Category Archives: Biography

“Carrying the Fire” by Michael Collins


Michael Collins, most famous as the third man in the Apollo 11 crew along with Armstrong and Aldrin, is a very gifted writer.  This account of his time as an astronaut – six years and two space flights, Gemini 10 and Apollo 11 – was a joy to read.  Collins seems very down-to-earth and doesn’t take himself too seriously.  Lots of good humor and great storytelling here, along with some very candid impressions and recollections of his fellow astronauts, the training process, and the events of his two space missions.

As I am realizing happens with most men who achieve “greatness,” Collins didn’t set out to particularly do any “great” thing, much less go to the moon.  Rather, he was an intelligent, capable individual who took opportunities as they came.  Collins went first to West Point, then into the Air Force as a pilot, then an experimental test pilot, and finally to the astronaut corps.  Even his assignment to Apollo 11 was somewhat of a fluke; he was originally slated to fly Apollo 8 (which admittedly would have also been a pretty big deal) but had to have neck surgery and was bumped to 11.

There are some funny stories about the astronaut jungle and desert survival training, ostensibly required in case of a landing in some remote area.  Most of the astronauts laughed off this chance; however contingency planning was a hallmark of NASA in these early days.  Much of it was never needed, but Collins agrees it was time and money well spent.  For example, the consideration of using the LM as survival craft was already well documented prior to Apollo 13.

Surprisingly for a pressure suit expert, and as a Gemini EVA veteran, Collins admits to some claustrophobia during certain suit tests, but of course never reported it for fear of being grounded.  Everything ended up just fine during his EVA, but it made me wonder … what other dangerous conditions did other astronauts conceal for fear of losing their chance at glory?  (This is one of those process-breaking things that occur when humans get involved … we are not always dispassionate creatures of logic.)

During a down moment as CAPCOM for Apollo 8, Collins relayed a question from his son to the crew enroute to the moon: “Who’s driving, is it Mr. Borman?” Answer: “Nope, Isaac Newton is driving now.”  It really is incredible how Apollo was shot to the moon – 250,000 miles and three days out, towards a spot ~40 deg away from the moon’s position at launch – and then hitting within 60 miles or so.

As also reported in “First Man”, the Apollo 11 crew didn’t seem to be very close or communicate much beyond the technical.  Collins also reports the same “distance” with John Young during Gemini 10.  Maybe there was just so much going on that there was little time or brainspace to spare for non-technical matters?

The crew knew that Apollo 11 was going to be a big deal and expected a certain amount of fanfare upon their return, but none of them could have predicted what the never-ending fame (including being asked “What was it really like up there?” approximately one million times) would actually be like.  For three introverted engineers, dealing with fame was not always enjoyable.  Furthermore, nothing in life ever really seemed to come close to the challenge or fulfillment that came from making the moon shot.  I guess that nothing on earth can really compare once you’ve already done the impossible.  But I suppose that, among all hardships, this is not the most terrible one to experience.  Also, it really put some problems in perspective – hard to be terribly concerned with issues where lives are not on the line, and also some of planet Earth’s squabbles and feuds seem so small when you can view the whole Earth as a tiny ball outside a single viewport of your spacecraft.  On the other hand, even the great honors of the Earth that were bestowed on the crew don’t seem like much — “through it all, the earth continues to turn on its axis …. I am less impressed by my own disturbance to that serene motion, or by that of my fellow man.”

The crew also returned to a pivotal moment in the future of manned space flight, as the voices in opposition to the vast sums being spent on such endeavors where becoming loud indeed.  Collins’ book was published in 1974 and it is clear he and NASA were at least by then very much on the defensive.  I think he and many in Apollo would be surprised that we still as of 2017 haven’t sent a man to Mars yet — it seemed like the next logical step.

Nearly fifty years too late, but let me say, “Great job, Mike!”  And also to the other astronauts and literally thousands of others who made it all happen.  Apollo is a story which will inspire humanity through the ages.

“First Man” by James R. Hansen


Listened to the audio book.  My impression of Neil is that he was a fine engineer – slightly socially distant and awkward as all good engineers are – and a hard worker intent on completing the job at hand, but very uncomfortable with his unasked-for celebrity status after being the first man to walk on the moon.

In his pre-astronaut days, Neil took pilot lessons of his own initiative at a very early age.  He became one of the youngest fighter pilots in Korea.  Then he took a job with NASA testing the X-15 at Edwards AFB.  When he applied to be in the second group of astronauts, it was almost like the eligibility requirements had been written just for him.  Tragically, just before applying to be an astronaut his 2-year old daughter Karen died.

