Test pilots. Scientists. Explorers.
The 1960s were a perfect storm. With the launch of Sputnik, the escalating Cold War, the public belief in President John F. Kennedy, and a time of economic prosperity, challenge was issued to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and to bring him safely back to earth. To this day, you hear this achievement compared to anything. “We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t do (fill in the blank with grievance here).” As a nation, and as a race as a whole, we tested the absolute limits of what we were capable of doing, and we went further than we ever have before. This is what it means to be human, to push beyond the comfort zone because we can.
In doing so, we inspired a nation and a world. We created new technologies and pushed the boundaries of understanding on all manner of sciences.
And then one day, we stopped. We haven’t been the same since. Some would claim we lost our identities and reason for being that day. Sadly, I’m among those who think this way. I want brighter days ahead, but my understanding of what that will take is very different from my understanding of what my country is willing to do now. The space program has all but perished in my life time. It’s too costly, they say, and the risk is too great. We pay a far higher cost by not going. The risk is minimized the more we learn, and what risk remains has always been a part of it. People are willing to take that risk. It’s what makes us human.
In 1988, I visited the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Even 30 years ago, it was an all-day event just to get through that one museum. Taking it all in, even then as a young teen, I knew when I saw the Apollo 11 command module and the lunar excursion module Eagle, that I was seeing both the centerpieces of the museum and the pinnacle of human achievement.
It’s one thing to see history, to touch it. That alone is worth the price of admission. It’s something else entirely to understand it and to put it into context. Behind this story are the flight crews and engineers that made this endeavor possible. But the Apollo story doesn’t end with the “one small step for man.” That was only the beginning of the mission.
If you’ve seen the 1998 mini-series From the Earth to the Moon, then you know the story in this book. This is the book that mini-series is based on. Author Andrew Chaikin tells the story behind the story. You get to know the people and the personalities who dared to do more than dream. These are human beings like you and me. They have stories to tell. Chaikin tells them here, in personal detail. The hero-worship, the press, the scandals, the drinking, the competitive egos, the broken marriages, and above all the commitment… it’s all here, every triumph, every setback, every challenge, every mission from Apollo 1 to Apollo 17. The book covers the mission parameters, the details of each mission, the challenges encountered, the things we learned, the details hidden from the press at the time… it’s an engaging narrative from start to finish. To my mind, it’s one of the most awe-inspiring tales told in the entire annals of history, made understandable in the telling here.
It’s made humbling by the realization that we can’t do it today. Almost 40 years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the lunar surface, we don’t have the technology, the funds, or the public spirit, or the congressional support to even make an attempt. It’s the kind of thing I think about at night, along with the realization that I couldn’t be one of them even if I wanted to be. I don’t have what it takes to be an astronaut. I’ve seen a Saturn V rocket in person at Houston’s NASA Space Center. I’m too paralyzed by heights to plant my butt in the seat of a Saturn V while it’s still on the ground. I’d never make it into space in my wildest dreams. I have nothing but admiration for these brave people. That was before I read this book.
This book has me appreciate all over again virtually everything I believe about life, the cosmos, and our place in it. It puts our petty wars and everyday social problems into perspective. The space program has always had me walking the tightrope between hope that we can and despair that we won’t. This book brings all of that home, with the understanding that for one brief time, we dared to do it.
I can’t recommend this book enough. Though a little dated (Alan Shepard, who died in 1998, is still alive at the time of publication, for example), it’s still thorough and complete. It’s truly an amazing read. I dare you to not be inspired by this one.