Book reviews: Apollo 11 anniversary special
Image credit: Dreamstime
A selection from the plethora of new titles published to coincide with the anniversary of the first Moon landings.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step’, when a man from Earth first put boots on the Moon. Lest this seminal moment in the history of space exploration be forgotten, many authors and publishers have worked hard to remind us of Apollo 11, the first manned lunar-landing mission, and its back story. We’ve picked a few that vary in style from technical to historical and from narrative to illustrative, hopefully providing something for everyone.
We start with ‘Apollo 11 Owners’ Workshop Manual’ by Christopher Riley and Phil Dolling (Haynes Publishing, 2019, £22.99, ISBN 9781785215926), the latest in a long-running series familiar to E&T readers. This ‘50th Anniversary Special Edition’ of a book first published in 2009 features an extra section providing “an insight into the legacy of Apollo”, including how it inspired such modern space visionaries as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. The book is well produced, with colour photos and detailed line drawings based on original Nasa documents, and maintains the feel of the early Haynes spin-off manuals that (almost) made one feel that ownership and maintenance was possible.
One of the most impressive illustrations in this regard is a double-page spread of the Apollo command module instrument panel, with its hundreds of switches, gauges and circuit breakers. When seen in photos – or better still in museums – such hardware impresses not so much for its complexity, but for its lack of display screens: “You mean, they went to the Moon in this?” This book is an excellent guide to the technical challenge involved in putting a man on the Moon.
Image credit: Haynes
‘NASA Moon Missions Operations Manual’ by David Baker (Haynes Publishing, £22.99, ISBN 9781785212109) is a sister manual on the other manned lunar missions – Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 – which provides additional context to the historic mission that everyone remembers and celebrates, reminding us that Armstrong and Aldrin were far from alone in the politically fuelled race to conquer the Moon. Following an introduction, it details the ‘development flights’ that preceded the operational missions, which are the main subject. It explains, in some detail, the sequential-step system for Apollo development, defined by Nasa’s Owen Maynard, which was based on letter-designations that made ‘G’ the first manned landing.
In recognition that Apollo 11 is covered in depth in other Haynes Manuals, this grants it only a couple of pages, but provides much more detail on the subsequent H-missions, Apollo 12 and 14 (Apollo 13 famously failed to make a landing), and the J-missions of Apollo 15, 16 and 17. Although the subject material is, by its nature, based on the engineering and technology of the Apollo spacecraft, this book is more descriptive in terms of ‘missions performed’ with that technology.
Image credit: Oxford University Press
However, if your reading preference is more historical narrative than technical manual, ‘The Apollo Chronicles: Engineering America's First Moon Missions’ by Brandon R Brown (Oxford University Press, £19.99, ISBN 9780190681340) might light your fuse. The author, himself the son of an Apollo engineer, tells the story of a group of “lesser known engineers who were instrumental in the success of the first manned Moon landing”.
It’s always interesting when a new ‘convert to the faith’ revisits a well told story, and this is no exception. The author, who was born just prior to the Apollo 11 mission, has “tried to write a book” that will have remaining Apollo engineers “nodding in approval”. While he appreciates the bravery of the astronauts, who sat on “towers of explosive fuel” and ventured into “a deadly realm”, his book is “more concerned with the astronauts’ protectors” (which is a nice way of looking at it).
Sparsely illustrated in black and white, and complete with chapter notes and index, this book offers a more academic treatment, but is written in an entertaining and accessible narrative style. It concludes with a thought-provoking observation on the heritage of the Apollo engineers: although their data tapes, photographs and blueprints will eventually fade and crumble, suggests the author, “on the Moon’s stark landscape, the retired rovers and leggy landing stages will abide for millions of years to come”.
Image credit: Harbour Moon
With the philosophically titled ‘Where Once We Stood’ by Christopher Riley & Martin Impey (Harbour Moon, £19.99, ISBN 9781916062504), we are back to 'Stories of the Apollo astronauts who walked on the Moon', as the subtitle has it. But that’s where the similarity with previous astronaut histories ends. Chapter 1 (on Apollo 11) begins with a brief exchange between Armstrong and Aldrin as the former, on hands and knees, orients himself to exit onto the tiny platform at the top of that famous ladder to the Moon. “Blindly backing out of a narrow doorway, bum first, with his life support systems strapped to his back, is an undignified way to make his entrance onto the world stage,” suggests the author.
Written from actual mission transcripts, but embellished in the style of a novel, the author uses his storytelling experience as a filmmaker to bring those transcripts to life, while maintaining technical accuracy. At the same time, he manages to add his own thoughtful commentary to well-known quotes: “…Isn’t that something!” replies Neil. “Magnificent sight out here.” “Magnificent desolation,” replies Buzz, playing off Neil’s word. “Magnificent desolation,” he repeats to himself. "It kind of sums it up nicely.” The book is illustrated with drawings and paintings and printed predominantly in blue, which makes for an unusual, possibly unique, experience in the world of space literature.
A weightier experience is provided by ‘The NASA Archives: 60 Years in Space’ by Piers Bizony, Andrew Chaikin and Roger Launius (Taschen, £100, ISBN 9783836569507), not least because of its size and mass. Measuring 73cm by 34cm (open) and weighing no less than 5kg, this massive volume comes in its own cardboard carry-case; one feels it should come with its own coffee table! This “visual celebration of humankind’s unstoppable urge to travel away from Earth to worlds beyond” features more than 400 historic photographs and “rare concept renderings” in 470 very-large-format pages.
Although it covers the 60-year history of Nasa (which dates from 1958), there is detailed photographic coverage of what was arguably the Agency’s ‘finest hour’ with Apollo. The book reminds us, however, that Apollo did not occur in a programmatic vacuum, being preceded and superseded by other manned programmes and, indeed, many programmes of automated exploration.
Anniversaries are mainly concerned with looking back, and it’s fitting to mark the golden anniversary of Apollo 11, but these books also recognise space technology as an enabling technology and a continuing story. There’s definitely more to come!
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