His first space mission, Gemini 8, was more important than typically remembered, overshadowed as it was by later Apollo 11.  Gemini 8 was the first time two spacecraft docked in orbit.

As for Apollo 11, the lunar landing itself was the real pinnacle of achievement for Neil, not stepping foot on the moon.  The more I learn about Apollo, the more in awe I am at this great engineering achievement.  I wish there was something comparable going on today.

I never knew that Buzz took no pictures of Neil on moon’s surface.  Apparently he just didn’t think about it at the time.  Neil took plenty of Buzz when he was behind the camera.  There’s some who think there might have been some lingering jealously on Buzz’s part, since early on it was thought he might be the first man, but despite (or maybe because of?) some lobbying on his part, the honor was given to mission commander Armstrong (who never sought it).

After the mission, life was never quite the same.  Armstrong easily could have given in to being a “professional celebrity” full-time (and he did do many things to help worthy causes with his notoriety) but he just wanted to keep on being an engineer.  That never really was possible; the myth and legend surrounding him was just too great.  He never sought the limelight and was uncomfortable with constant attention.  Ironically, this relutance may have driven up his public fame “scarcity” and thus drove even more extreme behavior from fans.

Many people tried to “cash in” on even loose associations with Armstrong.  Lots of people from his hometown told blatantly false stories – one in particular stuck in my mind: a local amateur astronomer told the media about how Neil came on a Scouting activity to look through his telescopes and then frequently came to observe the moon and wonder if man would ever go there.  Sounds great, but … not true.

I didn’t know that Neil’s wife Janet left him in the 1990’s.  Apparently, she thought life would calm down after their children grew up and left home, but Neil just kept on going with his many corporate board activities, leaving little time for her.  Also living on a working farm probably didn’t help matters.  Why in the world did they move to a working farm?  That seemed a bit much for him being gone all the time, thus leaving a lot of work on Janet’s plate.  …. doing a little psychoanalyzing here: maybe he was thinking he could get away from the publicity and all by “retiring” to a more pastoral way of life.

“41: A Portrait of My Father” by George W. Bush

In the intro, George W. writes that he heard David Mccollough lament that John Quincy Adams never wrote a bio of his father.  So George W. sets out to rectify that here.  It’s a pretty personal account of George H.W.’s life.  Kind of funny how W. brings up parallels to his own presidency time and again – very different from a typical bio where the author keeps out of it.

George H. W. Bush is a great example of leadership and decency that I wish we had more of in our country today.

A few stories from the book stick in my mind.  As a torpedo bomber pilot in the Navy, Bush was on a mission to attack Chichi Jima when his plane was hit by flak.  He managed to bailout, but got injured in the process.  Luckily some other plane dropped a raft and he madly paddled away from the nearby island.  Some Japanese ships tried to get at him, but they backed off after being strafed by other Navy planes.  Finally, a US submarine rescued Bush.  Some of the Japanese later said how they marveled at all those resources being directed to save a single pilot.

Second is the tragedy of losing daughter Robin at age 3 to leukemia.  I can’t imagine how this must make a parent feel.

Finally, there is the pain of loss in 1992.  George seems to have a bit of a grudge against Ross Perot even now – the split vote was probably the reason for Bush’s loss.

“The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874 – 1932” by William Manchester


First off an appropriate quote on the value of history from Winston himself: “The longer you look back, the farther you can look forward.”

Listened to this book on CD – 32 of them if I remember correctly.  The narrator, Frederick Davidson, initially cracked me up but I ended up really enjoying him – British accent, and he gave all the “characters” different voices.  High pitched for the ladies, a whiny child’s voice for young Winston and a decent Churchill impression for his later years.  He even sang songs a capella when they were quoted in the text.

This monstrous book is undoubtedly a biography, but as Winston was inextricably tied up in the general history of the times it was also a pretty good history of the Victorian British Empire and on into World War One.  I was surprised to learn of the selfishness and neglect from both of Winston’s parents.  His mother was a flapper before it became popular, and his father despised him and seemed generally to be a disagreeable individual.  Winston was basically raised by his nanny, “Woom.”  Despite the neglect, his father was his hero and a life in politics, following in his father’s footsteps, was never a question for Winston.

