Space, by James Michener
It was two days prior to graduation. Browsing the secondhand bookstore, Main Street Books, with my mother (while my father snored in the background – the storekeeper would later tell me that she liked knowing that “my customers are comfortable”), the big, bolded title caught my eye from a low shelf in the shadows: SPACE. Always a sucker for sci-fi, I held it in my hand, and there it would stay until I left the establishment.
Taking place across some 40 years (the 1940s to 80s), the book follows the trials and tribulations faced by 4 families, each deeply involved in one way or another in the burgeoning American space program, along with a wide cast of supporting characters (including cameos by historical figures such as von Braun, Hitler, Eisenhower, JFK and Lyndon Johnson – though Michener is careful to limit their speaking roles to a minimum).
The historical and scientific detail Michener goes into is remarkable. He goes into great lengths to write about the events of World War II, the relevant astrophysics, and the workings of the various spacecraft and systems encountered (everything from the V-2 and Saturns to the Space Shuttle and Voyager). Hence, I wasn’t too surprised to learn that he served on an advisory council to NASA (1979 – 83, novel published in 82).
However, the book does get too technical and plodding at times. A reader with less interest in space and the space program may quickly lose interest. Furthermore, the women in the story are somewhat stereotypical. To his credit, Michener describes well the challenges faced by the standout female character – a political assistant who happens to be an astronaut’s wife – as she deals with the media, fighting traditional opinions of how she should present herself to the public and eventually running for the senate, with her husband in the supportive role.
The themes and ideas Michener tackles in the book are complex, and surprisingly relevant to 2016. Mankind has an innate desire and responsibility to test his limits and explore the unexplored – but at what cost? When the flow of change grows ever more rapid, do you embrace it, or do you retreat to the familiar, rejecting the foreign? Do you accept a family member living an opposing lifestyle? How can the government balance its scientific commitments, economic limitations, and the political aspirations of its ranks?
It wasn’t the best book, but it felt like the right book at the right time. A book about the exploits of space, mentioning Neil Armstrong and Purdue University by name – fitting for a recent graduate of the Aeronautical & Astronautical Engineering program of the same university.
A small step, and a giant leap.