Category Archives: Space books

The Right Stuff – Folio Society edition

The Folio Society has released a special edition of The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s famous book about the Mercury Seven astronauts. Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon provided a new introduction and also worked

… closely with Folio and illustrator Tavis Coburn on the visual look and feel of the book, which takes its cue from 1940s comic art and Soviet posters of the time. The illustrations portray the astronauts as Cold War heroes, and Coburn’s beautiful retro-futurist cover design perfectly captures the aesthetic and spirit of the early Space Age.

Title page of The Right Stuff edition published by The Folio Society including one of the illustrations by Tavis Coburn.

When The Right Stuff hit the bookstore shelves in 1979, two decades had passed since the famous press conference that introduced the Mercury Seven astronauts to the nation. Long gone was that Space Race era of the late 1950s and 1960s when astronauts and rocket launches were spotlighted in a never ending parade of front page newspapers articles and magazine cover stories. The 1970s certainly saw major space developments including the  Apollo-Soyuz linkups in orbit, the construction of the Space Shuttles,  deep space science missions, and a revolution in communications, especially the distribution of TV programming, by commercial satellites. For most of the public, though, space began to fade quickly from view after Apollo 11 and was almost completely out of sight by the late 70s. The press considered space passé and relegated most space news to back-page science and aerospace niche categories.

So it was quite a surprise to many, especially cognoscenti of American culture, that a writer of Wolfe‘s stature and hipness would do something as odd as write a book about astronauts. Those Space Race era articles had consistently portrayed astronauts as rugged paragons of courage and patriotism at work and faithful husbands and steadfast fathers at home. Such trite eulogies left the astros looking like dull NASA figureheads rather than full-blooded frontiersmen. And worse, at least from the astronauts’ perspective, many people believed the astronauts did not actually pilot their spaceships but rode passively in capsules directed by bow-tied, white-shirted, chain-smoking nerds in Mission Control.

Readers of The Right Stuff discovered that the astronauts were, in fact, complex 3-dimensional individuals with diverse personalities and backgrounds, often with private lives that crossed rather than toed lines of strict decorum and restraint. Most of the 60s astronaut corps came from the military test pilot world where death defying  feats were daily duties and bar binges nightly rites.

Wolfe framed the Mercury Seven within that test pilot culture and its ethos of courage, deep technical know-how, and precise decision-making while under intense physical and mental stress. Proving you had the proverbial right stuff to handle any and every thing a fire-spewing capricious metal beast could hurl at you while far above the ground  was the test pilot’s central goal in life.

Wolfe held up Chuck Yeager as the iconic aviator with the most righteous right stuff of all.  Yeager had flown the first vehicle to break the sound barrier and was revered by his peers as one of the greatest pilots ever. The lack of a college degree disqualified him from the astronaut corps and he initially dismissed the astronaut’s  role in space missions as nothing more than spam in a can. The Mercury Seven, however, proved him wrong when they successfully fought to expand their role in the operation of their space vehicles far beyond what the hardware designers had envisioned.

The Right Stuff is thus primarily a book about that test pilot world and not about conquering space. As someone who was a space cadet from his earliest years, the book highlighted for me the fact that most of the astronauts were not born and bred space enthusiasts. From their earliest years, they wanted to pilot the fastest and highest-flying planes, not settle Mars. Regardless of their lack of keen interest in humanity’s expansion into space, they were clearly the best-qualified candidates to take the first vehicles there. And, of course, many of the astronauts did eventually become strong public advocates for space exploration and development.

It’s great to see the Folio Society honor a great book like The Right Stuff. It’s an important book that should be read by anyone who wants to learn more about the beginnings of the Space Age and the magnificent men who flew the first space machines.

Folio edition of “A Man on the Moon” by Andrew Chaikin

Andrew Chaikin sent me this announcement of a new fully-illustrated Folio edition of his classic A Man on the Moon, a vivd history of the Apollo missions. Andrew says he “did all the photo selection and image prep work for the edition, which I think has turned out beautifully“.

A Man on the Moon
The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts
Andrew Chaikin

With a new preface by the author
Foreword by Tom Hanks
‘I’ve been there. Chaikin took me back.’  Gene Cernan, Apollo 17 Commander

Almost a decade in the writing, A Man on the Moon is the definitive story of the Apollo programme. Andrew Chaikin’s authoritative account is based on hundreds of hours of interviews with the astronauts, as well as the scientists, engineers and flight controllers who shared every heartbeat of their voyages. This spectacular two-volume Folio edition features an exclusive selection of photography, along with a new preface by the author and a foreword by Tom Hanks.

