April 3rd, 2006


April Books 2) A Man On The Moon

2) A Man On The Moon, by Andrew Chaikin

On recommendation from blue_condition and major_clanger, I picked this up at the children's bookshop in Tervuren last weekend (but in the grown-up section). And it is a good read. It concentrates almost exclusively on the crews of the nine space missions that actually went as far as the moon - the six landings, the two preparatory flights, and Apollo 13, the flight that failed. (Hey, I now remember reading Henry S.F. Cooper's 1973 book, The Flight that Failed, back when I was bout 11.) This means a certain narrowness of focus - although one does also get a sense (more than from the Neil Armstrong book) of the massive numbers of people involved with the Apollo project at every stage.

It's a good narrative but without much depth. I was initially puzzled by some curious repetitions of familiar material about a third of the way in, and a little later a sudden shift of concentration to the (extensive) scientific work of the latter three moon landings, but oddly enough Library Thing gave me the crucial clue - the reason it reads a bit like three different books stuck together is precisely that it is three different books stuck together, the originals having been the story to Apollo 10, Apollos 11 to 14, and Apollos 15, 16 and 17.

The last section of the book, with its strong emphasis on the science of the Moon landings, is perhaps surprisingly the most interesting, outdoing the drama of the first landing of Apollo 11 and the crisis of Apollo 13. The politics of getting a serious scientific component into the lunar programme in the first place, and then the psychology of persuading the astronauts to take it seriously, are a rather fascinating story, with ups and downs - a down in particular for the non-scientist astronaut who was bumped off the very last lunar mission for his geologist colleague. "He told a reporter that the toughest thing he could remember doing in a long time was explaining to his kids that he wasn't going to the moon."

The politics of astronaut selection for the various missions also makes interesting reading, particularly in contrast with First Man. Chaikin, writing ten years earlier than Hansen, seems to buy Armstrong's own instistence that there were no special reasons why he was chosen as the commander of the first lunar landing; it was just his turn on the roster. This is belied by other evidence even in Chaikin's book, in that the spot had in fact been offered to another astronaut. This makes Armstrong's role a conscious choice rather than a default option; and when one considers the stronger ego of Pete Conrad, the next astronaut in line, one can see why the decision was made to stick with Armstrong. Incidentally, of the three moon landings before they got serious with the science, Armstrong appears to have done much the best job of gathering and recording moon rocks.

So yeah, a decent enough account, but I will be looking out for more.