Wednesday’s Book Review: “Inventing the American Astronaut”

Hersch_ApprovedInventing the American Astronaut. By Matthew H. Hersch. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. x + 219 pp., illus., notes, selected bibliography, index. ISBN 978-1-137-02528-9. $27.00 (paperback).

Matthew H. Hersch takes on an exploration of the work life of the American astronauts during the romantic era of the 1960s and early 1970s. If anyone represented astroculture in the U.S. it was the Mercury seven, selected in 1959 to be the first Americans into space. The astronaut as celebrity and what that has meant in American life quickly became part of their persona. To the surprise and ultimately consternation of some NASA leaders, they immediately became national heroes and the leading symbols of the fledgling space program. Even so, both NASA and the press contrived to present the astronauts as embodiments of the leading virtues of American culture and this has continued from the 1950s to the new millennium. Both NASA officials and the astronauts themselves carefully molded and controlled their public images every bit as successfully as those of movie idols or rock music stars.

The bravery of the astronauts touched emotions deeply seated in the American experience of the twentieth century. The astronauts symbolized, but certainly did not replicate, Charles Lindbergh’s, the “lone eagle,” crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Many observers commented on the skills and professionalism of this unique, daring, and exceptionally able group of individuals, the best this nation had to offer. Facing personal danger, they fit the myth of frontier law enforcers, whose grit had filled the substance of Hollywood matinees and feature films. They had much in common with the mythology, if not the actual careers of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Matt Dillon. As military test pilots, they recalled the sacrifices required to produce the Allied victory in World War II at a time when military service was held in exceptionally high regard. Their personal exploits even recalled the substance of one of America’s most popular sporting frontier marshals were thought to be a hard-living, hard-drinking lot.

Hersch turns these ideas on their ears in Inventing the American Astronaut by interpreting them as a labor force, a professional one like other educated and highly skilled individuals in a specialized workforce. He investigates the type of people who became test pilots, and unpacks the nature of this unique group in relation to powerful mythologies surrounding the astronauts as created by the editors of Life magazine with its emphasis on consensus American values and stories and by Tom Wolfe’s engaging portrait offered in The Right Stuff (1979), with its emphasis on hell raising and competition and “climbing the pyramid.” Hersch emphasizes that the astronauts were from the first professional organization men. He suggests that they could have been advertising executives or some other highly skilled professional; they just happened to be military test pilots that were transformed into astronauts. As such, they were imbued with the culture of the organization in which they labored.

At the same time that they bucked that organization, Hersch shows, the astronauts realized from the beginning that the skills of a pilot, so valued in the aeronautical world from which they had come, were of lesser importance at NASA. Indeed, what NASA really needed were scientists to undertake field research on the Moon and in other settings in space. Indeed, a few pure scientists were selected for the astronaut corps and one went to the Moon, Harrison Schmidt on Apollo 17. Fliers for the space vehicles were needed, but NASA needed fewer of them than the scientists whose skills were critically important to further the scientific goals of the program. This dichotomy has never been discussed before and Hersch makes a uniquely valuable insight by emphasizing it.

I am pleased to recommend this book. I have known Dr. Hersch for several years since he was a pre-doctoral fellow at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. This book, appearing in a series that I co-edit for Palgrave Macmillan is a valuable contribution to the historical literature of the American human space program.

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