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

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 eight.

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

What is one of the biggest misconceptions you think the general public might have of spacefarers now that you’ve written the book?

FF: Perhaps because I grew up in England , and Colin is from Australia , it seems that we had a different take on these stories before we wrote them than many spaceflight followers. Neither of us had a national manned space program, so all space programs were foreign to us, and equally fascinating. It’s something I’m coming to learn when reading reviews of the book and hearing from colleagues who have read it. It seems that many in the US know the basic story of the astronauts reasonably well, but had no real idea about the cosmonauts. They were always the mysterious ‘other’ that the US was racing against, rather than people serving their own country in their own ways. It’s been so pleasing to hear the very positive reactions of many Americans to the book – even some American astronauts – as they learn the other half of the story.

Additionally, stories of spacefarers have frequently been told in the past as part of some author-driven agenda. They have been painted as Cold War heroes, as component parts of a huge engineering achievement, as ambassadors for the outward urge of humankind, as devil-may-care danger-lovers… all depending on the whims of the author. Some great books resulted – but we didn’t have an agenda like that. We simply wanted to answer the questions – who were these people, what were they like, and what did they do?

In the past, writers have also told the Soviet stories as pieces of their own detective puzzles – about how they personally uncovered new, formerly-secret information. It’s makes for fascinating reading, but we felt it was time to go beyond that and simply tell the stories straight, rather than describe how we did the research. In the opening of the book, we spend a little time explaining what the book is not about, and then get on with what it is about – a group of people, very diverse backgrounds, very different from each other, whose only common link is one day they found themselves sitting on top of a rocket, about to launch into space.

CB: The first American astronauts were without any doubt mythologised in the popular media. While the Russians were accused (and rightly so) of using greatly exaggerated propaganda techniques in telling and even manipulating the biographies of their cosmonauts, so too the astronauts were presented to the American public as God-fearing, church-going, scandal-free, exercise-loving and devoted family men, and carefully staged photographs were the order of the day, particularly in the powerful, widely-read “Life” magazine. While we now know that the ideals presented were in reality sometimes far from the truth, it is often the way in which people who lived through that era still perceive these people. Curiously enough I have learned much about the realities of their lives, and yet I still carry that admiration for them from my own childhood, when “Life” magazine articles – purportedly written by them – were among my most prized possessions.

I often give talks on human spaceflight history at schools, but it’s hard to rally that same enthusiasm in younger students. They are used to seeing basically the same shuttles lift off, the same kinds of people waving at them from orbit, and the same shuttles landing. In my teens I was wholly engrossed in the Space Race, and would know true excitement whenever I saw a banner headline at a newspaper stand announcing the latest Soviet space spectacular. It might be a tough and probably surprising thing to admit, but if I was growing up in this present era I would see nothing in human space flight that might attract my interest in the same way as the potent dramas surrounding the Mercury flight of John Glenn back in ’62. It will soon be five years since we lost shuttle Columbia , and many younger school students do not even recall that event in their lives, let alone know anything about the Challenger tragedy back in 1986.

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~ by tellinghistory on December 17, 2007.

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