All Apollo, All the Time

A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin

While watching HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon on DVD (initial reaction: “Rats, it’s not a documentary!”—then, after one episode: “This is fantastic!”) I saw that the series was based in part on this book. So I hauled it home from the library and dove in. And stayed there a while—this book has 680 pages, if you count the appendices, notes, and index. And in this book’s case, 680 pages is a good thing.

One might think, “A 680-page tome on the Apollo missions… [yawn]” but boy, would one be wrong, Wrong, WRONG.

Chaikin talked with the astronauts, with their families, and with others at NASA, and the result is a book that focuses on the human experience of preparing to go to—and then actually visiting—the moon. While I have a certain appreciation for the technical whiz-bang wonders of getting humans into space and onto the lunar surface and returning them “safely to Earth” (as JFK put it), I confess I never crave the experience of reading a technical book on any subject. So this book, with its narrative tone and human-centric approach, was the right choice for me.

Though, speaking of technical manuals… While I was reading A Man on the Moon, this little news item, which includes three of my favorite things—libraries, the Smithsonian, and the space program—appeared on The Face*, and I got all excited. And then, shortly thereafter, this fine thing also appeared on The Face. But I digress…

Someone described A Man on the Moon as “picking up where The Right Stuff left off,” (Oh! It’s Pete Conrad, on the back cover of the book!) and I think that’s a fair statement. (Though do the Gemini missions get lost in the shuffle, perhaps? Those poor overlooked dudes.)

I shall conclude with an ode to Michael Collins, whom I believe to be a perfectly lovely human. He seems to glow with affection for all that surrounds him, and I just cannot resist that. Just a couple of Apollo 11 quotes from the man: “Beautiful burn, SPS, I love you, you are a jewel!” and “You cats take it easy on the lunar surface.” Of him, Chaikin writes, “To reporters faced with Armstrong’s inscrutability, Aldrin’s technical relentlessness, Collins was a breath of fresh air. He fielded their queries with good humor; his face seemed to say that yes, these are interesting questions.” (p. 175) What a beautiful human being. And if, 40 years after the big event, Michael Collins chooses to express an occasional burst of discontent with the world of celebrity, I’m impressed by how un-grumpy he remains. And how lucky he considers himself.

And I’ll complete my happy talk here by thanking Andrew Chaikin for writing this fine book. It’s a world unto itself, and I’m glad I spent so many happy hours there. I gave it one of them five-star reviews on Shelfari and Good Reads; that doesn’t happen every day.

*That’s how I call Facebook.