Is Wanda June? Is Catherine Jerrie? Is Jerrie June?

Reading A Woman I Know by Mary Haverstick for The Telegraph, 15 November 2023

This is an anxious, furious, forensic contribution to the study of the assassination of US president John F Kennedy. Forensic, because Haverstick has spent a dozen years learning how to read the US National Security Archives; furious, because the subject of this work, begun as a hymn to female empowerment, turned out to be a monstrous double-agent who maims cats and poisons drinking water; anxious because, as Haverstick is at pains to point out, these forays into espionage, assassination and casual violence have taken her about as far away from her creative comfort zone as it is possible to imagine.

Haverstick is an independent filmmaker. Home, her feature starring Marcia Gay Harden, came out in 2008. Her publisher’s web page says that Home came out in 2009. There is in fact a French documentary called Home released that year. Explaining to IMDB that the “Home” I was after was a “drama” from “2008” threw up a touching French comedy, also called Home, starring Isabelle Huppert. If looking up a movie generates this amount of fuss and bother, imagine what Haverstick’s been wading through for the last dozen years. Very early on in researching the life of female aeronaut and NASA hopeful Jerrie Cobb, Haverstick was taken aside by an unaccountably friendly woman from the Department of Defense and told that Jerrie’s government paper trail was largely “classified” and not worth the bother. It’s possible that she was genuinely trying to do Haverstick a favour.

Haverstick’s subject is Jerrie Cobb, one of the “Mercury 13” — female flyers who many observers assumed would participate at some point in NASA’s space programme. Their (never official) training programme was scrubbed in September 1962. In 2009 Jerrie agreed that Haverstick should tell her story, and strongly implied that this story was bigger — much bigger — than it first appeared. What she absolutely wouldn’t do was share her story: instead the elderly Jerrie spent years dropping expertly timed clues into Haverstick’s lap as the two travelled the world on cruise ships — trips that were “exotic, stressful, exhilarating, scary, and fascinating but never exactly enjoyable”. (Much the same could be said for this book. Haverstick has a sizeable and material axe to grind, and has little time for Dealey Plaza neophytes.)

The book draws together several figures who may or may not be real people, and are anyway rarely the people they say they are, even when there’s only one of them to contend with, which is almost never. (Welcome to spycraft.) There’s Jerrie Cobb, the disappointed astronaut. There’s June Cobb, the double agent who arranged for the delivery of poison pills to US enemy number one Fidel Castro. Jerrie and June aren’t related, though they’re of an age and came from the same town — and are you thinking what I am thinking? There’s Catherine Taaffe, who’s no relation at all to Jerrie and definitely a person in her own right — only how come Jerrie bears scars from a knife wound that are supposed to belong to Catherine? And — the cherry on this teetering cake — there Wanda Baran (savour that name), a Belgian con-artist whose company suckered in communist countries looking for nuclear materials. Is Wanda June? Is Catherine Jerrie? Is Jerrie June? Well, yes. Or sometimes. Or something.

I’m being flippant only because flippancy saves space. Haverstick has over five hundred pages to explain her case — that the privately funded astronaut project we’ve come call Mercury 13 was, among other perfectly legitimate things, a cover for the case officer driving the Kennedy assassination. She needs every single one of those pages and she does not waste a line.

Did I buy into every one of her speculations and inferences? No. No-one will. This genre has form. Arguably the most successful espionage book of all time, 1976’s A Man Called Intrepid, about the adventures of Sir William Stephenson, turned out to be the melancholy fabulations of a man suffering catastrophic memory loss.

At the same time, I’m certainly not going to throw the first stone. Haverstick is in earnest here and has a memory like a filing system and a filing system like a vice. The least this book could possibly be is a compelling real-life thriller, full of passion, free of writerly fuss, woven from the most intractable archival cat’s cradle imaginable.

That’s what you’ve got, even before you think to take it seriously — and I’ll bet the farm that you will.

