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Heroism remembered

A Man on the Moon
A Man on the Moon
By Andrew Chaikin

Penguin: 1998

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This review first appeared in the October 31 - November, 1998 issue of the American Reporter.

For anyone old enough to remember watching those fuzzy, black and white images on television in the summer of 1969, it seems impossible that almost 30 years have passed. The brave young heroes who strapped those rockets to their asses and flew to the moon are all old men now. The ones still with us, anyway. Alan Shepard (first man to golf on the moon) has passed and John Glenn (who gave up a chance at the moon to run for office) is conducting geriatric experiments on the space shuttle.

For kids in school nowadays, the Apollo missions to the moon are ancient history – further recessed in time than World War II was for us growing up in the '60s. When my own grade-school kids hear me and their mom talking about Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, they roll their eyes the same way we did when our folks used to go on about President Roosevelt and the Depression. (Which is simply just revenge, I suppose, on a generation that believed it would never grow old.)

Still, the promise for a better future the manned missions to the moon represented is missed. In this modern, cynical age of competing gloom and doom theories of overpopulation and global warming, those of us who still remember the hope and promise of Apollo can be excused for getting a bit sentimental for a time when we all believed that better times awaited, that the future would be better than the present.

What brings on this sudden bout of melancholy is the softcover reissue of Andrew Chaikin's wonderful "A Man on the Moon" – a graceful, literate and artistic retelling of the greatest technological feat of our species' history (first published in 1994).

In less than a decade, we went from challenge to reality; in fewer than seven decades, we went from the Wright Brothers' first powered airplane to landing human beings on another planet. Think about it: Men and women in their late 90s now – the World War I generation, and there's plenty of them still with us – were born before powered heavier-than-air flight. In the span of a single life, human endeavor grew from hot-air balloons to battery-powered cars on the moon.

And then we stopped.

Just like that. Gave up. Decided it was too expensive, too difficult, too dangerous. Lost our will, our swagger, that defiant, sometimes arrogant and generally grating can-do spirit that marked our young nation.

The people who had fought the supposedly impossible two-front war and defeated fascists in two hemispheres; the nation that gave the world George Patton and Calamity Jane and Teddy Roosevelt and Susan B. Anthony; a country that mobilized the Berlin Airlift to feed a free city half a world away – all of a sudden it was incapable of further space exploration, except on a timid scale represented by the orbital space shuttle and unmanned missions elsewhere.

Chaikin makes this his theme, and is practically apoplectic when addressing this subject – in this, he shares the frustration and outrage of his subjects, men who could not understand our turning our back on the greatest scientific advancement of history.

His book is organized by Apollo mission, beginning with the ill-fated Apollo I and the fire that took NASA's first casualties. Mission by mission, Chaikin introduces us to the men who flew to the moon and the staff who supported them in Houston and Florida.

Chaikin also spends a good deal of time exploring the scientific aspect of the Apollo voyages – the geologists and the information they wanted from the trips. It's an aspect of the missions often overlooked in favor of the obvious geopolitical overtones of the Cold War space race.

It's the astronauts themselves who are the most fascinating part of Chaikin's book, and he interviewed all but Apollo 13's Jack Swigert who had died in 1982, before Chaikin began work on the book. Several have died since: Shepard, this past summer, of course; Stu Roosa, Jim Irwin and Ron Evans, too. (And now Pete Conrad since this review was first written.)

Every mission receives the same in-depth look from Chaikin; he doesn't favor Neil Armstrong's mission over the others despite its dramatic impact on history. Each chapter is broken down the same way: mission training and preparation, objectives, and the personalities of the crew.

The appendices are nearly as good reading as the main text. There is a short bio of each astronaut, a quick synopsis of each mission, and in-depth author's notes ordered chapter by chapter.

Like the late Carl Sagan, Chaikin has that rare ability to write an accessible, easily read book about a heavy scientific subject and make it all easy to understand. There are lots of photographs from the moon (although more would have been better, of course) and of the men who went.

Cynics will not care for this book: there is no condemnation of supposed U.S. imperialism, of militarism, of forgoing social programs to fund space exploration or any of the other small-minded, trendy little fads that contemporary social critics wear like the latest fashions from Paris. Chaikin believes in heroism, believes in optimism, believes in the future. In his closing chapter, Chaikin sums up both his own book and the Apollo project he writes of so eloquently and philosophically:

"Project Apollo remains the last great act this country has undertaken out of a sense of optimism, of looking forward to the future. That it came to fruition amid the upheaval of the sixties, alongside the carnage of the Vietnam War, only heightens the sense of irony and nostalgia, looking back twenty-five years later. By the time Apollo 11 landed, we were already a changed people; by the time of Apollo 17, we were irrevocably different from the nation we had been in 1961. It is the sense of purpose we felt then that seems as distant now as the moon itself. If NASA has lost direction, it is only because we have not chosen to give it one. Instead of letting the moon be the gateway to our future, we have let it become a brief chapter in our history. The irony is that in turning away from space exploration – whose progress is intimately linked to the future of mankind – we rob ourselves of the long-term vision we desperately need. Any society, if it is to flourish instead of merely survive, must strive to transcend its own limits. It is still as Kennedy said: Exploration, by virtue of difficulty, causes us to focus our abilities and make them better."