More than a half century ago, President John F. Kennedy stood in Rice Stadium in Houston and delivered a speech that captured the romance of space exploration, set the nation on the course to the moon, and inspired a generation of Americans to reach to the heavens.
For that generation, the Kennedy message — to take on challenges “not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” and to regard the goal of a lunar landing as a way to “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills” — still resonates.
But Benjamin Johncock, the British author of an especially evocative and poignant new paean to the aura of astronauts and Atlas boosters, wasn’t born until a decade and a half after the Kennedy speech. That’s all the more reason to regard “The Last Pilot,” a first novel that takes the approach of adding a fictional person to real historical events, as a remarkable achievement. Inserting an enigmatic character into one of the great narratives of the 20th century — his astronaut, Jim Harrison, joins the familiar figures of Gus Grissom, Donald Slayton, Jim Lovell, and Ed White — Johncock weaves a beguiling story, set to the soundtrack of Camelot.
This is a world of test pilots possessed of fierce courage and recklessness, and of stay-at-home, bouffant-hair wives with two black dresses, one to wear at airmen’s funerals while the other is at the cleaners. In these early days of NASA, fueled by physics and physical courage, astronauts packed themselves into metal cans and let missiles thrust them beyond the surly bonds of earth, sunward climbing.
Jim and Grace Harrison fit the stereotypes, but their lives diverge from the eager full-speed-ahead, bear-any-burden narrative set by Life magazine. With a child dead at two and a splintered marriage, theirs is a life of tragedy in an era of triumph. Their grief is understated, as in the spare account of their daughter’s death: “Grace was in the kitchen when he came down, her hand on the handle of the fridge. He stood in the doorway and didn’t move. She looked at him, and he looked at her, and she knew, and her fingers fell from the handle.’’
As Johncock relates, Jim Harrison is dropped into the second round of NASA astronauts, along with Pete Conrad and Frank Borman. He is the backup crew member, along with Neil Armstrong, on Gemini 5 — Elliot M. See Jr., the real backup who later died in a jet crash while training for Gemini 9, is not mentioned here — and he is initially slated to fly, with Armstrong, on the ill-fated Gemini 8. Our fictional astronaut, lacking the emotional stability required, is removed from the flight manifest. Gemini 8 takes off, docks with an Agena target vehicle, and then spins out of control without him.
Many of these men are garlanded with nicknames. Slayton, the aeronautical-engineer-turned-test-pilot scrubbed from his Mercury flight by atrial fibrillation, is “Deke,” and John A. Powers, known as the voice of Mission Control, is “Shorty” — I had to look up Powers’ real name. In life and in these pages, all of them are hard-driving, hard-living, and hard-loving, suited to the hard period of the Cold War and the hard deadline of 1970 that Kennedy set in his Sept. 12, 1962, speech at Rice.
This account inevitably will be compared to “The Right Stuff,” and “The Last Pilot” is indeed indelibly marked by Tom Wolfe’s 1979 novel, especially in its gleeful mocking of the all-America persona of the gung-ho John H. Glenn Jr., the first American to orbit the earth and the only member of the Original Seven astronauts still alive.
Johncock acknowledges the debt but generally goes his own way. This is a book that hooks the reader from the very first sentence, setting the scene at the scrub of Cape Canaveral: “It was a stretch of wretched land bleached and beaten by the relentless salt winds that howled in off the Atlantic, forsaken by God to man for the testing of dangerous new endeavors.”
That it was, but it also was the launching pad for a thousand dreams, or at least for many during Kennedy’s Thousand Days. Some of those dreams are still aloft, held close by dreamers who have aged — but who will surely find comfort in these pages, lit by the fire of 1960s adventure, and also by the blazing beauty of a new literary star.
THE LAST PILOT
By Benjamin Johncock
Picador, 320 pp., $26
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.