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Two tomes paint vivid historical portraits of Apollo 11

Eight Years to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Missions

Nancy Atkinson
Page Street Publishing
240 pp.
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Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11

James Donovan
Little, Brown
464 pp.
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On the evening of 13 December 1972, about a quarter of a million miles from Earth, 38-year-old Eugene Cernan stepped off the surface of the Moon and clambered back into his fragile and temporary home, a four-legged landing vehicle named Challenger. The ungainly contraption was set down in Mare Serenitatis, a vast lava plain on the Moon, where Cernan and his colleague Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, a geologist, had spent the past 3 days collecting rocks. A day later, the two men lifted off from the Moon and headed back to Earth, collecting their third crewmember, Ron Evans, who had patiently waited in lunar orbit in the mother ship, America. So ended NASA’s Apollo program, which having spent $25 billion (about $290 billion in today’s money) put a dozen Americans on the Moon between 1969 and 1972.

Few technical achievements of the 20th century have been so mythologized in the popular imagination. Textbooks regularly mark the Moon landing as one of the greatest achievements of human civilization. Is there anything left to say about Apollo?

If the public perception of Apollo remains wedded to grand historical narratives about exploring the unknown, professional historians have, for the most part, resisted the triumphalist urge and instead interpreted Apollo as a manifestation of a Cold War battle between adversarial superpowers. In this reading, Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon on the evening of 20 July 1969 was as much about the human spirit to explore as it was cold hard political gamesmanship.

John F. Kennedy’s famous speech to Congress in 1961 calling on the nation “to set a goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” has provided a convenient starting point for most histories of Apollo—and there have been many. In the decades since the landing, library shelves have filled with hundreds and hundreds of tomes on the topic. They have generally favored three basic frameworks, the most ubiquitous being the astronauts-centered history. Another school has focused on the high politics of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. Last, a smaller canon has excavated the project from the perspective of managers and engineers.

Among literally dozens of new books on Apollo, all timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing in July 2019, two books exemplify both old and new tropes. James Donovan’s Shoot for the Moon has been touted by none other than Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, who recently remarked, “This is the best book on Apollo that I have read.” Donovan’s strength is his breezy and journalistic writing style that weaves together a vast and complicated set of stories from all levels of Apollo.

If Donovan’s book is a by-the-numbers retelling that is also a familiar one, Eight Years to the Moon by Nancy Atkinson takes us into less-familiar aspects of the history, benefiting in many ways from a burst of recent scholarship. This book functions as a kind of corrective to the ubiquitous heroic narrative of politicians and astronauts.

The overall beats of Donovan’s story will be familiar to many. For example, he captures the intimate world of Wernher von Braun, the visionary German rocket designer who was captured by Americans after World War II. Von Braun was brought to Texas and eventually to Alabama, where, in the 1960s, he directed the project to develop the giant Saturn V rocket that sent Apollo to the Moon.

Very succinctly, Donovan describes von Braun as “a handsome, charming ex-SS officer who had been the chief architect of an ambitious rocket program that had killed thousands during the war—and who now spread the gospel of space exploration to Americans in Walt Disney TV specials.” What he leaves unsaid is as important: that more people died building the V2—as slave prisoners in Nazi concentration camps—than the rocket actually killed. Although Donovan glosses over this, von Braun’s team’s culpability for crimes against humanity is fundamental to any reckoning with the legacy of Apollo.

Donovan’s narrative is a well-crafted one. It is one of the rarest of Apollo books that manages to weave together the political, the technical, and the heroic. We get vivid descriptions of managers struggling with difficult decisions, such as the directive that sent the first Apollo spacecraft around the Moon in late 1968, a recommendation that was one of the most risky in the entire program.

Donovan’s account of this mission, Apollo 8, is one of the best in print, communicating the sheer hubris of sending three astronauts into deep space with only one chance—the foolproof firing of the Apollo command and service module’s SPS engine—to get back to Earth. It is hard to think of a NASA mission that was more risky but even harder to imagine the Moon landing happening without it.

In Donovan’s hands, the actual landing mission, Apollo 11, reads like a thriller. We know the ending, of course, but the contingencies of the mission—points at which the flight could have failed—are so many, that their cumulative power communicates how miniscule the margins were. In a million possible scenarios, the Eagle lunar module lander crashes on the Moon with no way back for the astronauts. They did, of course, come back, and Donovan’s narrative wraps up rather abruptly with a few cursory paragraphs about the postflight visits of the Apollo 11 astronauts to foreign countries. He concludes on a pithy note: “By the time the crew returned home, they understood that their lives would never be the same.”

In Eight Years to the Moon, the astronauts and the technical details of the missions are still present, but we get insight into the tens of thousands of others who participated in and shaped Apollo. We hear, for example, about Ken Young, one of the first engineers hired at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston in the early 1960s. When he arrived, Young knew that he would be working on something to do with space, but “didn’t have a clue” exactly what his job would be. Stories such as this give the reader a sense of the team’s commitment, their creativity, and often their confusion. When the Moon program was announced in 1961, many, such as rocket engineer Henry Pohl, were “dumbfounded” at the audacity of the challenge.

In weaving through the lives of engineers at NASA, Atkinson takes us to the drafting tables, the engine test stands, the smoky offices, and newly minted homes in Houston where the vast architecture of Apollo—its rockets, its spaceships, its tracking stations, its training centers, and its launch sites—were all conceived. There are wonderfully vivid accounts of life in Houston, for example, where, lacking air conditioning in the sweltering heat, engineers’ wives and kids would spend afternoons in bathtubs filled with cool water.

Atkinson is sensitive to those who were written out of the history of Apollo, particularly women. She integrates into the story the work of “computers”—women who made immeasurable contributions in ground support.

Atkinson’s writing situates the story of the program’s female African-American computers, whose story was documented in Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 Hidden Figures, in the broader world of the technical development of Apollo. It would be an oversimplification to think of these women as functioning only as people who entered data, she argues. Some, including Dottie Lee, were involved in “designing and testing vehicles, not just running the numbers.” Of course, this was largely a male-dominated and sexist engineering culture, but the role of women, both as technical support personnel and in unpaid roles as caregivers, cannot be overstated.

Like Donovan, Atkinson takes us into the heartbeat of the missions, but her narrative shows how the flights leading up to the landing were just the visible tip of a massive social, technical, and cultural enterprise.

Remarkably, her description of the Apollo 11 landing mission contains some previously unknown tidbits. She highlights, for example, the very dangerous uncontrolled reentry of the abandoned service module, which could have interfered with the reentry of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins as they sped toward Earth’s atmosphere after completing the landing goal. Atkinson notes dryly that “somehow, the details and documentation of this anomaly were lost for nearly fifty years.”

Based on a vast amount of original research and embellished with a suite of wonderful photographs, Atkinson’s book is one of the best books published on Apollo. It is a surprisingly short work but a masterful one, communicating the enormity of the social and technical task that tens of thousands of Americans took on in the 1960s to achieve John F. Kennedy’s goal.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, Fordham University, Bronx, NY 10458, USA.