Book Review: The Real Space Cowboys

Ed Buckbee started working for NASA in 1959 and was eventually a public affairs officer for the Mercury and other programs. He has kept involved with the United States and international space program. He is also the founder of Space Camp, an educational facility for young want-to-be astronauts. Wally Schirra is one of the original seven astronauts, known as the Mercury Seven. He flew in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. Given this involvement and their obvious continual passion for space, their book is filled with vivid memories and thoughtful recollections of many of the most well known participants, such as Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Werhner von Braun. Through the judicious use of quotations and well detailed settings, this book brings to life many memorable and probably unknown personal events.

As with any diary, this book journeys down memory lane. The topics flow through chronologically from about the early 1960’s when a squirrel monkey named Miss Baker went into orbit. It ends with taikonauts and the rising stars of Space Camp. Details of bathroom pranks, rocket men in cowboy hats and turtle club antics show an inclination less to factual dissertations and more to the warmer, funny side of things. Most of the writing seems to come from Buckbee’s own experiences. However many quotes, mainly from the Mercury 7 astronauts, bring to life other participants’ feelings regarding space flight, tragedies and hard work. Further, Buckbee has added many photographs of relevant people (and himself) at auspicious occasions. From it all, the message conveys an appreciation of the continual overwork, levity and trepidation that was part of the astronauts’ everyday lives at the forefront of technology.

Separate chapters focus uniquely on each of the Mercury Seven. These principally have direct quotes from those alive or fond remembrances of colleagues since gone. President Kennedy, a recognized driving force for the program, has a chapter that focuses on his involvement. The chapter of Wernher von Braun, the rocket man spirited over from Germany after the end of World War II, highlights his views on travelling to Mars. Most of all though, Alan Shepard’s memories, spirited ‘gotcha’s, and contributions predominate, including a touching memorial to him and his wife Louise. Though not all these people personified the traditional cowboy, they certainly were significant figures in the U.S.’s space program.

Recorded on a DVD attached to the back is a collection of videos. These range from documentaries, to conferences and onto joke films all directly or closely related to the Mercury astronauts. A film clip of Schirra’s ‘roasts’ Shepard after his flight into space. Some rather dry conferences with question and answer periods show astronauts responding to questions from the public. Documentaries, such as the one of Skylab, show the glossy period pieces. Whether for propaganda purposes, advertising or simple stress relief, each film clip adds to the people and events of the book.

The title reference to cowboys presumably acknowledges the typical traits of the astronauts. Or, it is a reference to a picture of Schirra ‘riding’ his Sigma 7 Mercury spacecraft at a museum. Whichever, the book never defines the traits of a cowboy nor how the astronauts had similarities. Nor does the issue of real versus fake appear. Perhaps Buckbee was alluding to the astronauts independence and self confidence which does manifest itself. In addition, the book has the feel of coming from a public relations department. This is not all that bad, as the perspective is unique and close to the action. However, everything has a very positive spin. From this perspective, all the people worked hard, did great deeds and never seemed to have any of the common human failings. Perhaps this is the greatest discrepancy as there are many unpleasantries and failures associated with cowboys of the wild west.

A diary, like this book, is a fun trip down memory lane. The Real Space Cowboys a book by Ed Buckbee with Wally Schirra provides this trip. And coming from the NASA public relations official involved with the program and an astronaut, you can be certain it provides a complimentary, close-in perspective. This together with the many photographs and the included film footage makes travelling this lane a joy.

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Review by Mark Mortimer