||A terrific way to tell the same story
we are familiar with, from a totally different perspective.
Most people reading a history of the
Apollo program will expect to hear about the training that the
astronauts went through to get ready for space, about the experiments
they did while they were there, and how they reacted to crises. This
book does none of that. In fact, there are only a few mentions of the
astronauts in the entire book. This history tells the story of the
designers of Apollo, the engineers who filled roles that had just been
created, who took creative liberties because they didn't know any
better, and who made sure that the astronauts could get into space and
home again -alive.
The book is not comprehensive in any
way. As the authors mention in their postscript, so many people went
missing simply because there was no more room to write about them. So
much history also goes missing. However, the parts that we get are
magical. The style of the book was to introduce us to the
problem-solvers, the people who made the decisions, or the people who
carried out the instructions. Rarely does it include all of these
together when dealing
with the same problem. There lies the charm of the book, in that it
reads like a novel, or like the reader was actually sitting down with
some of these people and reliving the events with them.
The first part of the book, Gathering,
was intensely political, with early NASA being both more and less
organized than I think is popularly believed. More, because they already
knew that they wanted to go to the Moon, even before Kennedy made the
historic announcement. Less, because they had dreams that they didn't
even know the scale of, not realizing how much work and money it would
have to take, and they were so very small before Kennedy's announcement.
I couldn't believe the amount of
politics that were involved in the Apollo program, with people being
transferred around to where there were problems, and others to get them
out of the way. So much creativity in one place meant that people had
such huge egos, which meant clashes in personality. Strangely enough,
the spacecraft and the program came out ahead of most of these.
The main problem with the book is its
vast cast of characters. Many, especially the ones who had a hand
through the entire process, were fairly easy to keep track of, but
were easy to forget because they only popped up for a couple of pages
here and there. The authors did what they could, by giving biographies
and mini-histories of those people. However, they kept moving around the
organization, that it was often difficult to keep track of who was
where, especially in the cases where people have similarly-spelled
names. Even this was kept to a minimum, however, by cutting out the
names of some people, leaving it at "...said one engineer who worked
under him". At some points, the book reminded me of Tolkien's
At some points, the technical language
threatened to overwhelm the book. I loved it, however. The pages devoted
to the F-1 engine were well worth it, as was the mammoth description of
the mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building, which now mates Space Shuttles.
The MOCR once again described controller stations in such magnificent detail, but
it almost became too much detail! The very best of the detailed
descriptions, however, came with the very first launch of the Saturn V.
It took so many pages just to get off the launch pad, but after reading
about the bureaucracy, the technical specifications and problems, and
the people who had put so much heart and soul into getting it there,
those pages seemed like a fitting tribute.
Most of the book throughout the second
and third parts ("Building" and "Flying", respectively) dealt with
problems that crept up, either in the politics or the engineering. With
politics, things were generally straightforward. If a program was
falling behind, or had many complaints, somebody was sent in to
straighten it out. We got a description of the management style, and how
people reacted to it. Sometimes, it was quite awesome to see. The
technical engineering provided problems for analysts, managers and
engineers to work around and fix.
In fact, most of the book went from
problem to problem, barely stopping to give even momentous events some
space on the pages. With so much politics, I could say that it was more
about the managers than the engineers -but that would also be
inaccurate, since most of the managers were engineers before NASA was
Of course, the engineers and managers
were at their best while troubleshooting the missions. That is the
glory of the controllers during the missions, too. They live for the
highs of getting things to work through unexpected situations. This is
what justifies giving nearly four chapters to Apollo 13. While there
must have been things to talk about during Apollo 7 and 9, where things
went smoothly, times were most glamorous when fixing problems and coming
out of it looking like miracle workers. Other histories can deal with
stuff that went right the first time!
However, the book could have been
longer, and could have certainly put in some material about the lunar
module, which we barely got to hear about. I wish there had been more
about Gemini, which paved the way for Apollo. Instead, it gets a
footnote. It was barely even mentioned that Gemini came to be because
the astronauts and controllers needed more testing with rendezvous and
manoeuvres. There was no way anybody could have gone from Mercury
directly to Apollo.
I loved the descriptions of the
simulations. We need a whole book on those scenarios, too. At least, we could
have had an entire chapter! However, what we did get, I loved. I loved
the way the controllers lived the simulations like it was real life, and
especially the way the controllers allowed the simulators to throw
anything at them after the seemingly impossible multiple failures on
I also got to see how accurate the
movie of Apollo 13 was. Aside from the obvious time factor, in which
everything that happened in hours occurred in minutes through the
movies, I was amazed at how many details from the movie were recited in
this book -which was written years before the movie ever came out -I
wonder if it was used as a source.
Another obvious tactic is to simplify the characters, leaving Gene Krantz in charge throughout instead of changing flight directors and
My favorite moment in the book,
however, comes from Apollo 12, a situation which became legend with the
flight controllers. Since I first read this book, I always hoped to
become a curious engineer like John Aaron, who went to so much extra
effort just to find out why his screens gave garbage data briefly during one
simulation. When lightning struck Apollo 12 as it lifted off a year
later, he once again got garbage readings, and knew exactly what to do,
giving commands that neither the astronauts nor the other controllers,
including the Flight Director, knew how to interpret, because they
didn't know this switch existed.
The book unfortunately spends a single
short chapter on the missions that took place after Apollo 13, mainly
because there were no major problems, because the controllers became so
good at their jobs. They still weave an interesting story about those
times, however brief.
The title of the book is quite
appropriate: this was a race to the Moon, not against the Russians,
however, but against time. The schedule was critical, so that nothing
else mattered -until the fire of Apollo 1. After that, things slowed
down, but as missions were flown with few problems, they became
overconfident again, until Apollo 13, after which they again grew
cautious. I wonder if there would have been another accident in one of
the cancelled missions, because things were going so well again.
This book takes some young engineers,
in a very young space program, and allows them to grow and mature, often
in gigantic steps. Apollo was successful because of those people,
because they had the drive and creativity to get the job done. They also
had the money, even through the waning years of Apollo, which is
something that the space program does not have now.
It was also a free time, where NASA
hadn't developed the bureaucracy that it has now, so that people could
seemingly do as they pleased. I loved the description in early chapters
of the Langley engineers -so brainy, and so odd! That description fit
many of the people who populated NASA in its early years. I'm sure many
of the people there now have similar personalities, but the world is a
very different place, and much of the creativity and free spirit must be
crushed in a way that it wouldn't have been back then.
Do I sound nostalgic for a time that I
never knew? Yes. Do I wish I had been there to participate? Doesn't
everybody? Still, I love living in a time where technology allows us to
do so much good stuff, even if it allows the same technology to be used
in other ways, too. For those of us who wish we could have
been there, this book is a good start. The complexity of the Apollo
program is given to us from hundreds of interviews in the first person,
so that a narrative could be made that was friendly and entertaining, in
addition to being informative and historical. Amazing.