Wandering off into a blizzard for no reason

Watching Creature, directed by Asif Kapadia, for New Scientist, 5 March 2023

In an isolated research station, lost amid snow and ice, a highly disciplined team of would-be astronauts are putting an experimental animal through its paces. Will their Creature survive the tests they throw at it? The cold, the isolation, the asphyxia? A punctilious Doctor (Stina Quagebeur) palpates and measures the creature, summons handlers and equipment and calls for urgent aid when it looks as though an experiment has gone too far. She is meticulous, not malevolent, and when the Major in charge tears the creature from its one source of comfort, the station cleaner Marie (Erina Takahashi), and abuses her, the Doctor fears for the whole team.

It’s up to the captain to calm his superior officer down, and goodness knows he tries. Since this is a ballet loosely based on 19th-century dramatist Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck — about the mental deterioration of a soldier so utterly beholden to his commanding officers, he agrees to medical experiments — it’s not likely that things will end well.

Jeffrey Cirio plays the Creature in this unusual project from English National Ballet — a collaboration between choreographer Asif Kapadia and filmmaker Akram Khan, best known for the documentaries Senna (2010) Amy (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019).

It’s a grim fable of human ambition and ruthlessness, superbly performed, and shot in a way that draws the audience fully into the action, capturing moments of private emotion and the subtlest of gestures without losing any of the spectacle of an ensemble piece.

For almost its entire length (the last five minutes are rotten) Creature explores its extreme set-up with tenderness and intelligence, slowly eroding the distinction between a somewhat simian test subject and its hardly less simian handlers. The Creature wants to copy its masters. We don’t have very long to wait, however, before its masters are learning to copy the Creature. Though the hierarchies of this isolated, militaristic society are clear, and the Creature’s expendability is never in doubt, the piece holds out the possibility of real communication here, and even trust, and even love.

And then, out of nowhere, all that subtle, clever, sensitive work gets thrown away. The Captain (Ken Saruhashi), who’s been keeping the Major contained, wanders off into a blizzard for no reason, and the Major (a jaw-droppingly arrogant turn by the dashing Fabian
Reimair) makes merry hell and gets away with whatever he likes.

Creature wants to be an indictment of cruelty, obedience and power, but its central metaphor will not hold. First, astronauts are notoriously disobedient. Second, space agencies are chronically underfunded. Really, only the point about cruelty might stick, and even here, I have my reservations. Do we sacrifice experimental animals to further our research goals? Certainly, though much less than we used to. And even in the bad old days, these creatures were honoured. Look at the statues to the space dog Laika (I know of at least two), or the remains of NASA’s chimp Ham, interred at the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico. You can argue that these gestures were insufficient, but you can’t say they were empty.

By the end, did Creature leave me impressed? Thrilled? Moved?

Yes, all three. It also left me aggrieved.

Here I was, preparing to sing the praises of a science-fiction ballet about our difficult relationship with other primates, and what I was left with, at the end, was a by-the-numbers glimpse of how horrid people can be.

It may be that expanding human efforts into outer space is a silly idea, but the show’s censoriousness left me cold. A shame, because the dancing — ironically enough — was out of this world.


“To penetrate humbly…”

Reading Beyond by Stephen Walker for the Telegraph, 18 April 2021

On 30 May 2020 US astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley flew to the International Space Station. It was the first time a crew had left the planet from US soil since 2011.

In the interim, something — not wrong, exactly, but certainly strange — had happened to space travel. Behnken and Hurley’s SpaceX-branded space suits looked like something I would throw together as a child, even down to my dad’s biking helmet and — were those Wellington boots? The stark interior of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule was even more disconcerting. Poor Behnken and Hurley! they looked as if they were riding in the back of an Uber.

Well, what goes around comes around, I suppose. The capsule that carried Yuri Gagarin into space on 12 April 1961 boasted an almost ludicrously bare central panel of just four dials. Naysayers sniped that Gagarin had been a mere passenger — a human guinea pig.

