Falling for Wilbur: My year in flight

If someone had told me a year ago that the bulk of my 2013 reading-life would be spent with rocket engineers, astronauts, and flight pioneers, I would have said, “You’re nuts.”

But that is exactly what happened after a long visit to the Kennedy Space Center during late November of 2012. Wandering through the Rocket Garden, I realized how little I knew about the space program. Even basic facts like the timeline from Mercury to Apollo were a mystery, all jumbled in my brain. It scared me a little, this void, and I decided to fill these holes in my knowledge— something I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to do.

I started with A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey (1957–The Space Race Begins) which led to Wernher Von Braun and the Nazi engineers who came to the United States after WWII. One book snowballed into another and I ended up with a five-book reading plan, a solid—and very readable foundation—for anyone interested in space or just simply American history:

A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey: 1957–The Space Race Begins by Michael D’Antonio – Describes the early days of America’s space obsession complete with exploding rockets and Florida hijinks.

Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe – A tour de force which will leave you completely in awe of Chuck Yeager.

A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin – An amazing, detailed portrait of the Apollo program and all its astronauts.

Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War by Michael Neufeld – A balanced biography of the rocket pioneer from his roots in Germany to his success with the Saturn V.

Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut by Mike Mullane – Combines fraternity-boy humor with a poet’s sensibilities. Very readable and entertaining.

But it was two earlier flight pioneers who truly captured my heart and imagination. During the same trip in which I encountered the Kennedy Space Center, I also visited Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. There I explored Wright Brothers National Memorial and realized the gaps in my knowledge were worse than I imagined. I spent the next month with James Tobin’s To Conquer The Air—the perfect blend of literary journalism, where research and gorgeous writing fuse into a flawless readable mix: nonfiction that reads like fiction (when I grow up I want to write just like Mr. Tobin!). I cheered when Wilbur soared in the glider and wept when he died.

But the Wright Brothers aren’t finished with me yet—Wilbur and Orville by Fred Howard sits next to my bed. And after reading it, I’m sure I’ll find other gaps to fill, books to explore, and history to uncover. As the saying goes, “So many books so little time.” And I can’t think of a better way to organize my schedule.

2 thoughts on “Falling for Wilbur: My year in flight

  1. James Tobin February 13, 2014 / 11:12 am

    Dear Ms. Fanning…. Was delighted and flattered just now to stumble on your kind words about “To Conquer the Air.” You might want to add this overlooked gem to your reading list on flight and space — a very cool piece of literary journalism by Marina Benjamin, “Rocket Dreams: How the Space Age Shaped Our Vision of a World Beyond” (Free Press, 2003). Best….


    • Erin February 13, 2014 / 11:25 am

      “Rocket Dreams” has been added to my never-ending list of books to read. Thanks for the recommendation!


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