restricted access Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon by Colin Burgess and Kate Doolan (review)
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Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon. By Colin Burgess and Kate Doolan. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. 416 pages. Hardbound, $36.95.

In 1971 artist Paul van Hoeydonck worked with the Apollo 15 crew to place a small sculpture, entitled The Fallen Astronaut, on the Moon to commemorate those who died in space flight. The crew left the small cast statue on the lunar surface as an homage to astronauts killed in the line of duty. Of course, this was not the only memorial for astronauts—there are memorials at Kennedy Space Center in the US and Star City in Russia, as well as small remembrances in other locations associated with space flight. Indeed, public mourning for those who fell in the line of duty has been a major part of the culture of human space flight around the globe since its inception. While CIA operatives who died while [End Page 412] performing their duties are identified solely by a star at the agency headquarters, astronauts who died are given personalized commemorations. Fallen Astronauts plays to that desire to celebrate those who fell in the heroic age of space exploration.

Originally published in 2003, this revised and expanded edition tells the stories of the eight astronauts selected to participate in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs who died while employed by NASA, as well as the Soviet Union's cosmonauts killed in the first decade of human space flight. Three of the eight Americans—Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom, and Ed White—are fairly well known, having died in a gruesome fire during a training exercise in the Apollo 1 command module on January 27, 1967. The other five are far less familiar: four perished in jet crashes (Ted Freeman, Elliot See, Charlie Bassett, and C. C. Williams), while one (Ed Givens) died in a car crash. Six Soviets died while cosmonauts—Yuri Gagarin, Pavel Belyayev, Vladimir Komarov, Georgy Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladimir Volkov; four of them died during space missions and the two others in plane crashes.

Relying largely on oral histories with family members, close friends, and colleagues, Colin Burgess and Kate Doolan effectively convey the life stories of those profiled, though admittedly not all of the information presented is new. For example, Grissom was a talented pilot and a respected astronaut, but also a hell-raiser and womanizer; Gagarin, who was the first human to reach space and orbit the Earth in 1961, died in a plane crash while on a training mission for the Soviet air force on March 27, 1968. With solid biographies of both spacefarers—Andrew L. Jenk's The Cosmonaut Who Couldn't Stop Smiling: The Life and Legend of Yuri Gagarin (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2012) and George Leopold's Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2016)—there is little that Burgess and Doolan included in their book that has not been covered elsewhere.

Burgess and Doolan, however, do break some new ground with their portraits of Williams, Givens, and Freeman, and the chapter that covers See and Bassett is especially useful. In 1966, See and Bassett were selected to fly the Gemini IX flight. They were scheduled to visit the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation's St. Louis plant to review specific Gemini systems for which they had responsibility and to spend several days practicing in the rendezvous flight simulator. Unfortunately, while undertaking an instrument landing at the McDonnell plant during foul weather on February 28, 1966, both of these men died in the crash of their T-38 jet—a combination of poor weather and pilot error caused the accident. Both astronauts were then buried in Arlington National Cemetery a few days later on March 2, 1966. Given their untimely deaths, there was not much extant information about See and Bassett, so Burgess and Doolan spoke to friends of the astronauts, as well as relatives and coworkers from NASA. They also mined the online oral history collection at the [End Page 413] Johnson Space Center (a treasure trove of first-person accounts from throughout the human space flight program). In doing so...