Review: T-Minus

To be released on May 19th, 2009, it weighs in at 124 pages. No errors noted.

I first learned of Jim Ottaviani‘s work when I picked up a copy of the graphic novel Two-Fisted Science. Later I found Dignifying Science, and was quite pleased to learn that there was someone out there using the comic form as a way to teach about some of the scientists of history. Adding to his oeuvre, Mr. Ottaviani now brings us a fact-based graphic novel of the inside story of the first trip to the Moon, just in time for the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. As with his previous works, he takes full advantage of the medium to teach all kinds of facts that sharp young minds will gobble up.

We open at T-minus 12 years. The location is the NACA facilities in Langley, Virginia. (Great place, by the way, and still doing interesting research, and with the coolest urinals I have ever seen) The department head is fiddling with the radio knob to get a good signal from the orbiting Sputnik, noting that President Eisenhower had called a Rand Corporation report on the ‘Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship‘ hooey. Not all the engineers saw it that way, and were already pondering the possibilities.

We flash back to earlier that year at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, where the Chief Designer is entertaining Soviet Premier Khrushchev, who is much more interested in the ‘computers’, who tended to be much curvier than their American counterparts. Here we get our first of many sidebars – an illustration of an R-7 Semyorka rocket, whose 20 second flight helped lay the groundwork for later successes. Both successes and failures are noted for both sides, and it provides a clever chronology for the development of the story.

The novel bounces back and forth quite a bit, both in time and space (so to speak), but the transitions are eased by the use of a pseudo-Cyrillic-style lettering when the scene shifts to Russia. Both sides are given a full airing here, and the humans who sacrificed their all in opening the new frontier are all respected.

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In many ways T-Minus serves to round out a trifecta of recent graphic novels detailing the earlier years of spaceflight – First in Space and Laika. The illustrations provided by Zander and Kevin Cannon are closer in style to First in Space, but are nevertheless their own. The samples shown (click to enlarge) come from the period just after the Apollo 204 (a/k/a Apollo 1) tragedy. That particular event carries a certain pathos for me, as it occurred but three days before I was born, and was the same day that the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty was opened for signatures. Further pathos was delivered when Challenger was lost two days before my birthday the first of my freshman years in college. (still tears me up when I see video of it) Lesson learned: No trips to space for his birthday for Ken.

This particular scene is a lesson in honor, and the cost of accumulating too many poor decisions. (in this case not fighting hard enough and accepting pure O2 in the capsule and then not staying on top of the critical risks created by the decision) The story is replete with lessons on top of the facts conveyed. While I’m generally tired of Apollo at this point, I nevertheless found the story engaging as the threads wove back and forth in the tapestry of history.

That so much history is conveyed in this story earns this one a solid Full Moon rating.

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