This past summer, while reading Ron Chernow’s “Washington: A Life” a sudden thought came to me:
“I’d really like to read a book on the Apollo program.”
Maybe it was the patriotism, heroism and difficulty Washington experienced throughout his life that spurred these thoughts towards Apollo. Or, maybe I just think a lot about space. Either way, I was sure that when I finished the Washington biography, it would be on to the moon for my next read. A quick search of amazon.com revealed that there is no shortage of biographies and autobiographies detailing specific missions from the Apollo Era. Having read Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kruger’s “Lost Moon,” I was more interested in a single volume telling of the lunar landing saga from the tragedy of Apollo 1 to the triumphant conclusion of Apollo 17. It soon became clear that to satisfy this goal, Andrew Chaikin’s “A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts” was going to be my best bet.
Chaikin begins with the launchpad fire of Apollo 1, giving detailed and graphic descriptions of this horrific accident that took the lives of three astronauts and nearly ended the Apollo program. The inner workings of NASA quickly become apparent early on in the book, from the selection process for the Astronauts to how Deke Slayton chose who would fly each mission. As Apollo 7, 8, 9 and 10 took significant steps towards the first moon landing, Chaikin displays the emotional impact that these missions and others took on the families of the astronauts. With, Apollo 11, 12, 13 and 14 the challenge from John F. Kennedy was met, exploration began to expand, NASA showed its true excellence through a “successful failure,” and the first American in space returned to flight. The most knowledge I gained came from the descriptions of the geologic training and exploration that occurred during the missions of Apollo 15, 16 and 17. The astronauts of these missions, became lunar geologist almost as much as they were pilots. While the scientific terms were sometimes beyond my understanding, the detail that Chaikin provides in this section shows the immense scientific discovery that occurred on the moon.
Alan Shepard, after being grounded for so many years due to an ear disorder, finally made it to the moon, looked up at the Earth and began to cry. Edgar Mitchell secretly attempted an ESP experiment with psychics on Earth as he headed towards the moon at over 25,000 mph. Buzz Aldrin, took communion on the moon after he and Neil Armstrong landed the Eagle at The Sea of Tranquility. These stories are the greatest strengths of the book and often come from the access Chaikin was granted for interviews with 23 of the 24 astronauts who traveled to the moon. Their insightful recollections and sometimes emotional reveals provide the heart to what could otherwise be a rote retelling of process and checklists akin to an Apollo flight plan.
The book ends with a look at the various impact this journey had on the astronauts who undertook it. Neil Armstrong largely receded from public life following his “small steps,” becoming a college professor. Buzz Aldrin, under the pressure and stress of the public eye, fell into manic depression and suffered from alcoholism. Gene Cernan, through his exuberant personality, did public speaking tours around the world telling of his experiences on the lunar surface. The impact of the Apollo program on these men is best displayed by an insightful quote from Al Bean. Bean, who became an artist after leaving NASA, said “I think that everyone who went to the moon came back more like they already were.”
“I’ve been there. Chaikin took me back.”
Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, wrote these words in praise of Andrew Chaikin. While reading through the challenges and triumphs of Apollo, I felt like I was right there with him.