This book is not about astronauts.

Apollo: Race to the Moon by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox
This book = Triumph of the Geeks
There are hardly any astronauts in this book, which may seem weird. But.
There are tons and tons of engineers and such-like people. And they’re not nearly as exciting as astronauts, yet still this was a good book. So: happy days!
This is the book in which I first learned truly to appreciate Christ(opher Columbus) Kraft and Glynn Lunney. In most of the Apollo documentaries I’ve seen, Gene Kranz is the talking head representing the flight directors (the dudes referred to simply as “Flight” during a mission), and Glynn Lunney gets short shrift, poor fella. And Chris Kraft was the grand poobah, and here we get to know about him. And, speak of the devil, here he is:

(Oh, please note: Big news: John Glenn Himself introduces this segment, and he is cute as a button.)

(Ooo ooo oooo!! One more thing: The guys pictured in the frame right this very second are the Apollo 11 crew: Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin. Armstrong is just to the right of the bearded fellow.)

In the first few pages of this book, I knew I would like it, because the writing is lovely: it doesn’t get in your way, and it just purrs along nicely. When this happens, I know the author knows what he/she is doing; I actually stop and notice—and I appreciate it.
So, even though the astronauts are sort of afterthoughts in this book (and I love those astronauts), this book really makes the guys (and the one or two women) on the ground seem heroic, too.

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.

The Good Guys

Tilt a Whirl by Chris Grabenstein

I defy any woman to read this book and not fall in love with John Ceepak. But let’s back up a step— This fantabulous mystery debut is narrated by young Danny Boyle, a townie who assists with part-time summer policing. Ceepak, his partner, is the real deal: not only a full-time officer, but a man who lives by a Code. So when a young girl runs down the street, screaming that her father has been shot at the local amusement park, Ceepak is the natural lead officer on the case. Boyle, whose youthful, somewhat cynical, voice is a delight, shadows Ceepak and offers occasional insight that his hometown background provides. Theirs is a tourist town, and murder does not sit well with the city fathers. As the case becomes more complex, it also begins to reek of a conspiracy. And when it all comes together, it is even uglier than Ceepak, haunted by his past demons, could have imagined. I’m darting to the library to check out the next book.

He Was Underrated

Truman by David McCullough

I have no problem with biographers admiring their subject. McCullough clearly thinks the world of Harry S. Truman, and I can understand why. Truman was the real deal: a great politician who was also a great – and good – man. He worked hard, failed, succeeded, used great intelligence and common sense, and made tough choices. He loved his wife and considered her his sweetheart all his life. He inspired great devotion from his staff. And throughout everything, he remained cheerful! (Though he vented by writing very angry letters he never sent. Thank goodness he did something; otherwise he’d be a bit too good to be true.) When it comes to Truman, I think the more we know about him, the better we like him and the more we respect him. And here, McCullough gives us 1117 pages of Truman, so by the end, you can’t help but think well of him. He was, as they say, a very uncommon common man. If you cannot get enough of McCullough on Truman, or if you want the very brief version, check out the Truman Presidential Library’s podcast of a speech delivered by David McCullough on June 13, 2007.

Heroes of the Space Race

The Right Stuff: A Novel by Tom Wolfe

Is it fact? Is it fiction? Look out, folks – it’s… a nonfiction novel. I kept wondering how much was made up, but then I got over it and just read, realizing that “New Journalism” works for me. What a whopping good book. The grand old men of the space race feature here… back when they were quite young men, and ready to take on the moon and stars. This is where I first fell for John Glenn. The other original Mercury astronauts are here, plus Chuck Yeager; all are young, frightfully fearless, and could land any aircraft anywhere with their eyes shut. Wolfe’s writing about the lives (and deaths) of test pilots will stay will stay with me always, as will his description of the scene where Annie Glenn had a stand-off with Lyndon B. Johnson. (Truth: stranger – and more wondrous – than fiction!) Wolfe evokes the intense patriotism and hero worship that Americans felt about these men. There’s a neat edition of the book called The Right Stuff: Illustrated, which, as one might expect, contains oodles of photos. It’s terrific, except that I found it difficult to read because of the format of the pages. So my recommendation is to read the un-illustrated version, then check out the illustrated edition from the library just for the photos.

Fighter Pilot. Astronaut. Senator.

John Glenn: A Memoir by John Glenn and Nick Taylor

When I think of John Glenn, the first word that comes to mind is: honorable. He’s one of a dying breed, I fear. I was first impressed by the account I read of him in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. He’s a man who takes duty seriously, and I respect that enormously. And when I read his memoir, I liked him even more. A good, decent man who has achieved greatness.

Unsinkable

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

The Titanic disaster has been the subject of oodles of books, many of which I’ve read, but I keep going back to this old chestnut. Walter Lord has written the most wonderfully readable narration of the events of April 14 – 15, 1912, on that ill-fated voyage. His writing is clear, concise, and compelling. Best of all, he conveys a sense that “you are there.” (Anyone else remember those Walter Cronkite documentaries we saw in school?) If you read only one book about the Titanic, make it this one.

Uplift

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

A gentle story about a violent act that tears a young man from his family. Young Reuben tells the story of his brother Davy, who kills two boys who invade the family’s home and then goes on the lam; his spirited little sister Swede; and his remarkable father, whose quiet strength is glorious. Listening to the audiobook version was a pleasure. An excellent book discussion selection, and the kind of book I wished would never end.