Winston, nurtured by Macaulay and Gibbon, was a gifted writer from early on.  After graduating from Sandhurst, he became what we would today call a war correspondent.  Although a cavalry officer himself (and gifted polo player), he didn’t really care much for military life, but was fascinated by its potential to make him famous and therefore able to win elections.  He used his mother’s flirtatious connections with the rich and powerful to obtain opportunities to “be there” at various hot spots: Cuba (observer of Spain putting down a native rebellion), Afghanistan, Egypt/Sudan.  (One of his early postings was to India; when the ship was approaching the docks he wrenched his shoulder climbing an iron ring.  This gave him shoulder troubles the rest of his life.  He resolved to carry a pistol since he was not confident he could adequately wield a cavalry saber.  He says this unconventional decision to carry a pistol likely saved his life at Omdurman.)

During the Second Boer War, Winston was captured by the Boers but later escaped from prison camp alone, hopped a train and was eventually smuggled out to Portuguese Africa by British sympathizers.  On this adventure and in other battles he was always daring, fearless, and didn’t regard his own safety.  I got the impression of some calculated bravery on his part — he either thought he was invincible, or maybe was just fatalistic “if it happens, it happens” and chose to live the brave life because that was what would win votes.  Makes me think if he and other similar “war heros” were just lucky winners of survivor bias — I wonder how many others were like him, but not so lucky.

In politics, Winston was one-of-a-kind.  He started out with the Conservative party like his father, then opportunistically jumped to the Liberals.  Then when their star faded, he jumped back to the Conservatives.  “Anybody can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.”  I don’t think he was ever really solid Conservative or Liberal; he was always just Winston.

As First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston took the fall for Gallipoli, even though all agreed it was a good plan at the beginning.  It just suffered from a botched execution, starting with the Czar’s insistence on laying claim to Constantinople when allowing Greece to take it would have pulled them in to the Allied side, and continuing with the timidity of de Robeck and incompetence of Hamilton.  After being forced out of the Admiralty, Winston re-joined the army and spent five months commanding a battalion on Western Front.  Here he exhibited the same disregard for his personal safety as did before.

Winston presciently saw the potentials of new military technology.  He was an early proponent of airplanes; he even took flying lessons himself.  During the War he saw great benefit to the tank at breaking the trench stalemate when no one did.  He oversaw the introduction of the tank as Minister of Munitions, and claimed success after the battle of Cambrai.  (The Germans took note too, and would come back with their own Panzers in 1939!)

As written in the book, World War One was nearly lost before the Americans arrived just in the knick of time.  Maybe the Germans were pressing hard precisely because they knew time was short before the arrival of the American hordes?  In any case, there was almost a silly perception in Britain that “we won the war” when their whole strategy of attrition failed miserably (British losses were almost always proportionally greater than German losses).  Once the Russians were out, I think to anyone it’s clear that Britain was saved only by American involvement.  Winston said something to the effect that “if all we get out of this war is lasting friendship with the Americans, it will be well worth it”  That’s about all they did get out of it; the near term gains of Versailles were not lasting, Britain lost an entire generation of its bravest men and the Empire was poised for dismemberment.

Two other random WWI events that I found fascinating:

“Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson


Great story: Albert Einstein, patent office clerk, upended the scientific world in his “miracle year” of 1905 with four separate revolutionary papers.  The myths about him being a bad student are pretty much untrue; he did end up at the patent office after he had trouble finding an academic job, but that was more due to his contempt for authority and lack of social conformance than any scientific deficiencies.

Einstein was born in the new German Empire, but was disillusioned in his youth with the nationalism that eventually led to WWI.  His concept of political freedom jived more with the Swiss, which is why he went to school in Zurich and worked at the patent office in Bern.   Later, he jumped around a few universities before ending up in Berlin for many years; but left for Princeton in the early 1930’s (although not to Princeton University – he was with the Institute for Advanced Study) as Einstein’s Jewish background and political ideas clashed with the rising Nazis.

As successful as Einstein was professionally, he was mediocre at best or even a failure in the home.  His self-described “happiest point in his life” was when he finalized his general relativity equations … precisely the time as his first marriage had just failed and WWI was in full swing.  They guy was really motivated by his work!!  Before his divorce from Mileva Maric (and later remarriage to his cousin Elsa), they tried separating for a time and even wrote up a spectacular “contract” that included her not speaking to him and serving meals in his room…. sheesh.

Stemming from the 1905 papers, Einstein is considered a founder of both relativity theory (primarily an explanation of gravity) and quantum theory.  He always objected to the key tenant of quantum theory that there is an inherent randomness in the universe, particularly that certain states are unknown and actually indeterminate until they are measured.  He preferred to think of an absolute underlying reality that we just don’t understand enough to characterize.

Einstein’s work past age 40 concerned the quest for a unified field theory, which would unify both gravity and electromagnetism.  Unfortunately, experimental results over the same period pushed physics into the other direction – more fragmentation rather than unity.  Still, Einstein kept at it, but never had much to show.

