The actual moon landings. Photo: NASA/AFP/Getty Images
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This is how we walk on the moon: Benjamin Johncock's The Last Pilot

Despite the decades that have gone by, the early days of space exploration hold an enduring fascination.

The Last Pilot
Benjamin Johncock
Myriad, 320pp, £8.99

In four years, half a century will have passed since human beings first set foot on the moon; it’s been more than 40 years since Gene Cernan became the last man to step off the lunar surface. And yet, despite the decades that have gone by, those early days of space exploration hold an enduring fascination. In part, it’s the cold war drama, a race between the “reds” and the “free world” to establish dominion not only over the earth but across the universe, too; in part, it’s the thrill of technology pushed to its absolute limit, often at the cost of human life. And it’s also the simple wonder of what it meant for men to leave not only the surface of the earth, as the Wright brothers had done in 1903, but to leave its atmosphere, to look back at our only home from the blackness of space.

And – at least in the US – they were all men: men with “the right stuff”, as the novelist Tom Wolfe put it. It is among these men that Benjamin Johncock inserts his fictional pilot Jim Harrison, flying with the US air force out in the Mojave Desert. These are the early years of the space programme, not long after the Russians had put the first Sputnik satellite in orbit and when John F Kennedy announced, in 1961, that the United States would put a man on the moon by 1970. A reader could reasonably ask what any novelist could add to what has already been written about this time. There is plenty out there and a lot of it is awfully good.

On the surface, Johncock’s novel might look clichéd. Jim Harrison drives a sports car, smokes like Mad Men’s Don Draper, enjoys a drink and says things such as: “This is flight surgeon horseshit, Deke!” (Some may recall that line from Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13; it’s one of the works to which Johncock gives credit in his acknowledgements.) His wife, Grace, holds the fort at home, her life limited by the demands of his job. But sometimes clichés are just, well, true – and the lives that Johncock builds for Jim and Grace transcend their setting. Often his descriptive writing has a clean grace that recalls Cormac McCarthy. When Grace and Jim finally have a longed-for daughter, Florence, who they thought would never come, the novel works a good balance between life in the sky and life at home – and when Florence gets sick, there are hard choices to be made.

Johncock works a couple of neat tricks here: he makes the struggles that Jim and Grace must face at home just as tense as what’s going on in the Mercury and Gemini missions and he uses the real men of the space programme to fine effect. Names such as Schirra, Lovell, Aldrin and Slayton (Wally, Jim, Buzz and Deke) recur but this never feels like a pantomime show of heroes. And one real character who is often forgotten in this cavalcade has a wonderful role to play: Pancho Barnes, a remarkable woman who was an aviation pioneer in her own right – she was the grand-daughter of Thaddeus Lowe, who in essence founded the US air force when he pioneered the flights of manned observation balloons for the Union army during the American civil war. As the proprietor of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, a bar and restaurant out in the Mojave, she catered to those early test pilots and knew them well; her wisdom and courage drive the book forward, as does her foul-mouthed charm.

Harrison is one of the pilots to fly the X-15, a hypersonic jet that reached the edge of outer space.

He thought about what he’d seen up there, across the top, above the dome. Black space, blue earth; the globe curling away beneath him. He’d looked down on everything he’d known, for a brief window, a few minutes. He’d flown weightless, on reaction control, hand on the stick squirting hydrogen peroxide from the thrusters. He felt free. Then he dropped back down into the atmosphere and the earth pulled him down.

It’s that pull back down to earth that’s the real challenge for Harrison in this novel and perhaps that’s not too surprising. But Benjamin Johncock’s story and characters take flight: this is a very promising debut. 

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge