Interview series with the authors of “Into that Silent Sea,” French and Burgess, Part five

Today in Space History (TISH) has been granted an exclusive opportunity to interview authors Francis French and Colin Burgess based on their book “Into That Silent Sea,” which TISH highly recommends for reading. This is part five.

Archives for the complete interview series | one | two | three | four | five | six | seven | eight | Nine | Ten | Eleven | Twelve | Thirteen

Contrast and compare what it was like being an astronaut (i.e., what was expected, demanded, etc.) in the 1960s and 70s to the 90s and 00s. How has that changed?

FF: The very first spacefarers, both American and Russian, lived with a public adulation that was comparable in many ways to Beatlemania. As we explore in the book, Yuri Gagarin was mobbed by huge and adoring crowds everywhere he went in the world – even very anti-Communist nations. We heard stories of dignitaries coming to meet Gagarin at airports in Europe who were literally swept off their feet by mobs of people rushing the runways, and never got to meet the cosmonaut. The spacefarers were seen by many as symbols of a new world, a new step in human achievement.

Today, conversely, spacefarers are relatively anonymous, even in the places where they live and work. And yet, if you look at the qualifications needed, the highly motivated people the job attracts, and the incredibly complex tasks they are performing in space these days, such as fitting together sections of space station in intricately complex spacewalks, it could be argued that today’s spacefarers have far more professional demands put on them and have to be far better prepared than the early pioneers. While it’s probably a relief for their personal lives that they are not mobbed like Gagarin, it’s a shame in other ways that the public no longer connects so much with the amazing feats being performed in orbit.

CB: These pioneers were the Cold War warriors of the Space Race, and were completely idolized. Everyone knew their names, and hundreds, if not thousands, of fan letters would pour in each week for the early spacefarers. Although a shuttle mission is undoubtedly dangerous, those trailblazing missions atop unreliable rockets were even more so, and the brave individuals who flew them became heroes and household names. They were risk-takers, but they generally knew the risks, and stories of astronauts racing each other in hot cars, buzzing airports or flying jet aircraft until the fuel was almost exhausted just to fly further than the other guy, are widespread. The cosmonauts did their share of that too, as we discovered. Individual indiscretions such as these are definitely less tolerated within NASA these days. The astronauts of today have to tread very carefully.

Ask any person on the street today to name an astronaut who flew on a Mercury, Gemini or Apollo mission and most could probably come up with a couple of suggestions. However, if asked to name any astronaut on any space shuttle mission, it would be very few people who could come up with a single name.

One other difference is that the first astronauts were deeply and willingly involved in the design and development of their spacecraft, spacecraft systems and boosters, and they exerted some power to influence changes. They even had the ready ear of the President of the United States . People listened and frequently made those changes simply because they loved the astronauts and appreciated their input. But that has now changed, and the influence of any astronaut to exert changes is quite minimal. However the term “astronaut” is still treated with a certain amount of awe, and these elite women and men are still very influential out in the community promoting NASA and future space plans, especially with younger people.

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~ by tellinghistory on December 14, 2007.

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