Favorite Einstein quotes:

To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.

I have no special talents; I am only passionately curious.

“Beyond the Hundredth Meridian” by Wallace Stegner


I put this book on my to-read list after seeing the Powell monument at the Grand Canyon a few years back.  Kind of a dated book in terms of some of the Western policy discussion (but a lot is still relevant) but at least it begins with a good adventure.

A surprisingly unimportant fact about John Wesley Powell, given all that he later achieved, was that he lost an arm during the Civil War.  Thereafter, his initial claim to fame was leading the first expedition which ran the Colorado River, from the Green River in Wyoming all the way to about present-day Las Vegas. (the river had been explored up from the mouth to that point already by others)  Each rapid was a plunge into the unknown.  When possible, they emptied the boats, carrying their supplies by foot to be reloaded at a safer place downriver, and gently lowered the boats by ropes.  But there were other times when no landings were available and they had to run the rapid blind.  At one such point near the end of the trip, a couple of Powell’s companions called it quits rather than face the rapid.  They were later killed by Indians while trying to hike out to Mormon settlements.

Afterwards, Powell led up a geographical survey which returned him to the same part of the country.  He often used Indian guides (sometimes through intermediaries like Jacob Hamblin) to find accessible paths to certain points along the river.   He became interested in Indian culture and ethnology, and eventually convinced enough Senators in Washington to set him up as the first head of the Bureau of Ethnology, under the Smithsonian.

Powell’s political wheeling and dealing was not nearly finished.  He must have been a very shrewd persuader because he frequently got funding through unusual means, like as an add-on rider to some larger appropriations bill.  Like the geological systems he studied, he figured out how Congress and government worked, and used that to his advantage.  He eventually became the second head of the US Geological Survey (after largely instigating its creation), leading the noble effort to map the country.

Powell became very influential on Western policy issues.  Powell’s firm belief was that the West was fundamentally different from the rest of the country due to aridity and thus should be settled differently and much more sparsely.  This was at odds with a view of a land of milk and honey (and gold, copper, and silver) espoused by Gilpin and Stewart.   Powell was eventually forced out of his position at the USGS by pro-settlement factions, but I believe he has been vindicated by history as many current policies seem to follow his initial vision.  He saw the most danger in the “in-between” lands — those places where, to the East, there is plenty of rainfall; to the far West is the desert, where there is no way to survive but by irrigation, but once established agriculture is fairly secure — but in the middle, a string of good rainfall years trick settlers into thinking the land is good, but there can just as easily be a string of bad years which induce famine and hardship.

“Duty” by Robert M. Gates


Been listening to this on CD for several weeks now.  Quite a lot packed in here.  Mostly about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which Gates was brought into for salvage duty.  Often frustrated with dealing with a two-million strong military bureaucracy, he nonetheless worked to improve the lot of the troops in the field by providing MRAPs and improving healthcare, while at the same time re-focusing the leadership on getting the job done.

He expressed great respect for both Bush and Obama, who both made independent, courageous decisions often against the wishes of their advisers.  It’s easy to lob criticism against the president, whoever he might be; but considering the immediacy of problems requiring a decision, the risks involved, the uncertainty of information, and the variety of viewpoints surrounding them, they do all right.  It’s almost a wonder that we are still here as a nation.

In the book’s closing remarks, Gates echoes lessons that hopefully our leadership has learned and will remember:  our military is strong (necessarily since we have many enemies) but do not let that cause us to be too quick to wage war.  And remember that exit strategies are important, up front!

Finally this was somewhere in the book … never heard it before but it rings true.  “People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” (attributed to George Orwell)   Thanks, guys.

“Junipero Serra” by Steven W. Hackel


Junipero Serra, a native Mallorcan, had a comfortable existence as a religious teacher and scholar at the Llullian University in Palma. In his mid-thirties, around the mid-1700’s, he felt the call and volunteered for service in New Spain. He spent the rest of his life in Mexico, and later what would become California. Just from that, you know we’re talking about someone with courage, faith, and determination. An adventurer into the unknown.

One thing that Serra and other Franciscans reveled in was personal physical suffering, since it helped them become one with Christ. Self-flagellation, tight bands embedded with spikes around arms and legs, hitting one’s chest with a rock, and wearing shirts made from hair (because they were itchy, I guess?) were all part of the game. Serra also suffered a leg injury early in his time in Mexico for which he refused treatment — the pain and inconvenience it caused him throughout the remainder of his life were great pluses in his mind.

