttle’s design was much larger and bulkier than was necessary, mainly to obtain military dollars. Those design compromises were supposedly needed to make assumed military use of the shuttle practicable. However, it also meant a higher per-flight cost on all missions because of added bulk and weight.
Ultimately the shuttle was never used for the type of military flights for which those expensive

The book gives details of most mission personnel and objectives, with nothing too technical to baffle the average reader. The authors relied a lot on archived, recorded reminiscences of astronauts involved in those missions and I particularly enjoyed those memories and anecdotes of the astronauts involved.

*

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Bold They Rise ended with the Challenger tragedy.

At the heart of Too Far From Home is the later loss of the space shuttle Columbia, commanded by Rick Husband whose story is told in High Calling .

This book is about one of the consequences of Columbia’s loss and the inevitable, temporary halt to the shuttle program.

Three men, two Americans and one Russian, had been living on the International Space Station and were intended to be returned to earth by shuttle in March 2003. Donald Pettit, Kenneth Bowersox and Nikolai Budarin were the crew of ISS expedition 6.

Exp 6

Expedition 6 crew

The Columbia incident left them stranded, extending their stay indefinitely.

Written with the co-operation of the Astronauts and wives involved, the book not only delves into the experience of life aboard the partly built ISS, when there was no idea of how or when they would come home, but also the effect on families at home.

The solution finally chosen had  no guarantee it would work, and when things didn’t go according to expectations, the astronauts’ wives got a taste of what it was like for those waiting for the return of loved-ones on Columbia. Fortunately without the permanence.

Their “escape” from the ISS via a Russian Soyuz spacecraft could have led to a public (and political) loss of appetite for manned, American space travel if there had been another disaster immediately after the shuttle loss.

However,  the mostly successful use of the Soyuz had long term benefits that continue into the present, eight years after the ending of the space shuttle program. Since that time all manned travel to and from the ISS has been courtesy of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

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ISS Tour

I’m in the process of writing about a few books related to the space program.
Until I finish that and get around to posting it, here is a brief tour given by astronaut Suni Williams, demonstrating aspects of daily life on the International Space station.

Unmaking a Murder

Unmaking a Murder
the mysterious death of Anna-Jane Cheney
by Graham Archer

unmaking-a-murder-the-mysterious-death-of-anna-jane-cheney

“The presumption of innocence is one of those hypocrisies we subscribe to because it’s a fine ideal. Practically it’s a myth.”

When I bought this book, the sales assistant noted the title and asked – “how can you unmake a murder?”

With regard to this book I couldn’t answer. I was unfamiliar with the story it reports.

I bought it because it seemed to be another account of justice gone wrong – of an innocent suffering at the hands of an inept legal system, continuing the theme of a lot of the true crime I’ve  read, heard and seen in recent months.

Harry Keogh found his fiancée, Anna-Jane Cheney, dead in the bath, a victim of drowning. All initial investigations pointed to accidental death, so why was Harry charged with murder and eventually convicted? And why after a long 20 years was he freed from jail with his conviction quashed?

The cause of Ann-Jane’s death, and Keogh’s involvement in it, were determined by forensic evidence presented by Dr Colin Manock. He made the claim there were bruises on her ankles/shins that indicated grip marks. He insisted she had been pulled under the water by her feet, and held until she drowned.

Subsequent investigation raised strong doubts about the presence of those bruises with other examiners failing to find any evidence of them in tests of the tissue samples taken from the “bruise” areas. Also, the value of alleged photographic evidence was diminished because, against usual practice, only black and white photos were taken instead of colour.

Manock became a man of controversy,  apparently unqualified for the position he held. Throughout his career, his evidence resulted in many questionable murder convictions as well as exonerating others who it seemed likely had committed crimes. His failings were eventually partly exposed when his findings of death by natural causes in cases of child abuse, came into question.

His career and his alleged failing became the subject of significant journalistic investigations, one of which involved the author if this book when he worked on a TV current affairs show.

To answer the sales assistant’s question, the way a murder is unmade – is through finding there was no murder. But the process of proving there was no murder in this case, despite the obvious shortcomings in the evidence that led to conviction, took around 20 years, thanks to the political opposition of both legal and South Australian governmental agencies, including (as in the Tasmanian case in the previous post) the highest level of State politicians.

Once again, despite the author writing in a very readable style, and presenting a very interesting case, it wasn’t an easy book to read, for the very same reason I mentioned when writing about Southern Justice. I repeat that impression here:

The implication …  grows increasingly disturbing, challenging any faith held in the justice system. Each section took time to process, to come to terms with the realisation that those we ought to trust most are not necessarily deserving of that trust.  Reading the book stirred a variety of emotions, frustration, anger, despair – how can such an obvious miscarriage of justice be allowed to happen and be allowed to continue for so many years afterwards

Unmaking A Murder exposes a stark example of political expediency undermining justice, where the innocent have no recourse for the wrongs done to them by a privileged legal and political brotherhood, intent on covering their own backs and hiding their mistakes, no matter what the cost to others outside their particular cabal.