Book Review: Rocket Man

Rocket Man

This is only the second book about the Apollo era that I have read. And it’s a slightly different theme to Apollo 13 (or Lost Moon). They’re both similar in the respect that it’s two pilots pursuing their love for aviation and wanting to be at the cutting edge of the frontier. But Apollo 13 is about a mans dream to walk on the surface of the Moon and that dream being cruelly ripped away from him. Apollo 13, I felt went into detail about how the spacecraft worked and on the difficulties of getting to the Moon (and back). ‘Rocket Man’ couldn’t be anymore different.

Throughout the book we follow the much more recent story of N10BD, a Learjet 35, where Pete Conrad is one of the pilots trying to break the world record for a round the world flight in the shortest time. It was a bit strange to have it there, but it appeared to work and fitted in with the rest of the book.

The book goes back a long time. All the way back to the 1700’s where we see how Pete’s family came to be in America, how they flourished, and eventually how it all went downhill. The story is more about Pete’s personal love of aviation and engineering than anything else, and I was particularly shocked as to how little there was on him actually being on the Moon and generally on the Apollo program itself.

The subtitle of the book is ‘Astronaut Pete Conrad’s Incredible Ride To The Moon And Beyond’ and it really is beyond. We learn that Apollo 12 was, to him, not the greatest achievement to him as an astronaut. We learn about the Skylab program, how he was one of the stations architects, how he fixed the thing when it broke in space and how he lived on it for a month.

Towards the end of the book we see the sad side-effects of the life Pete Conrad lived. After being constantly busy, working 70-odd hour weeks for 20+ years, he realised he doesn’t know his family (a situation seemingly familiar with most Apollo astronauts). He ends up divorcing his wife and watches his youngest child by of cancer.

He goes to work for McDonnell Douglas, promoting and test flying their DC-10 and being involved in the investigation after one fatally crashed, grounding the entire fleet. He then moves on to private industry, and how it is they, not NASA, that need to lead the way in space. And he sets off on his own voyage to achieve this.

I found this book extremely interesting and enjoyable. Pete’s vibrant and colourful persona comes across easily, and it’s a funny read. The only issues I have is that the chapters are bizarrely short, something I’ve not come across before (there are nearly 60) and each contains about a maximum of 5 pages. I found this bizarre and unnecessary. Still, a great read, and highly recommended. Lacking in the details on the space program itself, this remains a great book.

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Book Review: Into the Storm

Into the Storm

‘What starts as a breeze…can turn into a monster’. And the monstrosities that begin as a breeze are what this book is all about. The full title of the book ‘Into the Storm: Violent Tornadoes, Killer Hurricanes and Death-Defying Adventures in Extreme Weather’ certainly gets you etching to start reading this book.

For a weather nut like me this was a must read. Not only does this book deal with severe weather but also Reed Timmer’s unending fascination with science. How he started off struggling at university and then eventually achieving his PhD. It delves into how he was suddenly thrown into the media spotlight after some video footage of a destructive tornado and how he comes to make money out of sending these videos to news centres. Reed developed a new storm chasing style, much appalled by conservative storm chasers, that pushed him into the core of storms and eventually right inside a tornado. Reed risks relationships and exams to chase and it deals with the horrific effects of a tornado destroying entire towns, the emotional problems that develop as a result, but also how storm chasers are helping to better forecast tornadoes, increase warning times and ultimately save lives.

Tornado

As the title suggests though, this isn’t just about tornadoes. I found that some of the most exciting reading was during the chase of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the costliest natural disaster in US history.

Reed doesn’t only describe to you what he’s see’s and what he feels though. He describes what’s going on and explains, in uncomplicated detail, how these storms start and end up producing tornadoes. You can garner his infectious (sometimes mad and bonkers) enthusiasm and lust to know more about these incredible phenomena.

This book left me much more informed about tornadoes and severe weather and how they operate, and further enhanced my love for the weather. Our atmosphere can do truly extraordinary things. The book has even left me contemplating traveling to America later in the year to go storm chasing. It’s expensive, but I just want, I need, to see one of these things up close.

Reed also features in the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers. If you’ve never seen it take a look at this YouTube clip. It’s just the opening titles, but it’s still exciting.

Abandon Ship! The Shocking Difference between the Costa Concordia and Air Crashes

The recent events involving the Costa Concordia cruise ship have intrigued, saddened and shocked me. Intrigued that a £400,000,000 cruise ship could not detect its impending doom and end up like this. Saddened by the loss of life. But most of all I am truly shocked by the captain and first officer abandoning ship before the passengers and crew were safe.

The Costa Concordia

I am not aware of many major recent similar shipping disasters and as a result I may be about to make a sweeping generalisation, but the point is interesting nonetheless.

I read a lot of air crash investigation reports. I find them interesting and it’s useful for me in my line of work to understand what can go wrong and to get an overall better understanding of the situation pilots face in the cockpit. Out of all the major recent air crashes I have read about never have I ever heard of the captain evacuating the plane before all crew and passengers were safe. Examples of this are the Heathrow BA38 B777 crash where both engines failed shortly before landing and as a result the aircraft landed short of the runway. The passengers evacuated and the captain was last off the plane. The US Airways 1549 crash in which an A320 ditched in the Hudson river due to a double engine failure. It was a dangerous evacuation in freezing cold waters. Yet, as the plane was sinking, yes sinking, the captain went up and down the plane to make sure everybody was off before leaving himself. These are only 2 of the most well known incidents, there are many more and I’d challenge you to find an occasion where the captain has left before everyone else. These people are true heroes. Not only did they manage to safely land their planes under exceedingly difficult conditions but they put themselves in danger to ensure everyone was safe. This is why these people get paid their ridiculously high salaries, and rightly so.

The US Airways 1549 Crash

A ship, I know, is completely different but the situation is similar. I’m not suggesting the captain should have checked every single of the 100’s of cabins in the ship, no that would be silly. What I’m saying is that he should have remained on board to co-ordinate the evacuation. This captain, to me, appears to think only of himself and seemed to have minimal concern for the 4000 passengers and crew on board. He endangered lives and I imagine will be found guilty, directly or indirectly, of multiple manslaughter. We can only hope this is not a common occurance in shipping incidents.

A captain should remain on board until he is sure a safe evacuation is complete and a rescue mission underway for those people trapped. Whatever happened to going down with the ship?

Update: I’ve just found this article too. It’s an Italian Coastguard captain telling the captain of the Costa Concordia to get back on his ship.

Is ‘Not Knowing’ the same as ‘Not Believing’?

Yesterday I had a brief Twitter discussion with @facepalm333. The topic? Are you born an atheist? The statement arose ‘is not knowing the same as not believing?’ This stumped me for it is a very good question.

Having recently read The God Delusion and watching television series such as Root of all evil it is made clear that children should not be labelled a Christian child, a Muslim child and so on. We wouldn’t label children as liberal children, socialist children or conservative children, but why for religion? But are we born atheist, and specifically atheist?

We are all born with a lack of knowledge (except for the extreme basics like how to breath) but are we also born with or without any beliefs? We’re born not knowing (or believing) in the existence of a God but does that count as being born an atheist? It’s a blurry line I think. I would argue we are not born atheist because I feel that we need to be able to make a conscious decision about it, having looked at evidence. Yet dictionary.reference.com defines an atheist as ‘a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supremebeing or beings’. Now to deny we need to make a conscious decision, but is that so for the disbelief statement. If we’re born with no beliefs do we disbelieve?

I think this is quite a difficult question to answer, and with my lack of expertise I cannot offer an answer. I open the floor to debate…

Oh and Happy New Year to you all by the way!