Triumph and tragedy

T-Minus: the Race to the Moon
by Jim Ottaviani (author), Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon (artwork)

I think this comic book is strictly aimed at children but that didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying it and learning all sorts of new facts about the space race. And I live with Tim and have been to Kennedy Space Center, so I consider myself reasonably well versed in this stuff.

The story begins in 1957 with the text “T-minus 12 years” and ends (except for a short postscript) in 1969 at “T-minus zero”, the moment when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. The story inbetween shows both the Russian and the American teams of scientists, engineers and pilots, not to mention the politicians who had their own ideas about going into space. There’s more detail about the Americans, possibly because much more information about them is available to an American author, and not every question I had was answered, but overall this was an impressive and entertaining summary of historical events.

Most of the missions get their own panel with a list of pertinent details: rocket used, launch date, flight duration, etc. Deaths and other disasters were not lingered on, which I actually found a little difficult, but there were enough of them to make it clear how immensely daring the astronauts and cosmonauts were. These men and women (the first woman in space was Russian Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 – I didn’t know that before today) really were braving the unknown, human guinea pigs essentially. Early flights went up before having figured out urine disposal or temperature control. There’s a scene where cosmonauts discuss not taking much food on a 2-day flight because the smell in the capsule made them feel too queasy to eat.

There are a couple of jumps back in time to show the development of the science behind space travel, though I’m sure another book this long could have been written/drawn on that subject. The story is reverent without painting everyone involved as perfect. NASA engineer Caldwell C Johnson is picked out as being a workaholic who rarely saw his family, lost track of days of the week and didn’t stop to celebrate each victory on the way because he was already immersed in the next challenge (or indeed the one after that). Russians are shown mocking American failures and achievements, not to mention covering up the cause of Laika’s death and keeping many other details secret. Interestingly, the book does mention that the American and Russian teams met up every so often to discuss their work and that these meetings were friendly affairs, but no detail is given. I don’t know if this is because it’s all classified or if there were no details important enough to pick out for this abbreviated history.

The full-page bibliography reveals that most of the authors’ sources came from NASA, including mission transcripts, but they also spoke to astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Alan Bean. They also say that they didn’t read one particular book they found because it was only available in Russian, which sounds like a bit of a rubbish excuse when researching Russian history. Surely they could have found a Russian speaker to help out? However, they did do a lot of research (they provide a web address for the full list, described as a stack of books “more than ten feet tall”) and it shows.

I heartily recommend this to any adult or child interested in the space race, but I would also be interested in learning more about the Russian side of things.

Published 2009 by Simon & Schuster. Available from GT Labs.

Learning from history

Dignifying Science: Stories About Women Scientists
by Jim Ottaviani

This book greatly appealed to me from the get-go: it’s a graphic novel about women scientists, concentrating on five examples: Hedy Lamarr, Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin, Barbara McLintock and Biruté Galdikas. I am ashamed to say that I had no idea what any of those women should be famous for, in fact I’d not heard of two of them at all, and even now I feel that I only know a little about each one. My curiosity has definitely been piqued and I will be adding some books from the extensive references section to my wishlist.

A lot of different artists worked on this and I found the changes in style quite disconcerting, though at times it was used to good effect. For example, in the story of Rosalind Franklin there were pages supposedly narrated by James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins in turn, and the different drawing styles definitely helped prevent the change in voice from being confusing (and hopefully those names have told you what Rosalind Franklin is famous for, if you didn’t know before!).

This book definitely makes more sense if you read all the notes and references. The comic sections don’t always make it clear what the scientific achievement of each person is, and the inclusion of Hedy Lamarr (more of an engineer and, oh yes – actress) may seem a little odd when so many women scientists have been omitted, but as the notes explain – this is really just a taster and therefore concentrates on interesting stories rather than universal coverage. Marie Curie stars in a brief epilogue and prologue, apparently because her letters to her daughter Irene were too fascinating not to use!

There’s a definite sense of humour at work, as you might expect in a graphic novel, and the stories are mostly accessible to the layman. I’m not sure this would get any very young girls enthusing about a science career because the language, historical contexts and science depicted are too dense for that, but it could certainly be a good book to give a teenage girl with a modicum of interest in science or history. And there’s no reason not to give it to boys either because there’s no particular feminist slant aside from the choice of protagonists.

I liked the different levels of success of the women depicted, and the different reasons for it. Lamarr was treated as a pretty girl playing at science (though she wasn’t exactly pushed into acting – she broke off two engagements because the men wouldn’t let her continue acting), Meitner missed out a Nobel prize that she deserved part of (for nuclear fission, on the back of the evidence here anyway, I will read more before I give a definitive view on that), Franklin’s abrupt personality made her difficult to work with and she was snide about Francis and Crick’s model work but she did get an acknowledgement in their paper and in the Nobel acceptance speech (she was dead by then so could not have received the award, which is not given posthumously), McLintock did get a Nobel prize and Galdikas is apparently internationally renowned and respected for her work with orangutans, which continues to this day.

I will admit that I found the story of McLintock pretty dull. I understand the desire to include someone who chose an unusual thing to research (corn genetics) and stuck with that for life, leading to notable advances in the field, but it’s pretty dull and the one interesting thing about her life – that she struggled for years to get a faculty position because of her gender and her chosen area of research and the one position she did get early on was in Germany in 1933, which she had to leave pretty quickly because of the political situation – is not made at all clear in the comic section, only in the later notes.

However, the rest of the book was very interesting indeed. Incidentally, the title Dignifying Science comes from one of Marie Curie’s letters, where she is talking about the problems of being a famous scientist. She continues: “What is not deniable is the sincerity of all the people who do this kind of thing and the necessity of doing it.”

Published 2003 by GT Labs
ISBN 978-0-9660-1064-0