This is an account of the Apollo missions, all the way from the disaster of Apollo 1 to Apollo 17, when the last man to walk on the moon, Gene Cernan, got back in the lunar module with Harrison Schmitt, his lunar module pilot and the first scientist ever to be a member of an Apollo crew, and left the surface of the moon. He didn’t know then, how long it would take for humans to return, but I doubt that he thought that fifty years later, he would still be the last man on the moon.
Andrew Chaikin, is an award-winning science journalist who’s been called the best historian of the space age. He wrote this book in 1993, almost 25 years after the first moon landing. He interviewed astronauts, their wives, Apollo program managers, systems engineers, flight controllers and directors, mission planners, NASA administrators, historians, and journalists. In addition to that, NASA provided access to the detailed records that they kept of everything, including recordings of conversations between mission control and the astronauts in space. He uses all these resources to bring the story of the Apollo Space Program to life.
In May 1961, when President Kennedy announced to a joint session of congress that America should commit itself “before this decade is out, to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth,” the sum total of America’s experience in space was sending Alan Shephard up on a fifteen-minute sub-orbital flight. That was it. They had hoped that Shephard would be the first man in space, but the Russians beat them to it. And Yuri Gagarin didn’t just go up into space, he orbited the earth before the Americans managed a simple sub-orbital flight.
Things looked bad for NASA in 1961. Several of the rockets that they used for unmanned missions exploded on the pad or minutes after flight. The ones that survived didn’t make it into orbit. But they kept at it, testing, learning, and changing the schematics until they got it right. They finally got John Glenn into orbit on February 20th, 1962. This was a triumph, but it wasn’t without its problems. Freedom 7 was slated to go on seven orbits, but Glenn had to be brought back after just three because of fears that the heat shield was coming loose.
Given all this, landing on the moon before the end of the decade was a tall order. But they did it. How they did it, is a fascinating story. This book does not tell the stories of the Mercury and the Gemini programmes that came before Apollo and were meant to be a means to acquire all the skills that NASA would need to land on the moon, skills like going into orbit around the earth, doing EVA’s in a space suit, rendezvous and docking with another spacecraft in orbit and so on. While this would’ve been interesting, it would’ve made the book too long.
This account begins with Apollo 1 and the unfortunate fire in the cockpit that killed astronauts, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, during a routine test of the command module. Once the fire started, they couldn’t get the hatch open, and they were dead before anyone could get close enough to help them. This was a national tragedy and a huge setback for NASA, but they learned from it. They took the command module apart and they redesigned and rebuilt it.
The next few missions, until Apollo 7 were unmanned missions, all designed to test and re-test both the command module and the lunar module. Chaikin doesn’t write about them. It is clear that his focus is on the people involved, particularly the astronauts. From Apollo 7 onward we get an overview of the mission objectives, details of each mission as it happened, the astronauts and their personalities and more importantly, their experiences. He says in the preface to the book,
“TV showed us what the astronauts did on the moon, but could not transmit the immensity of the venture. The astronauts knew this, and when they returned to earth, they struggled to describe their experiences. But astronauts are not communicators, and with rare exceptions, their words could not bridge the gap between the high-tech realm of spaceflight and everyday experience. The real impact of Apollo—the experiences of the first men to visit another world—remained, like the moon itself, beyond our grasp…”
“During the past eight years, when people asked me what my book was about, I would say that it was the story of the lunar voyages that the astronauts never wrote. These men are such loners that the thought of all of them sitting down to write a book together seems more far-fetched than the idea that they have been to the moon. I hope that my efforts will serve in their stead, to tell the story of a unique handful of men who have been to the edge of human experience. If we can know what it was like for them—if we can sense the men inside the space suits—then we can look back and see what really began on that July night twenty-five years ago: We touched the face of another world and became a people without limits.”
In all, twenty-four astronauts made the voyage to the moon. In the history of humanity, only twenty-four human beings have been to another world and only twelve of them, have walked on it. That is staggering to think about. It is such a small number. For all our modern technology and our scientific capabilities, the most an astronaut can hope for today, is to go into earth orbit. In the 1960’s they were going to the moon. And to think that they managed it with the technology of that day…it boggles the mind, and it makes for absorbing reading.
The missions leading up to the first moon landing are the most interesting because each of them was a test, a learning experience, a step closer to the goal. Apollo 11 is the story of a long-awaited achievement, and it is heartening to read about. Apollo 13 should have been routine and therefore boring, but two days into a routine mission, there was a malfunction and an explosion which resulted in a list of failures that no one had imagined could happen all at the same time. There was a very good chance that astronauts, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert would die in space, but they didn’t, because of the troubleshooting, the ingenuity and the real-time problem-solving that went into bringing the crew safely home. It has been called, with justice, NASA’s finest hour.
The rest of the Apollo missions were routine in the sense that there were no major disasters, but there were plenty of challenges. Everything that came after the first moon landing was no longer about figuring out how to make the landing, but about science. The focus of the Apollo program had turned to learning more about the moon with each new mission. So the astronauts landed in locations of geologic interest and collected rock samples, they set up equipment that would enable geologists on Earth to receive continuous readings and to perform scientific tests. They drove on the surface of the moon using a specially made lunar rover and spent upwards of three days on the surface.
Because Chaikin focuses so much on the astronauts, their personalities and their reactions to orbiting the moon and being on it, each mission is unique, and it stands out as a separate story. Clearly, he was able to get most of them to open up and talk about their experience of being on the moon, of walking around in one-sixth gravity, seeing the earth up in the sky, that fragile, blue-green globe, the only glimpse of colour in the stark lunar landscape. Each of them has something to share about his experience that is fascinating to read about.
Chaikin goes into plenty of detail about each mission, and while this makes the book a bit information heavy, it doesn’t get tedious or become a bore at any point. At least, it didn’t for me. I’m a science nerd and a space nerd. I like history and I love details, so this was very much a book for me. But anyone interested in space should read it.