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Summer Reading Challenge: Astronaut Dad and First in Space

As we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s historic moonwalk, it’s easy to overlook the nearly fifteen years of planning and testing that made the 1969 lunar landing possible. Two kid-friendly comics — Astronaut Dad (Silent Devil, Inc.) and First in Space (Oni Press) — help address this forgotten history by telling the story of two early NASA iniatives, one fictional and one real. Both books provide readers a window into an extraordinary moment in history while revealing the hidden cost of the space race.

Astronaut Dad, Vol. 1
By David Hopkins and Brent Schoonover
No rating
Silent Devil, Inc., 2007, ISBN: 978-0-97969-022-8
80 pp., $5.95

David Hopkins and Brent Schoonover borrow a few pages from The Right Stuff, freely mingling fact with fiction to relate the story of three men — Stanley Norton, Edward Kelly, and Franklin Campbell – who participated in the (fictional) Odysseus Program, a top-secret NASA initiative that paved the way for the Mercury and Apollo missions.

Although Astronaut Dad includes a few scenes told from an adult perspective, we view most of the story through the eyes of teenagers Jimmy Norton and Vanessa Kelly. Jimmy is initially contemptuous of his father. As he explains to Vanessa, his dad isn’t a real astronaut; his dad’s job is “to sit around playing cards all day waiting for Alan Shepard to break his ankle.” Worse still, people only “respect the ones who’ve been up there, who’ve taken some actual risks,” not the Earth-bound reservists. “With all the moving I’ve had to do,” Jimmy complains, “I’d at least like to be able to brag about something.” Jimmy and Vanessa soon discover that their fathers are, in fact, participating in covert missions that blend spying with space travel, spending as much as 40 hours in stationary orbit above Soviet military installations.

The creators’ decision to make Jimmy and Vanessa the focus of volume one is both a strength and a weakness of Astronaut Dad. On the one hand, young readers will recognize themselves in Jimmy, who’s deeply upset that his father’s job requires the family to uproot itself every year and move to a new town. Jimmy is too young to understand the true nature of his dad’s sacrifice, and his petulant outbursts have a truthful ring. On the other hand, so much of the story focuses on Jimmy and Vanessa’s budding friendship that readers won’t learn much about space flight – a crucial omission, given that most grade schoolers will be more interested in rockets and astronauts than kitchen-sink drama.

What Astronaut Dad does best is create a sense of time and place, thanks to Schoonover’s sharp, retro-chic visuals. His younger characters have the soft, rounded features of Archie and Veronica, while the adults have the blockier, more angular look of Silver Age superheroes. Background details – a movie poster, a sleekly rounded convertible, a sprawling neighborhood of identical ranch houses – help establish the story’s setting, allowing younger readers to appreciate the similarities and differences between their experiences and the characters’ — a crucial goal of any work of historical fiction.

First in Space
By James Vining
Rating: Youth (7+)
Oni Press, 2007, ISBN: 978-1-932664-64-5
80 pp., $9.95

Although the Soviets launched a dog into space in 1957, neither they nor the Americans successfully brought a live specimen back to Earth until 1959. Once NASA had achieved this critical benchmark, its scientists began training chimpanzees for suborbital flights. Their goal: to assess the biological and psychological impact of space travel on humans. First in Space presents a balanced look at this program, focusing on Ham, the first American astronaut — or “chimponaut,” as Time dubbed him — to fly into space and return safely.

The first half of the book details Ham’s training routine, showing us the tasks he was taught to perform, the tests he endured, and the relationship he developed with his human handlers, while the second half documents Ham’s historic flight and its sad aftermath. (Ham died in a zoo in 1981.) Author James Vining recognizes the essential role that Ham and his fellow chimpanzees played in teaching scientists about space travel; as the story demonstrates, these chimps proved it was possible for an astronaut to pilot a space capsule and not simply ride in it.

At the same time, however, Vining acknowledges the terrible price that many animals paid in order to make space travel possible. In one scene, for example, we see an acceleration test in which a chimpanzee is strapped to a chair, then catapulted down a track to simulate the G-forces that astronauts experience during take-off and re-entry. A few wordless panels show us the deadly outcome: a watch noting the time of death, a stretcher shrouded in a white sheet, an empty chair. It’s a simple but profoundly effective sequence that hints at the animal’s horrific experience without anthropomorphizing it or sensationalizing its death in graphic images.