Packed with a photography selection curated by the author from his personal archive that features previously unpublished images and sharp new scans of frames from NASA films, this is the ultimate edition of Chaikin’s awe-inspiring history. As well as nearly 200 colour and black-and-white photographs integrated within the text, it has additional full-colour sections – including an eight-page fold-out in each volume – that show off the superb images to their best advantage. The author has expertly matched each image to the text, giving us a complete and unrivalled visual and oral history of the Apollo missions.

A Man on the Moon spans the whole of the Apollo programme. With its exhilarating minute-by-minute accounts of the missions, Chaikin vividly captures what Tom Hanks calls in his 1998 preface the ‘romantic, epic, historic adventure of it all’. It is the complete story of humankind’s greatest feat of exploration, from the deadly Apollo 1 capsule fire, the pioneering flight of Apollo 8 and Neil Armstrong’s ‘giant leap for mankind’ to near-catastrophe aboard Apollo 13. It is also includes the often-overlooked later missions, which saw scientists and astronauts test the limits of lunar exploration and deliver geological insights that revolutionised our understanding of both the moon and our own planet.

Product information

  • Three-quarter bound in blocked cloth with printed paper front boards.
  • Set in Apollo with Futura as display.
  • 800 pages across 2 volumes.
  • 56 pages of plates plus an 8-page fold-out per volume.
  • 9¼˝ x 8¼˝.
  • Pictorial slipcase.
  • UK £150.00 US $225.00 Can $285.00 Aus $350.00

For over 70 years, The Folio Society has been publishing beautiful illustrated editions of the world’s greatest books. It believes that the literary content of a book should be matched by its physical form. With specially researched images or newly commissioned illustrations, many of its editions are further enhanced with introductions written by leading figures in their fields: novelists, journalists, academics, scientists and artists. Exceptional in content and craftsmanship, and maintaining the very highest standards of fine book production, Folio Society editions last for generations.

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A Man on the Moon:
The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts

“Dark Was the Night” – New book about Blind Willie Johnson and his music on Voyager I

An announcement from Gary Golio:

Black Blues Legend Blind WiIlie Johnson Blasts into Outer Space
in New Picture Book about His Soul-Stirring Song

 Ask Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Lucinda Williams and Jack White to name the slide-guitar player they most admire, and they’ll all say Blind Willie Johnson. What those musicians may not know is that one of his songs found its way to the depths of outer space. In Dark Was the Night – Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars, NY Times-bestselling author Gary Golio and Caldecott Honoree E. B. Lewis weave a magical tale of how the healing power of music can turn darkness into light.

Born in 1897, young Willie shone as he sang and played a cigar box guitar made by his father. But his bright childhood fell dark when he lost both his mother and his sight. Fortunately, his love of music led him back into the light. He began singing in churches and later brought his unique blend of gospel-blues to street corners all over Texas. Willie’s powerful voice, joined to the wail of his slide guitar, moved even more people when he cut some records and his songs were played on the radio. Yet by the time he died, he and his music were largely forgotten.

Then, in 1977, Willie’s haunting song, “Dark Was the Night“, was launched into space on the Voyager I space probe’s famous Golden Record. There, along with the many sounds and sights of planet Earth, is the soul-stirring song of a blind man, telling us not to be afraid of the dark, and reminding us that we are never really alone.

“An ode to a too-little-discussed musician and an excellent introduction to his amazing musical talent.”
Kirkus, *starred review*

“An inspiring story of one man’s commitment to lifting up himself and those around him with his music.
An American treasure who shouldn’t go unsung.”

“Lewis’s expressive watercolors depict the subject’s humble country beginnings as well as the joy that he felt when he sang and played”
“A beautiful, timely tribute to a little-known musician and space venture.”
School Library Journal, *starred review*

Gary Golio is the author of the NY Times bestseller JIMI: Sounds Like a Rainbow – A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix, winner of a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award; Bird & Diz and Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song, both ALA Notables; and other books about legendary artists. A writer and musician, Golio has been featured on NPR’s “Weekend Edition”, CBS-TV’s “Sunday Morning News,” and on radio stations nationwide. He lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife, children’s book author Susanna Reich.

E.B. Lewis is a fine artist and the acclaimed illustrator of over 70 books, among them Coming On Home Soon by Jacqueline Woodson (Caldecott Honor Award), Talkin’ About Bessie by Nikki Grimes (Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award), and The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass (Orbis Pictus Award). He is also the recipient of the NY Times Best Illustrated Book Award, Kirkus’ Best Illustrated Book Award, and four additional Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards. Lewis teaches at the University of Arts in Philadelphia, and lives in Folsom, New Jersey.

Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars[Amazon commission link]
Written by Gary Golio
Illustrated by E.B. Lewis
Published by Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books
August 2020 • Ages 5-8 • 32 pages • $17.99 hardcover/$10.99 Ebook • ISBN: 978-1524738884


Here is a short video about Johnson and his music on the Voyager spacecraft: Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, and brilliant is that song drifting through space | Aeon Videos

Johnson’s recording of Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground:

Here is a nicely played cover of Dark was the Night (hat tip Behind the Black):

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Dark Was the Night:
Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars

Backing Behind the Black

Writer, journalist, and blogger Bob Zimmerman tells me that it is his Birthday fund-raising time again at Behind The Black.

Check out Bob’s most recent Mars reports:

He will be on The Space Show tonight: Tue, 02/05/2019 – 19:00 | Robert Zimmerman.

And here is his latest space news update on the John Bachelor show: February 1, 2019 Zimmerman/Batchelor podcast | Behind The Black


Listening to “Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8”

December 21st will mark the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 8, the first time humans left earth orbit to reach another celestial object. While the landing on the surface of the Moon by Apollo 11 dominates the public’s view of America’s lunar program, it was the orbiting of the Moon by the terrifically dangerous and milestone-making Apollo 8 mission that actually marked the triumph of the USA in the 1960’s “Space Race” with the Soviet Union.

I recently listened to Bob Zimmerman’s book, Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8: The First Manned Mission to Another World. An audiobook version was released this year with a excellent reading by Grover Gardner. Bob nicely weaves a narrative of the Apollo 8 mission, from its conception to capsule splashdown, with captivating portraits of the three astronauts and vivid descriptions of the political and social upheavals of the time, especially the many dreadful events of the tumultuous year of 1968. (The book should disabuse young people of the notion that political polarization in the US today is something new or reaches the levels of other angry periods in the country’s history.)

The three astronauts – Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders – were the first to see earth from beyond low earth orbit. How the famous EarthRise photo came about is described in the book and answers the question of who actually took the picture.

The astronauts made a surprising but very appropriate reading during a widely viewed broadcast from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve. The book tells the background story of how this came about.

The three space pioneers are still alive for the half century remembrances of Apollo 8 and Bob attended an event held in their honor last October at the Museum of Science and Technology in Chicago: Honoring the Apollo 8 astronauts | Behind The Black

We are blessed to still have them. Once again during the dinner presentation they talked of their mission, kidding each other repeatedly about what had happened, and talking about why they went and what they thought the future might hold. Borman was pessimistic about the future of space, but then he remains fixated on the concept of a government program for space. Anders meanwhile was in touch with the rise of private commercial space, and advocated that it is where the future lies.

Lovell was Lovell, as always a space cadet, enthused for the future exploration of space, no matter how we do it.

This event is likely only the beginning. Over the next year there are going to many similar events, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary the 1960s Apollo triumph, right through to the landing in July. To me, however, it will always be Apollo 8 that had the most historical impact. Everything that happened afterward merely reinforced what that flight taught us.

BTW: I had thought that George Mueller, head of the Office of Manned Space Flight during the Apollo era, played the key role in the decision to go to the Moon with Apollo 8. Mueller did successfully push the “all-up testing” approach in which the entire Saturn V would be tested altogether rather than incrementally, starting with dummy upper stages. This greatly reduced the number of test flights needed before the lunar missions could begin and was crucial in achieving JFK’s goal of reaching the Moon “before this decade is out“. However, as made clear in the book, it was in fact George Low, chief of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office (ASPO), who proposed and championed the radical idea of going all the way to the Moon on just the third flight of the Saturn V, the first flight with a command module, and the first flight with a crew. For more about Low and his role in Apollo 8, see The Man Who Won the Moon Race – Air & Space Magazine.

Today NASA has little of its 1960’s daring and risk-taking culture demonstrated by Apollo 8. The agency, for example, indicated recently after another Russian Soyuz failure, that it would rather let the 100 billion dollar International Space Station fall into the atmosphere for destruction rather than permit astronauts to travel to the station in new American vehicles whose builders have not yet checked every last box in the mountains of certification requirements created by the agency’s vast multi-center bureaucracy.

Space exploration, development, and settlement will require endless risk-taking in the coming years but it appears the risks will be taken by participants in the private space sector, not by NASA.