We Have Capture: Tom Stafford and the Space Race.
From schoolboy in Oklahoma to plebe at Annapolis, from Air Force test pilot to NASA astronaut, Lt Gen Tom Stafford, USAF, retired, has recounted one man's success in an easily read book. But it is also much more. We Have Capture is an examination of an intriguing period of history from the point of view of one of the few insiders.
Using the maturation of the US Manned Space Program as a backdrop, General Stafford gives the reader a lively tour of his personal recollections of NASA, the Cold War, detente with the Soviets, and the maturation of human interaction in space. Although his scope ranges from his childhood and the World War II era, the meat of the book covers the space race to the end of the century, particularly from the Gemini program to the international space station. Famous names and familiar visuals of space missions leap off each page. Also, Stafford nicely peppers the book with comical asides and unique stories that even trivia-savvy space hobbyists will find remarkable.
His juxtaposition of American and Soviet space stories is pointed and insightful--and makes the book unique. Several of the longer stories work on many levels: technical, historical, political, and personal. For example, on 29 June 1971, Soyuz 11 's crew left Salyut, the world's first manned space station. Supposed to land just before dawn in Central Asia, the crew members completed their reentry maneuver and then fired the retro-rockets. The descent module parachuted to a landing in Kazakhstan. But when members of the recovery team arrived, they found all three cosmonauts mysteriously dead.
General Stafford then concisely explains how the men died and what the ramifications on the ground entailed, both politically and for him personally. I like the way he segues from expositor of technical detail to storyteller here. Soyuz 11 's misfortune becomes another story--one about Stafford's introduction to dealing with the Soviets and meeting a lifelong friend who reappears throughout the book.
On a family vacation to Europe at the time of the Soyuz 11 accident, Stafford was unexpectedly called to duty as a diplomat--appointed stand-in for President Richard Nixon at the cosmonauts' state funeral. As a fellow space explorer, Stafford was invited to serve as a pallbearer. The funeral was a solemn event, made even less bearable by tedious Communist political speeches. Stafford noted the Soviet guards "fainting and falling to the pavement." The morning after the service, Stafford's host, a Russian cosmonaut general named Beregovoi, held Stafford's commercial plane on the flight line. As Stafford was about to board to return to his family, his host announced, "We need some vodka." When Stafford protested, the general replied that "the plane doesn't leave until I say it does" and then asked, "Do you like caviar? ... Come here! You need a snack." As they drank, the passengers waited. The scene provides a quick, comical example of Soviet power and attitude.
Another layer to this story involves Stafford's meeting in Moscow during the memorial ceremonies with Aleksie Leonov, the cosmonaut who was supposed to have led the fatal Soyuz 11 mission. Stafford maintained a relationship with Leonov, and they were partners on the Apollo-Soyuz project. They remain friends to this day. Thus, Stafford and his collaborator Michael Cassutt make the book more than a typical memoir by recounting key Soviet space events and the career progression of certain cosmonauts in parallel with Stafford's own rapid pace through the ranks of the Air Force and NASA.
I found the chapter "Handshake in Space," devoted to the Apollo-Soyuz mission of June 1975, particularly interesting. When I was a young astronaut wanna-be back then, this mission became a significant milestone in my decision to be an Air Force officer. I had the good fortune to be escorted behind the scenes in Houston by a family member who worked in mission control. I remember the real-time video of astronauts and cosmonauts in space. The experience was a genuine thrill, now enhanced by reading about the hidden, inside story.
Stafford's parallel recounting of Soviet and US space achievements from the 1960s seems to lead to the Apollo-Soyuz mission, which included three years of political wrangling, long sessions of training, and getting to know and trust one another. I appreciate Stafford's detailed description of the training and behind-the-scenes intrigue that attempted to pry open the Iron Curtain--if only just a little. The challenges and successes of the mission also add great color. The story of the Apollo capsule's rough return to Earth contains enough technical stick-and-rudder details to satisfy my tastes, with plenty of realism that allowed me to picture what was happening.
General Stafford's humor also adds a nice touch to the book. After the rendezvous between the Soyuz and Apollo craft and the historic docking, Stafford knocked on the hatch leading to the Soyuz module. Leonov, his friend and Soviet cosmonaut commander, responded, "Kto Budet tam?" [Who's there?]. Nice. I also found the Soviets' hide-and-seek antics, pretending that their space program was civilian rather than military, comical but insightful. In one instance, US cooperation with the Soviets was almost scrubbed until Stafford used his personal connections to convince them to come clean on Soyuz incidents and failures before Congress found out.
All in all, We Have Capture is a great book for space and history buffs. It is especially appropriate reading during our celebration of the centennial of flight this year. However, I also think it is just a good book for airmen. General Stafford was famous not only for being a legendary Gemini and Apollo astronaut, but also for being instrumental in the development of the B-2 and the international space station, and for bettering Russo-American relations. His book goes beyond NASA and delves into Air Force stealth testing; the complexities of serving as a staff officer; and some of Stafford's entrepreneurial, corporate, and philanthropic projects--including health imaging, student scholarships, and the Stafford Commission. His personal achievements and lessons in dealing with internal NASA politics and the Soviets (and then the Russians on the international space station), as well as his personal asides, lead me to strongly recommend We Have Capture.
Lt Col Merrick E. Krause, USAF
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|Author:||Krause, Merrick E.|
|Publication:||Air & Space Power Journal|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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