First in Space carries a “Youth” rating, billed as appropriate for ages seven and up. Given the seriousness of the subject matter and jargon-heavy dialogue, I’d recommend the book for slightly older readers. It should be noted, however, that Vining’s book is not just a primer on animal testing; it’s also a beautifully illustrated history of NASA’s earliest space flights, giving readers a taste of what it was like to ride a rocket into the upper atmosphere and splash down in the ocean. For educators wishing to show tweens what space travel was like before the shuttle made it seem routine, teach them about the important role that animals played in the space race, or help them grasp just how dangerous space flight was (and remains), First in Space makes a terrific addition to the history curriculum.

N.B. Vining has included a helpful bibliography at the end of First in Space that includes a variety of print, web, and film resources for teachers and librarians building a lesson plan around Ham’s story.

Katherine Dacey About Katherine Dacey

Katherine Dacey has been reviewing comics since 2006. From 2007 to 2008, she was the Senior Manga Editor at PopCultureShock, a site covering all aspects of the entertainment industry from comics to video games. In 2009, she launched The Manga Critic, where she focuses primarily on Japanese comics and novels in translation. Katherine lives and works in the Greater Boston area, and is a musicologist by training.


  1. Though it’s told with lots of color and verve, The Right Stuff is nonfiction, I believe, not a blend of fact and fiction. Whereas what, exactly, is the nonfiction in Astronaut Dad? As described here it’s about fictional characters, in a fictional space program, with fictional (for the time) capabilities, on fictional missions. It might be a great read, but it sounds like fiction, and not in any way like a history lesson.

  2. Katherine Dacey says:

    As someone with a degree in history, I wouldn’t consider “The Right Stuff” a true work of history. It’s rooted in fact, based on real events and real people, but Wolfe has created characters out of the Mercury astronauts — it’s not true reportage, and it’s not analysis. I do not mean to diminish Wolfe’s book in any way; it does a great job of capturing something about that particular moment in American history that a more literal account of the Mercury program could not. And for that reason, it’s a valuable tool for history teachers. I’d make a similar argument about “Astronaut Dad.” It isn’t a literal history lesson, but it is based on considerable research and helps brings the period to life in a way that many just-the-facts-ma’am history books cannot. Hence the comparison.

  3. I’m surprised that you are both so down on Wolfe and so up on American Dad.

    First, I think you’re too hard on Wolfe. I’d be interested to know what exactly in the book you consider fiction. He humanized his subjects, but I don’t feel that he fictionalized them. I haven’t read the book in a while, but see the original NYT review at We may have to agree to disagree, but my memory of the book is that it’s both reportage and analysis.

    Second, As for Astronaut Dad — again, it might be a great book — but it’s not just “not literal history.” It’s a history of the space program like Dr. No is a history of the Cold War. It’s about a totally fictional space program. There was no Odyssey program. To read a book that says there was would distort a reader’s sense of the progress of American space flight, from the shock of Sputnik to Mercury to Gemini to Apollo. Readers should check out T-Minus: The Race to the Moon, by Ottaviani/Cannon and Cannon, if they want space program history in good graphic novel form.

  4. Katherine Dacey says:

    I’m not down on Wolfe at all, and I’m sorry if you got that impression — I love the book and Phillip Kaufman’s film adaptation. But as someone with formal training in history, I view The Right Stuff as occupying a gray area between historical fiction and reportage.

    I also think you’re distorting my review — I never attack The Right Stuff, nor do I characterize Astronaut Dad as a great primer on the space program. I simply note that it does a good job of recreating the period, giving kids a feel of what it was like for someone to be an astronaut, or be the son, daughter, or wife of an astronaut. It isn’t like Dr. No — the program is fictional, yes, but many of the details are based on real NASA programs, and reflect the US government’s preoccupation with beating the Soviets into space to achieve a crucial military advantage. That’s what good historical fiction does — blend fact and fiction!

    I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one. Thanks for suggesting some other titles for readers who are interested in learning more about NASA through graphica.

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