[3 March 2009]
It’s hard to put one’s finger on the flaws in Michael D’Antonio’s A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey, yet reading the book leaves a strangely empty experience. Despite being packed full of facts, many of which were painstakingly rounded up by the author through a series of firsthand interviews, D’Antonio’s book fizzles like the ill-fated Vanguard rocket described in Chapter Six (“The Acid Test”).
Perhaps there is something that disappoints about reading of the achievements that led to manned space flight without actually getting to read about manned space flight. The names of Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong are dangled in front of the reader, but the narrative of this slim volume stops with the launch of the Atlas 10-B intercontinental ballistic missile.
Subtitled 1957—The Space Race Begins, the book spends as much time on 1958 as it does on 1957, which is a good thing considering all that happened that year. D’Antonio’s climactic event—the success of the December 1958 Atlas launch—is the breakthrough that paved the way for the entire US space program, something that America’s best scientific minds were still far from achieving in 1957. Doubtless it would have been less catchy to subtitle the volume “1957-57: The Space Race Begins Rather Slowly,” but it might have been best to leave the year out of the title entirely.
It’s clear that D’Antonio has a vast and detailed store of knowledge about the key players, American and Russian alike, who were in on the ground floor of the space race. Yet some of his characters, however interesting, seem to get left along the wayside as his narrative moves along. One reads with interest about the young female reporter, Wickie Stivers of Cape Canaveral, who found herself among the small press corps covering the attempted Vanguard satellite launch in December 1957. D’Antonio describes Stivers’ popularity as a local radio broadcaster, her connections to the Cape military base, her reporter’s chops and her dubious distinction as the namesake for a mouse—“Wickie Mouse”—which was sent up into space as an Air Force test subject in 1958 to test the effects of space flight on mammals.
The event proved helpful for Stivers, whose newfound fame landed her magazine interviews and spots on popular television programs such as What’s My Line. Yet this promising young journalist talent, we are told, ends up as a stewardess.
A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey has more stories of people like Stivers, whose fleeting connections to the space race seem to lead nowhere. While some of them prove amusing, such as New York Times reporter James “Scotty” Reston’s automobile trip across Russia in 1957, others seem to add little to the meaning of D’Antonio’s narrative, such as the story of Air Force radio specialist Bradford Whipple, who is enlisted by some shady characters to steal a model of Sputnik from Expo ‘58 in Brussels.
What to make of the inclusion of Stivers, Whipple, et al. in this story? Certainly D’Antonio points out that these people’s lives, like so many others, were propelled in unexpected directions by the space boom. But this fact seems tangential to the story he’s trying to tell—the story of how and why the United States and Soviet Union poured human and financial resources into their quest for bigger, better, faster and smarter rockets and satellites. One suspects D’Antonio may have included Stivers just so we’d get the “Wickie Mouse” joke.
But in fairness, A Ball, a Dog and a Monkey does offer an intriguing look at the birth of the US space program, the Eisenhower administration and the late ‘50s in America. The men (for they were mostly men) who sent the first American satellites and rockets into space were a varied and interesting bunch, and D’Antonio does them justice, shading the nuances of their personalities with a seemingly endless store of information. The climactic event of the book—the launch of the Atlas 10-B—is described in painstaking detail, painting a vivid picture of a historic day seen by the men who made that history happen.
D’Antonio’s knack for gentle humor also enlivens his stories, keeping the unscientific reader engaged through his discussions of satellite trajectories, atmospheric conditions and radio signals. It’s just a shame that some of these stories get obscured by the Wickie Stivers and Bradford Whipples of the bunch.