“In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood. ” – July 1969, Nixon Administration Speechwriter William Safire. Award-winning science journalist and space historian Andrew Chaikin has authored books and articles about space exploration and astronomy for more than 25 years. He has taken the story of the Apollo astronauts and written a book that is the definitive “Bible” on all things Apollo.
Chaikin spent eight years writing and researching A Man on the Moon, including over 150 hours of personal interviews with 23 of the 24 lunar astronauts (Apollo 13?s Jack Swigert was already deceased). He doesn’t stop with the astronauts. He also interviewed the astronaut’s wives and family members, flight controllers, engineers and various other NASA personnel. He also listened to mission tapes from NASA and gleaned nuggets of valuable information from each Apollo mission.
Chaikin takes his passion for the space program and tells the experience from the astronauts’ viewpoint and draws in his audience so that they have his same vision of the future of space exploration by the United States. It is obvious that Chaikin thinks there is more Mick 2 to be done on the moon, and the American space program should be up to the task. The book reads like a well crafted novel. The story is told in great detail, from the astronauts and mission control specialists and scientists who were there and lived it.
Chaikin doesn’t get too complex with the technical aspects of the missions, but spends time describing the spacecraft’s systems and what they are used for without “dumbing down” the technology too much as to make the reader feel stupid. The reader “sees” the control panels and the simulators and experiences and “feels” the fingers of the astronauts as they push the buttons, turn the dials and communicate the status of the spacecrafts back to Mission Control in Houston. The reader is privy to stories that the general public never knew, but doesn’t need to be a space expert to enjoy reading this book.
Chaikin makes the reader feel the moon dust under his boots and the rush of oxygen inside their helmet. Chaikin describes each mission in loving detail from the tragic deadly fire that claimed the lives of astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee in Apollo 1 through the last lunar mission, Apollo 17, and what all of the astronauts did after the Apollo program ended. The reader is transported there with the astronauts as they blast off the launching pad, while they are circling the dark side of the moon, and setting that first “one small step for mankind” into the dusty lunar soil.
John F. Kennedy laid out a mandate for America to be the first, brightest and the best in space exploration in the early 1960’s. He put the money and the power of his office behind NASA and charged the nation with the task of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Mick 3 “Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked. – President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962. Of course, with Kennedy’s untimely death, things changed.
Chaikin paints the entire picture of what was happening in the United States at the time of the Apollo program. America had to be first on the moon ahead of the Russians and the pressure was on. The political and social climates were changing America in the 60’s, and there was a war in Vietnam. But for one brief shining moment, on July 21, 1969, Camelot appeared once more and the world was united in wonder with Neil Armstrong as he took that first step on he moon. Apollo was not simply a collection of wires, transistors, nuts, and bolts put together by an incredible gathering of scientific minds. Rather, it is a story of great adventure. The missions of Apollo went beyond the redemption of national pride with the planting of the United States flag on the moon. Project Apollo was a victory for all to share, not only Americans. I was apprehensive about reading this book. I expected this book be difficult to read, and to drone on dryly with scientific mumbo-jumbo and meaningless details in its effort to bore me to death.
To the contrary, I found a warm, engaging, wonderful story told from the men who were there that accomplished these amazing things. I loved the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, I grew up with them. I cried when I thought we might lose the astronauts from Apollo 13 and waited by the television until I knew they were safe. I’ve been to Cape Canaveral a Mick 4 couple of times and was there once during “Space Week”. Unfortunately, I just missed meeting Astronauts John Glenn and Alan Shepard. That would have been the thrill of my life! But I digress.
Obviously, Andrew Chaikin loves what he is writing and wants me as the reader to savor every detail. The book caught my attention immediately with the great forward by Tom Hanks who also has a love affair with space and freely admits he used the book as his guide for From the Earth to the Moon, the HBO miniseries, which I recorded and loved. Chaikin carried me all the way through, feeding my curiosity about the astronauts’ thoughts, feelings and expressions about each mission. I’ve talked about this book so much around the house that my husband wants to read it now, and I’m making it a permanent part of my library.