Books

It's said to be hard to turn a profit from space, but the publishing industry seems to manage. E&T rounds up the best of the Apollo 11 anniversary tie-ins.

Magnificent Desolation

By Buzz Aldrin, with Ken Abraham
Bloomsbury, £16.99

Fighter pilots aren't any good at poetry and are trained to keep their emotions in check, so says Buzz Aldrin in the latest instalment of his autobiography, 'Magnificent Desolation', which takes its name from the immortal poetic phrase he uttered while walking on the Moon in July 1969. "It was a spontaneous utterance, an oxymoron that would take on ever-deeper dimensions of meaning in describing this strange new environment," he writes.

In fact, 'Magnificent Desolation' starts on the upper platform on Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39-A, just as Aldrin is about to enter the Apollo Command Module prior to take-off. What happens over the next week or so is well known, but is such a terrific yarn that Buzz tells it again. However, it's not so much the journey to the Moon as the 'long journey home' that has occupied so much of Aldrin's heroic and at times tragic post-lunar life.

The fabric of Aldrin's life since Apollo 11 is woven with many threads. There is his devotion to the public understanding of space, his long-running one-man crusade to get NASA moving in a positive direction. At the same time, there are loose threads continually threatening to unravel the whole thing: depression and alcoholism. Faced with the awkward question of 'what's next?' Aldrin hit the bottle hard and it retaliated: failed marriages, long dark nights of the soul, physical immobility, the loss of dignity; all spiralling downwards hand-in-hand with their attendant depression. It was a horrible existence and Aldrin was a sick man. In some ways, it's harder to be a down-and-out when you're an all-American hero and a Moon-walker too. As Aldrin's father, a distinguished aviator in his own right, continually urged his high-achieving son: pull yourself together.

Easier said than done, and after a spell selling second-hand cars to people who only wanted his autograph, Aldrin came to see his 'long journey home from the Moon' as one of public disclosure. He told the world he was ill, attended Alcoholics Anonymous, dried out, fell off the wagon and dried out again with a cyclical monotony that seemed to bore even himself. When this happened he'd stay in bed and watch TV.

Every Superman needs his Lois, and when Aldrin married Lois Driggs Cannon on Valentine's Day in 1988, it seemed the only way was up. More than two decades later they are still together: touring the world, lecturing on the future of space, dining with the crowned heads of Europe and facing their second Recession together. In the early 1990s, the private bank Mrs Aldrin was heiress to collapsed, leaving the couple virtually penniless and having to build up from the floor. This is when Buzz became the extraordinary freelance astronaut he is today.

Nothing if not entrepreneurial by nature, Aldrin is a pioneer even today. He has exploited his celebrity to lobby governments and to inspire schoolchildren alike. He has been one of the biggest supporters of space tourism and has launched the Sharespace foundation to try to get ordinary people up there. He's had a best-selling toy named after him and he's been on 'The Simpsons'. He famously kept a straight face while interviewed by Ali G, and punched a conspiracy theorist's lights out when told his whole life was 'a lie'. He likes to wear his dress whites and be seen with beautiful women, and he can compute orbital mechanics in his head.

Buzz Aldrin's story is amazing, and 'Magnificent Desolation' is inspirational.

Reviewed by Nick Smith, management editor. Nick's exclusive interview with Buzz Aldrin starts on page 74.

 

If history had unfolded differently, then this month's Moon landing anniversary might be occurring with scarcely a ripple of notice. If traversing cislunar space had become as common as crossing the Atlantic, it's arguable the specifics of Armstrong and Aldrin's trip would have long since faded from public memory. Who today remembers when Charles Lindbergh first flew from Long Island to Paris?

Except in real life the Saturn V assembly line was shut down within six months of Armstrong's small step, reducing the Apollo programme to a dead-end, a historical anomaly that seems to hold more significance now than then. So the same BBC which thought nothing of purging all Apollo 11 coverage from its archive (though preserving every scrap of videotape from 1969's Wimbledon) devotes an entire season to it today. And the anniversary-friendly book trade has an unprecedented number of offerings ready to launch…

E&T contributor Piers Bizony takes the long view with One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 Forty Years On (Aurum Press, £16.99), a lavishly-illustrated hardback that collects never-before-seen NASA archive images and graphic recreations to accompany a retelling of Apollo and discussion of its legacy.

