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Counterpoint: Neil Sheehan fires back at Richard Rhodes

Posted by guest  October 21, 2009 10:30 AM

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Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes reviewed Neil Sheehan's latest book "A Fiery Peace in a Cold War'' in the Oct. 4 Books section of the Globe. The book, by the author of the award-winning "A Bright Shining Lie,'' focuses on the efforts of Bernard Schriever, a US Air Force officer, who pressed to build nuclear missiles to ensure Cold War peace via a standoff with the Soviet Union.
Rhodes found the book to be "a mixed bag,'' concluding:

"Sheehan’s failure to master the elementary science behind his narrative or the larger paradoxes of the nuclear arms and missile race leaves me with mixed feelings about his book. Schriever’s part in the development of the ICBM is a story that needed to be told, however, and Sheehan tells it with enthusiasm.''

Sheehan sent a faxed response to the piece, which is printed in its entirety below.

Every writer should be willing to tolerate criticism and I believe my skin is as thick as anyone’s. But when the criticism is inaccurate and unfair, a response is in order. In his Oct. 4 review in the Globe of my new book, "A Fiery Peace in a Cold War,'' Richard Rhodes dismisses the book as "a mixed bag" and seeks to destroy its credibility by claiming that the book "is marred by basic technical errors." Because I wanted the book to be as technically accurate as possible, I had several men with sound credentials read the manuscript to catch such errors. Two of them are retired Air Force officers whose careers centered on missiles and satellites, Lt. Gen. Richard Henry and Lt. Gen. Forrest McCartney. Henry's career culminated as commanding general of the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Office (renamed the Space Division in a subsequent reorganization), which handled all satellite operations until formation of the Air Force Space Command. He then served simultaneously as its vice commander. McCartney succeeded Henry in both posts and in 1986 joined NASA for approximately five years as chief of the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. After retiring from NASA he became vice president for operations of Martin Marietta (subsequently Lockheed Martin) and spent six and a half years supervising all Atlas and Titan satellite launches at Canaveral and at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the West Coast. After reading the manuscript, Henry suggested a small number of changes for technical and editorial reasons. I made all of them. McCartney had none. Both men complimented me on the way I had explained complex technological issues in layman’s language for the ordinary reader.

Rhodes specifically cites only one alleged technical error. He objects to my description, when I deal with the "Sputnik” surprise of 1957, of how a satellite is launched into orbit. My sentence on Pg. 362 reads: "The trick to tossing a satellite into orbit was to burn the rocket engines long enough to gain sufficient velocity to escape the gravitational pull at the earth." Rhodes counters: "Rockets do not escape 'the gravity [sic] pull of the earth' when they go into orbit; they fall around the earth as a bullet would if fired at sufficient velocity." I telephoned General Henry first and read him my sentence and Rhodes' objection and asked if mine was in error. "He's nitpicking," Henry said. He explained that although the velocity, also called the energy, imparted to a satellite by burning the rocket engines longer enabled it to overcome the gravitational pull of the earth and orbit around the globe rather than being pulled back down, strictly speaking the satellite remained within the earth's gravitational field. (An object further out in space would enter the gravitational field of the moon.) In retrospect, I should have used the word overcome rather than escape, but in context the difference hardly constitutes a major error. "That sentence didn't bother me when I first read it and it doesn't bother me now," Henry said. McCartney agreed with Henry. “He’s splitting hairs,” he said of Rhodes' claim of major error. "Your explanation is perfectly adequate for the layman." Ironically, Rhodes' analogy comparing a satellite to a bullet is inapt. A bullet does not rotate around another object. Rather, it flies in a trajectory from point A to point B on the earth.

"I could add a dozen more examples to this list. They aren't trivial," Rhodes writes. But he doesn't add them. After his complaint about my description of the launching of a satellite, he goes into a technical commentary on the difference between an atomic (fission) and a thermonuclear (fusion) weapon, commonly called a hydrogen bomb. Then he informs us of the results of the 1948 Sandstone atomic bomb tests. It is unclear to me precisely what Rhodes is implying. Perhaps he is accusing me of failing to inform readers of the difference between an atomic and a hydrogen weapon, which is simply untrue. After this, he launches into a denunciation of President Ronald Reagan's attempt to build an antiballistic missile shield in space, the so-called "Star Wars" scheme. I never mentioned the Star Wars project in my book because it was not germane to the narrative.

Rhodes concludes with a blunderbuss blast. "Sheehan's failure to master the elementary science behind his narrative or the larger paradoxes of the nuclear arms and missile race leaves me with mixed feelings about his book." I will rest with the contrary judgment of men like Henry and McCartney that my book is sound. I am saddened by Rhodes' attack on my book because I have always had such respect for his work.


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3 comments so far...
  1. Sadly, Sheehan's reply to Rhodes shows that Sheehan has indeed failed to grasp the high-school physics involved in orbits.

    An (imaginary) super-fast, friction-free bullet would fall just enough for the curvature of its path to match the curvature of the earth, and thus would remain at a constant altitude. That's what orbiting is. An orbiting satellite is constantly falling in the same way, and has neither "overcome" nor "escaped" the earth's gravity.

    And an object further out in space would not thereby enter the moon's gravitational field instead of the earth's. It would still be in the earth's gravitational field, as is the moon itself; that's why the moon orbits the earth, instead of flying away. (And the earth is likewise in the moon's gravitational field; that's why we have tides.)

    Posted by ombud October 21, 09 01:55 PM
  1. Hissy fight! Hissy fight!

    Posted by apc October 21, 09 02:48 PM
  1. Authors such as Rhodes should not get too inflated with the "prizes" they have been awarded for their writing of history, and remember they are just reporting history made by individuals who actually MADE the history. Why so often do the writers of big historical events project a greater sense of self-importance than the actual actors who lived the historical event? Rhodes should add a slide of humble pie to his daily breakfast menu.

    Posted by robroy October 21, 09 03:42 PM
About off the shelf News about books, authors, and publishers from The Boston Globe.
Nicole Lamy is editor of the Globe's Books section.
Jan Gardner writes the "Shelf Life" column for the Globe's Books section.

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