The human element at the heart of America’s space program

Surrounded by Thunder, by Tom Williams. Inspire on Purpose Publishing. 432 pages. Trade paperback $17.99.

This exciting story, a blend of biography and history, has been out for a while but deserves more attention than it has received. Long time Marco Island resident Tom Williams has crafted an interview-based history of America’s space race activities through the experiences of one key figure. That person’s name is given the book’s subtitle: “The Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocketmen.” The scope, then is from the Soviet Sputnik launch in 1957 to the Aldridge-Armstrong moon landing in July 1969. ThunderCover

Darrell Loan, who worked as the chief electronic guidance designer and troubleshooter, had a unique vantage point on that tension-filled period during which enormous technological gains were made in a relatively short period of time. Mr. Loan and those he worked with seemed to have done the impossible in fulfilling the mission set by President Kennedy.

Tom Williams carefully traces Darrell Loan’s family background and education. Upon graduation from the University of Iowa, he had just the right credentials to be heavily recruited by the new and established industrial companies fighting for government contracts during the space race. Loan first worked on Long Island for Sperry. The work was challenging and important, but Loan’s wife was unhappy in the New York area. She didn’t find the other women she met friendly. And her husband spent much of his time elsewhere, as he was constantly called to the facilities where spacecraft were being tested or high-level meetings were being held.

Loan’s superior performance led to a call from Chrysler, Chrysler the principle manufacturer of the Army’s rockets. Audrey was much happier once the couple moved back to the Midwest and was befriended by the “Chrysler Wives”, but Darrell was still away from home most of the time, meeting with project directors. High- ranking military officers, and civilian bigwigs in the aerospace efforts.

In fact, Loan was regularly under the supervision of the main rocketman, Wernher von Braun, who – assisted by other German scientists hired by the U. S. government – was the primary organizer of and motivator for America’s space efforts.

Tom Williams

Tom Williams

The author’s descriptions of the interactions among members of this elite class of technical and management geniuses (both military and civilian) are unexpected treasures of this book. Readers learn about an amazing cast of characters: some, like the American astronauts, are well-known. Others, like Bill Hinkle, the Chrysler executive who lured Loan away from Sperry, should be.

Essentially, Mr. Williams focuses on the principal stages in the space race. These include getting a manned vehicle into space, then getting one and two-man vehicles into earth orbit on mission-specific flights, then managing the rendezvous and linking of two space vehicles, and finally surveying the moon and landing there. These are the building blocks of President Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s – and, of course, ahead of the Soviets. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the October 29, 2014 FortMyers Florida Weekly and the October 30 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Tom Williams

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