Recounting how designers of new lunar spacecraft have disinterred Apollo hardware from museums to get leads on perplexing engineering problems, Bizony compares the quality of work done on Apollo to medieval cathedrals: "The Moon sat at the top of the tallest spire that anyone could think of building. So they built it."

Dan Parry's Moonshot: The Inside Story of Mankind's Greatest Adventure (Ebury Press, £11.99) is a more straightforward retelling of Apollo 11 alone. While not quite the insider guide it suggests, Parry has clearly done a vast amount of reading and talked to key players in producing a new ITV drama-documentary. The resulting reader-friendly narrative is packed with frequently surprising detail: that the Lunar Module was too light to even support its own weight under Earth gravity, for example, but nevertheless flew five times faster than an airliner as Armstrong skimmed the boulder-strewn lunar surface looking for somewhere to land. And the cold-looking regolith had actually been heated up past 100°C by sustained sunlight, illustrating the technical challenge inherent in enabling moonwalkers to stroll comfortably upon it…

Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon (John Murray, £16.99), by mainstream historian Craig Nelson, considers the race to the Moon as a modern myth. In his Apollo 11 account, fed on thousands of declassified documents and NASA oral histories, he takes apart numerous popular assumptions. Many of Nelson's findings - that the missions were much more dangerous than acknowledged, and that the slide-rule brandishing Apollo 11 crew was a long way from the popular view of space cowboys - are not exactly news to anyone paying attention. However, he writes well of the politics of the effort, including how NASA simply ignored President Nixon's order that God get a mention on the Lunar Module memorial plaque; in the event, nobody noticed. Nelson also covers Apollo's aftermath, highlighting the fact that US military funding for space has outstripped the civilian NASA's budget by a wide margin ever since the early 1980s.

Rod Pyle's slipcase-bound Missions to the Moon: The Complete Story of Man's Greatest Adventure (Carlton, £30) is a handsome rather than essential purchase, but does come with fascinating facsimiles of key documents, from the US government's background check on Wernher von Braun through to mission press releases and backroom technical reports.

Rick Stroud's The Book of the Moon (Doubleday, £15) is a sort of Schott's Original Miscellany for the Moon, containing all manner of Moon-related facts. Ideal toilet reading, in theory; in practice, the regrettably large section devoted to lunar astrology and superstition might lead irritable readers to fling it across the room.

Reviewed by Sean Blair, editor of IET magazine Flipside

 

Moonwalk one - the director's cut

Directed by Theo Kamecke
Attic Room/BHP Group/Molinare, £19.99

Apollo 11 profoundly affected the collective psyche of the United States. The world's mightiest nation state - not 200 years old at the time - accelerated decades of technological advancement into seven years that demonstrated the power of American scientific and engineering expertise not only to the world, but also to Americans themselves. As NASA's official feature documentary of the Apollo 11 mission, 'Moonwalk One' might seem to 2009 audiences a rather sonorous account of the development stages leading up to those eight glorious days in July 1969; but the movie succeeds in capturing some of the sociological impact of a phenomenon that captivated all levels of US citizenry. Ordinary folk were awed by Apollo; engineers and technologists engaged on the project shared this awe in equal measure.

The pride felt by non-technical contributors to the mission - such as the seamstresses who assembled the space suits worn by the crew - was immense; and the faces of the crowds thronging the beaches around Cape Canaveral to witness the launch set a new zenith for human expectation... Then, as with successive Apollo missions, public fascination with moonshots waned, the cans containing 'Moonwalk One' were stored away for nearly 40 years.

To coincide with this year's anniversary, 'Moonwalk One' director Theo Kamecke has re-edited the digitally-remastered movie for this two-disk DVD issue, and although there is little among the mission footage that seasoned 'Apollo-nados' will not have seen before, the supporting scenes show what an astounding achievement was the engineering and technology that went into Apollo.

However, despite the content refresh, 'Moonwalk One' remains something of a period piece; there are no direct-to-camera interviews with central protagonists, and aside from the narration, the soundtrack is largely compiled from second sources, such as flight transmissions. The 'Moonwalk One' re-issue offers two versions of the film - in 4:3 and 16:9 aspect rations, plus 40 minutes of extras.

Reviewed by James Hayes - editor, IT section

 

DIY space travel

More agreeable reading for engineers than many accounts of the Moon mission will be the Apollo 11 Owners' Workshop Manual (Haynes, £17.99). Styled like a standard Haynes car manual this collects together a host of contemporary annotated diagrams of the spacecraft and subsystems, along with a technical but readable account of how the Moon was won.

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