Giant step, full stop

Voices From the Moon
Andrew Chaikin & Victoria Kohl
Viking Studio, pp 201, $ 29.95

Rocket Men
Craig Nelson
Viking, pp 404,
$ 27.95

The story of the moon landings is an oft-told tale, but one that feels stranger with each new telling. Walter Cronkite’s prediction, that after Apollo 11 “everything else that has happened in our time is going to be an asterisk,” wound up playing out backward. In our pop-historical memory of the 1960s, Project Apollo is the footnote, an oddball offshoot from assassinations, Vietnam and Charles Manson. Since 1972, no human has travelled beyond low-Earth orbit, a situation that makes one imagine what things might be like if, after Lindbergh’s flight, the species had contentedly gone back to making do with boats and trains.

Craig Nelson’s Rocket Men lacks the shapeliness and authority of some earlier lunar histories, but it ends up making an engaging contribution. He sensibly sets the Apollo period against “the interminable shuttle/space station era” that followed, and before that tracks the space race against the missile race that proceeded alongside it. Soviet-American competition in space may have looked like a peaceful alternative to war — a “celestial olympics” in Nelson’s nice phrasing — but the civilian-controlled NASA retained its “military DNA.” Lyndon Johnson, who earmarked the most money for the agency, confidentially pronounced it a bargain because of the yield from spy photography made possible in part by Project Gemini: “We know how many missiles the enemy has and, it turned out, our guesses were way off. We were building things we didn’t need to build.”

Johnson’s predecessor had reached the White House by denouncing a missile gap that didn’t really exist. Once he was there, John F Kennedy embraced the goal of a moon landing after the one-two punch of Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight and the Bay of Pigs debacle, but not from any personal enthusiasm for exploration. (“I’m not that interested in space,” he told NASA officials in 1962.) Addressing the United Nations after the successful completion of Project Mercury and only two months before his death, the president expressed his willingness to see the United States go to the moon with the Soviets instead of alone.

Kennedy’s “before this decade is out” deadline for a lunar landing wasn’t pushed back, even after the Apollo 1 ground fire of 1967, which killed three astronauts and created an 18-month gap between manned missions. During that period, Nelson writes, “the entire agency would be re-engineered.”

Nelson does make good use of NASA oral histories to amplify and adjust what one remembers of the early Apollo missions. However heavenly the voyage of Apollo 8 may have seemed — on Christmas Eve 1968, the astronauts read aloud from Genesis during their ninth orbit of the moon — Bill Anders, who flew the mission with Borman and Jim Lovell, reminds us that the cramped and vomit-stained command module felt like “an outhouse” by the time it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. The success of quiet, opaque Neil Armstrong has come to seem inevitable, but he was hardly a good-luck charm: before Apollo 11, he was nearly killed flying Gemini 8 and testing the lunar lander, and he had seen his own house in Houston burn to the ground.

Nelson’s account of Apollo 11 fills about a quarter of the odd, modular structure he chooses for his book. He never goes for long without executing some nice writerly flourish — astronauts carrying their briefcase-shaped ventilators to the launch pad resemble “businessmen on their way to the future” — but a reader’s ears are sometimes irritated by the sound of boilerplate clanging into place (“greatest tragedies... astonishing triumphs”). Among Nelson’s achievements is the restoration of a certain grandeur to the moon itself, whose near-planetary status is arguable from the fact that “of 150 moons in the solar system, ours is the largest in relation to its host.”

Despite their “general lack of verbal firepower,” the moon’s astronaut explorers did their best to convey the look of the dusty world they suddenly saw in such sharp relief. (“Be descriptive!” Jan Armstrong called out to her husband’s televised form.) Some of their strongest efforts at recalling the lunar landscape can be found in Voices From the Moon, a new book of mission photographs and astronaut quotations compiled by Andrew Chaikin (author of A Man on the Moon) and Victoria Kohl.

A few of the recollections may stop you cold. Apollo 12’s Alan Bean, who later became a painter, recalls looking with wonder at Earth before having to upbraid himself: “I would say, I’ve got to quit doing this... because when I’m doing this, I’m not looking for rocks.” If any real scandal attaches to Project Apollo, it’s the extent to which hard science was allowed to dominate the astronauts’ hours on the moon. With less geology and more ontology, they might have kept the public fired up for further space exploration. Even Frank Borman, who became a no-nonsense CEO back on Earth, realises what the missions should really have been about: “We took the human intellect and the human vision, the human mind, 240,000 miles away from its home base... Whether we found a rock there or not was of no importance.”

Nelson properly shakes his head over the long epilogue: “A mere 25 years from guided missile to man on the moon, and then... nothing.” Spectacular unmanned probes on the order of Galileo and Cassini, yes; but where manned spaceflight is concerned, NASA currently continues on the same irresolute and unimaginative road it has travelled since Richard Nixon’s last years in the White House. 

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