By contrast, the design of the Mercury cockpit, that carried America’s first astronaut into space, was magnificently, and possibly redundantly fussy says Stephen Walker, in his long and always thrilling blow-by-blow account of the United States’ and the Soviet Union’s race into orbit: “Almost every inch of it was littered with dials, knobs, indicators, lights and levers just like a ‘real’ aeroplane cockpit.”

America’s “Gemini Seven” (two-seater Gemini capsules quickly succeeded the Mercuries) were celebrities, almost absurdly over-qualified for their task of being rattled around in the nose of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Their space programme was public — and so were its indignities, like the fact that virtually everything they were being asked to do, a chimpanzee had done before them.

It drove Alan Shepard — the man fated to be the first American in space — into a rage. On one training session somebody joked, “Maybe we should get somebody who works for bananas”. The ash tray Shepard threw only just missed his head.

The Soviet Union’s space programme was secret. Not even their wives knew what the “Vanguard Seven” were up to. They won no privileges. Sometimes they’d polish other people’s floors to make ends meet.

Those looking for evidence of the gimcrack quality of the Soviet space effort will find ammunition in Beyond. Contrast, for example, NASA’s capsule escape plans (involving a cherry-picker platform and an armoured vehicle) with the Soviet equivalent (involving a net and a bath tub).

But Walker’s research for this book stretches back a decade and his acknowledgements salute significant historians (Asif Siddiqi in particular), generous interviewees and a small army of researchers. He’ll not fall for such clichés. instead, he shows how the efforts of each side in the race to space were shaped by the technology they had to hand.

Soviet hydrogen bombs were huge and heavy, and needed big, powerful rockets to carry them. Soviet space launches were correspondingly epic. The Baikonur cosmodrome in Soviet Kazakhstan — a desolate, scorpion-infested region described in Soviet encyclopaedias as “the Home of the Black Death” — was around a hundred times the size of Cape Canaveral. Its launch bunkers were buried beneath several metres of reinforced concrete and earth because, says Walker, “a rocket the size and power of the R-7 would probably have flattened the sort of surface blockhouse near the little Redstone in Cape Canaveral.”

Because the US had better (lighter, smaller) nuclear bombs, its available rocket technology was — in space-piercing terms — seriously underpowered. When Alan Shepard finally launched from Cape Canaveral on 5 May 1961, twenty-three days after Yuri Gagarin circled the earth, his flight lasted just over fifteen minutes. He splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean 302 miles from the Cape. Gagarin travelled some 26,000 miles around the planet.

The space race was the Soviets’ to lose. Once Khrushchev discovered the political power of space “firsts” he couldn’t get enough of them. “Each successive space ‘spectacular’ was exactly that,” Walker writes, “not so much part of a carefully structured progressive space programme but yet another glittering showpiece, preferably tied to an important political anniversary”. Attempts to build a co-ordinated strategy were rejected or simply ignored. This is a book as much about disappointment as triumph.

Beyond began life as a film documentary, but the newly discovered footage Walker was offered proved too damaged for use. Thank goodness he kept his notes and his nerve. This is not a field that’s starved of insight: Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony wrote a cracking biography of Gagarin called Starman in 1998; the autobiography of Soviet systems designer Boris Chertok runs to four volumes. Still, Walker brings a huge amount that is new and fresh to our understanding of the space race.

Over the desk of the Soviet’s chief designer Sergei Korolev hung a portrait of the nineneenth-century Russian space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and with it his words: “Mankind will not stay on Earth for ever but in its quest for light and space it will first penetrate humbly beyond the atmosphere and then conquer the whole solar system.”

Beyond shows how that dream — what US aviation pioneer James Smith McDonnell called “the creative conquest of space” — was exploited by blocs committed to their substitute for war — and how, for all that, it survived.