An engineer and software manager who worked on both the Apollo and space shuttle flights rehearses some behind-the-scenes activity during the decades he worked with NASA.
In his debut, Clemons, now a freelance writer and speaker, begins with some background—e.g., John F. Kennedy’s vow to send Americans to the moon; the author’s youthful love of science fiction—and then proceeds chronologically through some of NASA’s great successes and failures. The author is adept at explaining complicated technical concepts by employing quotidian analogues (how a “free-return trajectory” is similar to tossing a ball), so general readers will have little trouble navigating his pages. He is also generous with praise for his colleagues, celebrating their contributions, and he offers startling reminders: NASA was still basically in the slide-rule, pre-computer era when they first landed men on the moon in July 1969. One of the most gripping segments deals with Apollo 13 (“Houston, we’ve had a problem”) and the eponymous movie, which Clemons discusses flatteringly. (He also alludes to the recent film Hidden Figures.) During the shuttle missions, the author worked on the software, a massive undertaking that he describes in rich detail; he notes how virtually impossible it is to create error-free computer code and how close to that objective the shuttle engineers came. He deals, too, with the great NASA tragedies: the Apollo 1 fire, the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Clemons writes only briefly about his personal life—his marriage, fatherhood, divorce, and eventual change of career when he left the space program in the mid-1980s. These events and experiences are mostly breaths he takes before diving back into his primary narrative. In a lengthy appendix, he deals with some common questions and dismisses as “silly stories” the rumors that the moon landings were faked. A narrative rocket-powered by experience, intelligence, knowledge, and gratitude.