A MAN ON THE MOON: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts
by Andrew Chaikin
Viking Penguin, New York, 1994, 670 pp.
Black and white photographs. Hardcover. $27.95
This past July 20th marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing and became the occasion to introduce several new publications on the U.S. manned space program. A Man on the Moon is by far the most comprehensive and readable of all insofar as telling the story of the Apollo astronauts, and through them, the very human story of the Apollo program. In one of the jacket blurbs, Gene Cernan, the Apollo 17 Commander, says "I've been there. Chaikin took me back." Similar jacket endorsements by other Apollo astronauts are a testament of the respect for the author's ability to tell their story accurately and well.
The book is a product of hundreds of hours of in-depth interviews with the astronauts and others over a period of almost ten years. Twenty-four astronauts went to the Moon during Apollo, and, with the exception of Jack Swigert who died in 1982, they all cooperated with Chaikin in helping tell the story.
The manned Apollo missions got off to a tragic start with the death of the three astronauts in the Spacecraft 012 fire on the launch pad in January of 1967, five years after Shepard's first 15-minute sub-orbital lob 200 miles downrange, and five years after John Kennedy's bold announcement that the U.S. was going to send men to the Moon and return them safely to Earth before the decade was out. There were only three more years to go in the decade and things weren't looking all that good.
Chaikin relates the events leading up to the fire and its aftermath along with flashbacks to the Gemini Program dealing with the individuals who would eventually be assigned to the Moon missions. This period only occupies a brief, but insightful, part of the book. By Chapter 3 (page 57) the author begins the story of the first manned Moon mission, Apollo 8, which flew in December of 1968. less than two years after the Spacecraft 012 fire (after the fire it had been designated Apollo 1). The decision for Apollo 8 to go into lunar orbit was a bold one in view of the fact that it was only the second manned Apollo mission and the first to fly atop the three stage Saturn V launch vehicle. Chaikin tells the story well--not just the technical side, which the average Apollo fan already knows, but, more importantly, we get a real feel for the human side--what is going on "off-line" not just with the astronauts, but their families as well: Jim Lovell breaking the news to his wife Marilyn that they weren't going to be spending Christmas in Acapulco after all, as he had promised; the fact that Frank Borman's worst fear wasn't that the Saturn would blow up or that they would get stranded in lunar orbit--it was that there might be some malfunction with the spacecraft in the initial Earth parking orbit that would prevent them from going on to the Moon, and he would be stuck with the alternate mission, ten long days in Earth orbit with essentially nothing to do.
Fortunately that didn't happen. Apollo 8 was a resounding success in more ways than one: In addition to racking up a lot of firsts and getting a real test of the end-to-end system at lunar distances, it clearly established the U.S. lead over the Soviet Union in the race to the Moon.
Subsequent missions were launched on two-month centers: Apollo 9 in March was a dress rehearsal in Earth orbit with the full-up spacecraft; Apollo 10 in May was much the same in lunar orbit where the Lunar Module separated from the Command and Service Modules and descended to within 50,000 feet of the lunar surface, and finally, in July, Apollo 11 ignited the descent engine at 50,000 feet and continued on to the first lunar landing. Chaikin’s description of this period of intense activity along with several interesting and revealing flashbacks to the Gemini program, Apollo training, and crew selection make fascinating reading.
But this reviewer is lapsing into telling the story and not reviewing the book ....and is running out of space besides, although there are still another 250 pages to go in the book. The Apollo 11 landing concludes Book 1. Book 2 covers the so-called H-missions, Apollo 12, 13 and 14, with essentially the same spacecraft hardware as Apollo 11, but with an emphasis on science. Book 3 covers the J-missions, Apollo 15, 16, and 17, which were known as the Lunar Exploration Program—longer staytimes, longer EVAs, Lunar Rovers for greater mobility, and a rack of instruments in the Service Module for remote sensing from lunar orbit. With the help of the scientists involved in these missions, Chaikin continues to tell the story of the important science that these crews accomplished and what it means to our understanding of the Moon's origin and evolution.
When Apollo 17 splashed down a few days before Christmas in 1972 there were the usual celebrations and handshakes, but there was also a sense of having lost something that could never be regained. The author relates the wistful sense of accomplishment of one of the participants who likened it to how the architects of the pyramids must have felt when the last one was finished.
The book concludes with an Epilogue in which Chaikin relates the post-Apollo part of the astronauts story—what they did after returning from the Moon, what they are doing today, their reflections on their mission 20-25 years later. It's all very interesting reading.
The Apollo Program was supposed to have extended through Apollo 20, but the last three missions were cancelled along the way. NASA had to get on to other things. A pity, but, on the other hand, if there had been three more missions, we might have had to wait another two or three years for this excellent book.
(Mr. Sevier is currently with the Universities Space Research Association. During the Apollo Program, he was at the Manned Spacecraft Center (now JSC) in the Apollo Program Office where he held various positions.)
FOR ALL MANKIND
Directed by Al Reinert
National Geographic/Columbia TriStar Home Video, 80 minutes, $19.95
For All Mankind was originally released as a movie several years ago and was an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary. It has recently been rereleased on VHS videotape. All phases of the Apollo missions are covered using in-flight movie footage, although the emphasis is, not surprisingly, on the Moon walks and on the more playful aspects of life in zero gravity. Narration is by the astronauts themselves, primarily with recollections of their experiences and feelings as told in interviews taped by director Al Reinert and supplemented by tapes of in-flight radio transmissions between the astronauts and Mission Control.
In this movie, the various Apollo missions are combined together to produce a single “typical” mission rather than attempting to reproduce the details of any particular mission. Occasionally, this approach can be a bit jarring. For example, the movie gives the impression that spacewalks were routinely carried out during the 2 1/2 hour period between reaching Earth orbit and departing for the Moon. In fact, such spacewalks never occurred on any of the lunar missions; the events shown in the movie are from Gemini 4 and Apollo 9, both Earth orbital missions. Such problems are relatively rare, however, and overall the movie is quite successful in communicating a sense of what it was like to fly to the Moon. Of the many documentaries produced about America's manned space program, For All Mankind clearly ranks among the very best.
—Walter S. Kiefer
(Dr. Kiefer is a staff scientist at LPI.)