Some Franciscans at the time believed the prophecies of a Spanish nun who “bilocated” periodically to California and proclaimed that the natives would fall to their knees and become converted merely upon seeing a Franciscan. Turns out this was not the case, but it was a worthy carrot for Serra and others to pursue.

As missions were established (starting with San Diego in 1769, shortly followed by Serra’s HQ of San Carlos, near Monterrey the following year), Serra struggled more and more with the local Spanish authorities for control of the converts and the mission economy. Some in the government wanted the missionaries to solely concern themselves with preparing Sunday services, but Franciscans saw their role as much more overarching and paternalistic than that.

The modus operandi seemed to be to entice the natives with free food and gifts, teaching and baptizing when they could. Once a convert, each Indian was expected to take up Spanish-style agriculture and live at the mission, and follow all Catholic strictures. Whipping was the standard penalty for desertion or disobedience.  According to Hackel, corporal punishment, common in Europe, was unknown among the California tribes.  Some modern-day critics have called the arrangements more concentration camp than religious center, but ya always gotta judge to the local/temporal standards…

One thing that dovetailed into recent reading of 1491 was the remark that the natives were punished for burning the landscape.  As we know from that other book however, this was a key component of native subsistence agriculture, which they were now punished for practicing.

In Serra’s time, native convert populations at missions slowly grew. Success (a utopia of Catholic natives?) seemed to be at hand … but shortly after Serra’s death, the missions were repeatedly struck by disease. California’s native population went from about 300,000 in 1769 to 50,000 during the Gold Rush, less than 100 years later.

“Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton” by Edward Rice


Richard Burton, British. Occupation: Adventurer, Linguist, Author. Intensely driven by a compulsion to explore the unknown and then write it up in books.

He started out traveling all over Europe as a boy and young man. Then he was off to India as a soldier with the East India Company. He didn’t see much military action, but carried out numerous “secret missions” for Gen. Napier. (Unfortunately, they were apparently so secret that nothing really remains to document what he did; a shame.) Wherever he went, Burton liked to mingle with the natives, seemingly trying to become one of them by participating in their rituals, learning their language, and … sleeping with their women. Burton completely rejected traditonal Victorian morality. This and other character traits (I never got the impression of Burton as a “nice guy”) undoubtedly ruffled some feathers with those back home.

Burton also seemed to be seeking for some sort of missing spirituality in his life. He had great interest in immersing himself in the “mystical” aspects of the cultures and religions he studied. At one point he joined a Hindu snake cult and later a group of Sufi Muslims. Disguised as a native, he became a hajji by making the pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the first Europeans to (illicitly) do so and then live to write about it.

Still not done with adventuring, he journeyed through eastern Africa, searching for the source of the Nile with the (comparitively) bumbling and boorish Speke.

Burton was quite popular due to his books and his skills were ackowledged by the British government, although many seemed to be wary of him as somewhat of a loose cannon or a foreigner himself, despite his British birth. Some of these misgivings forced him out of a choice diplomatic post in Damascus, and saw him shuttered away in a much “safer” post in Trieste. The days of adventure were mostly done; he passed the time continuing to write and translate, particularly erotic works (see above re: Victorian morality…)

In somewhat less exotic circumstances, Burton also visited Salt Lake City to investigate the Mormons.  He wrote a book about it, and was apparently not unimpressed with Brigham and the Saints.  He also described Mormonism as at least as mature and fleshed out as any of the other religions he knew.

Interesting fellow who traveled far. I hope he found what he was looking for.

“Mornings on Horseback” by David McCullough


Audio, abridged version. (I really dislike abridged books, especially of someone like McCullough!  Inadvertently selected this version.  Needless to say I was very perplexed when about 1/3 through, the [decent] male narrator’s voice was replaced by some monotone woman … luckily just to bridge the gap, so to speak.)

I like Roosevelt.  I like his “take the bull by the horns” approach to life.  He is so … genuine.  He knows what’s what and is not afraid to tell you about it or even die for it.

I read another TR biography some years before starting this blog.  McCullough’s version is kind of different from that more general biography in that it focuses solely on his early life, pretty much before his involvement in politics on a national scale.  TR came from wealth and because of that had a lot of freedom.  No formal schooling, just tutors and direct exploration-style learning during his family’s year-long trips to Europe or Egypt.  At the same time, he and his family had a lot of health challenges to deal with — money can’t buy everything.  I sensed a lot of love in his family.  His father, Theodore Sr., was a pretty great man in his own right.  It’s kind of sad how unremembered he is, even if it is mainly due to the oversized shadow of his son.

I still cry a little when I hear about Theodore’s reaction on the day both his wife and mother died: “The light has gone out of my life.”