Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book Review: "A Man On the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts," by Andrew Chaikin

Full disclosure: I'm a bona fide space geek.

That being said, Andrew Chaikin's book is basically a biography of the Apollo space program, the program that allowed a dozen human beings to walk the surface of the moon. It's also about not only the physical journey the men (in the less enlightened all-male early NASA days) took, but the intellectual, life and spritual journeys the men took. It was also largely the basis of the great HBO mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon."

In May, 1961, the month I was born, the United States' new president, John F. Kennedy, spoke before a joint session of Congress and proposed something that must have seemed preposterous at the time: to land a man on the moon and return him safely before the end of the decade. Earlier that month, Alan Shepard had become-- just barely-- the first American to fly into space with a fifteen minute flight that did not even orbit the earth.

The journey to fulfilling that promise, on July 20, 1969, was a fascinating one that involved scientific and engineering ingenuity, political wrangling, personal sacrifice-- including lives-- and the dedication of many thousands of men and women. The men who were at the point of the spear that was pointed at the heavens and the moon, the astronauts, were, on the surface, very similar: white, male military (or former military) officers who were in their late thirties and early to late forties. Beneath the surface, however, they were remarkably different in background, interests, temperment, and even politics. The paths they took to becoming part of the select few who made the journey to the moon and back were diverse, but the paths they took afterward were just as diverse. Some, like Frank Borman, who headed the now-defunct Eastern Airlines, became businessmen. Others took less worldly paths: Al Bean became an artist, recreating his memories of the moon on canvas. Jim Irwin, who had never been particularly spiritual before becoming the eighth human being to walk on the moon, was profoundly moved by his experience, and spent the rest of his life as a minister after returning to earth.

Chaikin's book lays out the history of the Apollo program beautifully, putting it in the context of the times and avoiding overly technical jargon. He humanizes the astronauts, who were often placed on pedestals, and in the process making them much more interesting. He recognizes the contributions of the many people of many talents who brought about one of the United States' greatest triumphs. In doing so, the book makes a compelling argument for why we should once again reach for the stars.


Pat Tillett said...

Hey there!
Nice review of a book I had thought about getting. Now, I think I will.
Hope you are doing well and are settled into your new job!

SkylersDad said...

I will have to get this one to read my fellow space geek!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Fellow space nerd here! This sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks for the great review!