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Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight

Jonathan Fetter-Vorm
Hill and Wang
256 pp.
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As you bury your feet in the sand this summer, imagine tucking your toes into something a little more exciting: lunar regolith. This July marks the 50th anniversary of the first human Moon landing, an event recently feted at box offices and on bookshelves. Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s nonfiction graphic novel Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight is the latest contribution to this commemorative craze.

In Fetter-Vorm’s retelling, the familiar mission unfolds in parallel with historic events that made this moment possible. Beginning with the cosmic collision in which Earth’s satellite formed, the graphic novel brings readers into the notebooks of astronomer Johannes Kepler, the imagination of author Jules Verne, the subterranean Nazi factory where concentration camp laborers assembled guided ballistic missiles, and the Soviet design bureau responsible for the first satellite. Deftly avoiding the trap of teleology, Fetter-Vorm alternates these historical vignettes—visually distinct in their monochromatic representation—with vibrantly colored scenes from inside Apollo 11 and on the lunar surface.

Wherever possible, Fetter-Vorm excerpts dialogue from mission transcripts and renders scenes from original photographs and films. His commitment to accuracy and detail are at their best inside the Apollo 11 command module, Columbia. In one panel, pilot Michael Collins is shown tracking the mission on a hand-drawn wall calendar. This and other markings (the walls functioned as a notepad of sorts) were largely unknown until 2016, when the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum undertook a 3D scan and photometry of the spacecraft.

Through deep engagement with the latest historical scholarship, Fetter-Vorm commemorates the mission without simplifying it. He introduces readers to a cast of characters whose contributions to the space program were circumscribed by sexism and racism. His work acknowledges that the space age and civil rights struggle were not only contemporaneous but connected.

The book’s epilogue reveals Fetter-Vorm’s purpose: to inspire the next generation of space enthusiasts. It opens on a moment of discovery in 2012, as a submersible approaches remnants of a Saturn V rocket, Apollo’s launch vehicle, on the ocean floor. The next page is dominated by the face of a young boy—eyes wide and mouth agape in wonder—as he encounters the recovered engine part at a museum. This sense of adventure and accomplishment, Fetter-Vorm suggests, can be recaptured through hard work, ingenuity, and national purpose.

Space scientists, engineers, and policy-makers of the future—working for the public or private sector—must be prepared to address public relations challenges as well as scientific and technical ones. Almost as an afterthought, Fetter-Vorm gestures toward contemporary critiques of the Moon landing program. Fifty years on, it is easy to forget that the American public was generally ambivalent about this multibillion-dollar endeavor—a fact that dogged NASA from the early 1960s and that had a material impact on the way it conducted and presented Project Apollo.

Accessible to young adults but enjoyable for readers of all ages, Moonbound educates while it entertains.

About the author

In July 2019, the reviewer will begin an appointment at the American Philosophical Society Museum, Philadelphia, PA 19106, USA.