The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 18 September 2000

A Man on the Moon

The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts

by Andrew Chaikin

This reader was three and a half years old when Apollo 11 touched down on the surface of the Moon. In the following years, it would be Skylab that most fired my youthful imagination, so that I ended up pursuing a career in science and eventually working at a NASA center and on various space missions (though, like Alan Bean, I think I'd rather now be a painter). In a sense, I was the perfect target for the remarkable mission to the Moon. It had set out to fire the imagination. Though people today remember Neil Armstrong as the first Moon walker, there were eleven others, and there were thousands of support personnel. Their experiences were meant to be the experiences for all humanity, really. One may debate to what extent they succeeded. But here, in this excellent book, Andrew Chaikin tells the story of Apollo as seen by the astronauts who went to the Moon. His sensitive writing brings out the very personal side of these reticent test pilots, and for a while, we get a real sense of what it was like to stand on the Moon, look up, and see the blue Earth floating above. The author evokes personal recollections, and he gives us a good overview of the work these men did up there. Historically, there may be many aspects of this story that are left out, but all those details could fill a library. Here we see the men who went, their backgrounds, some of their struggles, some of their tragic failures, and what has become of them. The book is very very good, and served as a primary source for the excellent television series From the Earth to the Moon. One of the things that makes it so compelling is the fact that we haven't returned to the moon in over thirty-five years (apart from the occasional unmanned mission, such as Clementine and LRO). Chaikin goes inside the 12 men who walked there, and many others, but it is still a very small group. In a sense, this book is necessary. Through it, we can recall a lost period of exploration. Today, space flight to low earth orbit is common, but becoming less so, and two shuttle flights flew more people than ever walked on the Moon. The experience of going to the Moon has become alien, and thus this book is important. The paradox is that while one hopes that one day there will be a book titled A Person on Mars, one also hopes it won't be necessary.

(In the end, maybe all Apollo set out to accomplish was to prove to the Soviets that we could lob a sizeable missile over their heads. The utility of massive manned space exploration is debatable. There have been many spectacularly effective robotic missions to other places in the solar system. Yet, with his excellent re-telling, Chaikin also makes a convincing argument for the continued investment in the uniquely human perspective on the nearby universe.)

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