Friday, September 27, 2013

The moon is as big as a basketball

The "space race" was actually a byproduct of the "arms race" between the USA and USSR and had its beginnings in Nazi Germany. In September 1944, Hitler's army began launching V-2 rockets, the world's first ballistic missiles, against Britain. And when the war ended the Americans and Soviets quickly spirited away any bit of this new technology they could find, including the scientists and engineers who had developed it.

But while America subsequently pursued a strategy of long-range bombers to deliver nuclear weapons, the USSR began a missile program which couldn't be defended against like a squadron of flying planes could be. The genius behind their program was a Soviet engineer named Sergey Korolev (or Korolyov) but known outside a very small circle only as the "Chief Designer." After getting the rockets to work he convinced Nikita Khruschev to pursue the launch of the world's first artificial satellite, and on October 4, 1957 Sputnik was launched. But while most leaders in both countries dismissed it as a ridiculous waste of resources, the public was fascinated and terrified by this newly demonstrated capability of the Russians. It quickly turned into a public relations coup.

But Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age isn't just a history of the beginnings of the space program. Matthew Brzezinski delves into the internal politics of both the Soviet Union and the United States, and that is perhaps the strongest part of the book. From Khruschev and the Kremlin to Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon, the politics of the space race are discussed in detail which never became boring. He also mixes in relevant side stories, such as the U-2 spy planes which so infuriated Khruschev, as well as Korolev's rivalry with Valentin Glushko, another brilliant Soviet rocket scientist. Wernher von Braun, the former Nazi developer of the V-2 who later helped Walt Disney pitch Disneyland's Tomorrowland on ABC television, became the head of America's missile program, and is a central part of the American story.

Brzezinski's story-telling skills are superb, and although news from NASA has became fairly mundane, he takes the political intrigue and technological setbacks behind the scenes and turns it into a gripping narrative. You could feel the exhilaration at the successful launch of Sputnik, and the disappointment when the American Vanguard rocket exploded on the launch pad. Alternating back and forth between the Soviets and the Americans, he keeps the information and action flowing fast. If you liked Annie Jacobsen's Area 51 or just enjoy Cold War history this book will become one of your "all-time most favorite books ever," too.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Six Frigates

We tend to forget that 1776 wasn't the end of America's struggle for independence. Fighting didn't even end until 1783 and the country wasn't exactly unified – it was just a loose confederation of thirteen states. And it wasn't until the Constitution was adopted in 1787 that we had a real government with George Washington as President. Even then Great Britain kept pushing us around while France and Spain waited patiently for the fragile republic to fall apart so they could pick off the pieces. It wasn't really until the War of 1812 (which finished in 1814 and could reasonably be considered the end of the Revolutionary War) that America had proven itself.

But keeping America free during those intervening years turned out to be a real struggle. After the troubles with Britain, many of the Founding Fathers had a strong aversion to having a standing army – it was seen as dangerous – so after the Revolutionary War the small Continental Navy was disbanded. However, with the predations of pirates and privateers upon American merchant vessels and shipping interests, it soon became clear that a navy was essential, especially at a time when the British Royal Navy was the undisputed ruler of the seas. At the urging of Vice President John Adams, President Washington authorized the building of six frigates, which was a type of warship at the time. Washington was given a list of names for the ships and he simply chose the first six that were on the list – United States, President, Congress, Constitution, Constellation, and Chesapeake – and Ian W. Toll writes a real page-turner in his book Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy that is one of my "all-time most favorite books ever."

Shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys was chosen to design the frigates and came up with a plan that accommodated many of the advantages of ships that were both larger and smaller than frigates typical of the time. And although the ships were all built in different shipyards, what resulted were strong ships which performed surprisingly well in the Quasi-War with France, the conflicts with the Barbary pirates of Africa, and against Britain in the War of 1812. The captains and admirals involved are discussed, such as Truxton, Bainbridge, Decatur, Hull and Rodgers, and they and their exploits and accomplishments come alive in wonderful detail, and many nations – especially Britain – were forced to come to terms with the idea of another nation with a strong presence on the seas.

I was thoroughly surprised by how engaging and readable this book is – I honestly had not expected much from "a history of the founding of the U. S. Navy." But Mr. Toll (a financial analyst and political aide, of all things!) has written an outstanding and well-researched book that makes an otherwise little-known part of history come alive. The only book that comes close, in my opinion, is Perilous Fight by Stephen Budiansky which covers a much shorter period of time and focuses on the War of 1812. From the brutality and violence of sea battles to the political rivalries and economic challenges, the history is placed into proper context to allow the reader to understand the forces behind the decisions and the historical impact. I was almost sad to see this book end and look forward to reading his next book... if I ever find time to get around to it!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Big Sur 2013

Do you know how hard it is to get camping reservations in California?  It takes persistence and skill, but mostly a whole lot of luck.

