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by Andrew Chaikin
(1994, Penguin Books)

A very detailed description of the US manned Moon landing program, from its inception.


-- 2nd reading (hardcover)
June 12th to July 7th, 2023


I love the detail this author puts into the book. He starts with the dramatic fire, and of course the heightened sense of urgency in Apollo 8 and the moon landing, and the obvious drama of 13, which was so well documented in the movie. But he gives the same analytical detail to the other landings, and spends long chapters describing the missions that were not well-advertised. I’ve read this book before, decades ago, but was still shocked to learn that one of the later missions was almost waved off completely, even as the lander was on its approach to the lunar surface. The first part of the book beautifully illustrates preparing for the moon, while the second is about the landing and refinement of the missions. The last part of the book deals with science, lunar geology, and how so many of the theories (many of which seem absurd these days) were so very wrong. It’s a fascinating read, not just the mechanics of the missions, of which there is plenty, but the biographies of the astronauts themselves, and their feelings, albeit often described twenty years later. Many of their lives were very touching; others were pragmatic. Even among astronauts, there is such a variety of personalities. The author captured the great cross-section, and even traced their current lives (current as of the writing of the book in 1994 of course). A great educational trip. It’s a big book, but it’s worth every page.

Spoiler review:

I was amazed to note in the bibliography how often one of my favorite books about the Moon program was referenced. Apollo: Race to the Moon, about the flight controllers and engineers, and others in mission control is a fantastic book. This history uses it to supplement the information from technical briefs, audio recordings and so on, not to mention the astronauts’ own recollections of those days.

As the author says, the climate was right –civil, political and mechanical- for a trip to the moon. We’re trying to go back now because of what we once did. If we never went to the moon, I’m not sure we’d be trying so hard to do it again. But I’m glad we did. It’s too bad that war and poverty still exist in this world, because if we all rose to the occasion, we could do great things. As it stands, those took precedence and pulled our interest away from the moon. But from what’s shown in this book, we would have stopped anyway, because the administrators were too afraid that something bad would happen, as a matter of time. No piece of hardware is 100% reliable, even in the space program. The various disasters have shown that.

The Apollo astronauts gave us the most spectacular images of both the Moon and Earth, and from what is written here, that changed humanity’s view of itself forever. It changed the astronauts even more, based on their recollections.

There’s no point in going through all the chapters, except to say that I was able to refresh my knowledge of the well-known missions, and managed to pick up something new about every other mission. The biographies of each astronaut, some of whom didn’t get to go to the moon, were very interesting, as was their relationships with their wives, where they were married.

The story of Apollo 13 shows where the screenwriters obtained much of the information, placing the more character scenes a little out of order (such as attributing the cancelation of Jim Lovell’s Christmas vacation for his Apollo 8 mission to Apollo 13) and so on, all of which can be forgiven in such a great movie, of course.

While maybe less dramatic, the author still manages to tell the story of the later moon missions as a scientific journey of discovery. It’s amazing to see how the astronauts wanted to do good science, and so many of them trained so hard to become field geologists just for their short excursions on the moon. They became genuinely interested in what they were being sent there to study, instead of being robots gathering rocks.

I'm surprised that the author didn't spend a bit of time detailing how three men went to the moon twice. There's a caption about the one who first orbited the moon twice, but nothing more.

The story of our journey to the moon is all things that matters to humanity –technical advancement, romanticism, exploration, discovery, science, emotion, religion, politics and more. It represents our first steps outwards. I can’t wait to see how we do on the next round.


-- First reading (hardcover)
June 8th to July 5th, 1995


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