Friday, June 15, 2012

Books I'm Reading: A Man on The Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (June 15, 2012)

I'm old enough to remember much of the Apollo program. I recall school stopping for virtually every launch and splashdown leading up to and including the first moon walk, on April 20, 1969 (Apollo 11). We were herded into the auditorium for each event or made to sit in a circle around a TV brought into a classroom. I remember the broadcasts in black and white. I also remember the ebbing of public interest in the space program. By the time Apollo 17 went to the moon, most people had moved on--which is a shame; while the landing on the moon was highly important technically and for political reasons, it wasn't until the later Apollo flights that the exploration of the moon really began.

Andrew Chaikin's excellent book A Man on The Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (Penguin, 1995) covers the period of transition from the Gemini missions to the Apollo program following Kennedy's challenge to land a man on the moon and return him safely home before the end of the 1960s through the last moon landing, in 1972. Chaikin pays careful attention especially to the preparations for the scientific work of the later missions, mostly geological investigations. While I remember some of the most important events of the time, A Man on the Moon puts it all into perspective. Perhaps the most startling thing that emerges is the brevity of it all. Only a little more than eight years separate Kennedy's historic speech of May 25, 1961 and the first moon landing, and the six lunar landings spanned only three-and-a-half years. The last of them was already 40 years ago.

Well written and meticulously researched, the book is based on contemporary media reports, NASA mission archives, and extensive interviews with 23 of the 24 men who visited the moon, as well as interviews with many of their wives and some of their children, and with Apollo program managers, experiment scientists, engineers, flight controllers, flight directors, geologists, historians, NASA administrators, and even some of the men that designed and created the spacesuits worn on the moon missions. The result is a narrative that gives a palpable sense of having been there. Highly recommended.

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