A few months ago Jamie was just checking to see if anything was available and came across a few openings at Big Sur.  We haven't been up there in years so that's where we spent our Labor Day weekend along with our good friends the Jorgenson's.  It was kind of weird going camping without Braiden (who's on his mission in England) so Scott came with us and the Jorgenson's brought Harrison.

We stopped to see zebras near Hearst Castle, because - after all - how often do you see a herd of zebras in California?

What is this, an animal theme?  Next we stopped to see Elephant seals...

... and here we are on the side of the road looking at whale spouts on the ocean.
Even the girls and Rob jumped off the rock.  This is Harrison, Logan, Tahoe, and Taylor.

It's kind of hard to see but in the shadows there's McWay Falls - a waterfall right on the beach.

Is there a more beautiful coast in the world?  I don't think so.

Of course, Taylor takes the unconventional way across the bridge.

I'm sure Pfieffer Falls is a lot prettier when there's more water.

Big Sur isn't just beautiful coastline - it's beautiful redwoods, too.

Last time we were at Pfieffer Beach (in 2005) Maddie was really small.  Here she is (on the right) with her cousins Grace and Jesse.

This time Maddie was the only one there.

And you think the boys could resist climbing those big rocks on the beach?
There were about a dozen more beautiful pictures that I'd like to have included, but gotta stop at some point.  It was fun.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Tin cans

"Our schoolchildren should know about [this] incident, and our enemies should ponder it."
 – Herman Wouk (in his novel War and Remembrance)

I decided to pull out some old Amazon reviews of a few of my "all-time most favorite books ever" that I haven't posted here before, and I'll start with James D. Hornfischer's The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour.

In late October 1944 the US Navy guarded the seas off the Philippines protecting the return of General MacArthur. With Admiral Kinkaid's 7th Fleet guarding from the south and Admiral Halsey's 3rd Fleet guarding the north, the ships in the middle didn't expect to see much action. But Japan knew their days were numbered and invented a daring plan to protect their position and resources in the Philippines by attacking from both sides. Kinkaid's troops soundly defeated Nishimura and Shima in the Surigao Strait, but Halsey had very foolishly abandoned the San Bernardino Strait in the north. He wasn't happy with his mostly passive role in the battle, and after a minor skirmish with the Japanese he chased after Ozawa and was baited away into a chase to the north instead of guarding his assigned position. This let Kurita through and left the small destroyers and carrier escorts of Taffy 3 to bear the full brunt of the largest ships to ever sail the seas.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the men put up a brave front against the monstrous Japanese ships, trying to protect the small carriers which were essential to the landing invasion. Between daring torpedo runs by the destroyer escorts (known to the sailors as "tin cans") and relentless attacks by the few planes which were able to get airborne (almost all without proper armaments and some without any at all) the Americans put up such a fierce fight that Kurita was unsure of the true strength he faced. He even thought he must be facing the absent Halsey. In the end the Japanese suffered such serious losses that they retreated, but not before sinking 3 destroyers and the only American carrier sunk by enemy surface fire. (The battle also saw the first sinking of an American ship by a feared new Japanese weapon – the kamikaze suicide pilot – when the St. Lo of Taffy 2 was sunk.)

This is an excellent and highly inspirational account of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, or more specifically the Battle off Samar, fought by the men of Taffy 3 Task Unit. The sad part is that Admiral Halsey managed to very skillfully and unjustly take credit for the victory even though his ego had prompted him on a wild goose chase, while the bravery of the men who actually fought went mostly unsung. They endured relentless pounding by far bigger ships with bigger bombs and many spent 48 hours floating in the wide ocean waiting for a rescue that came shamefully late. But this is a story of the kind of bravery that won the war in the Pacific – even retreating Japanese soldiers saluted the men in the water as they steamed by. It's the kind of story that makes you appreciate the incredible valor and sacrifices men made during the war.

Just a note about reading James Hornfischer: I've read two of his books and have had another on the shelf for years now (another problem with getting so many books from Vine – I don't always get around to reading those on my list) but he's a bit challenging to read, especially when you're unfamiliar with ships and planes. Once I stopped worrying about trying to understand and remember all the technical details it became a lot more enjoyable. But please do not let that stop you from reading his outstanding histories – especially this one!