Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Man on the Moon

A Man on the Moon:  the Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts 
© 1994 Andrew Chaikin
670 pages

Yet a higher goal was calling, and we vowed to reach it soon
So we gave ourselves a decade to put fire on the moon
And Apollo told the world, "We can do it if we try! --"
And there was One Small Step, and a fire in the sky. 
("Fire in the Sky", Prometheus Music)

What is it like to step foot upon the moon? Barring the sudden rise of consumer-friendly lunar tourism, our best hope of finding out is to ask ask the men who have done, the twelve astronauts of the Apollo program's last four missions. Andrew Chaikin did just that, and based on lengthy interviews with not only the astronauts but their wives, various flight control officers, and engineers involved with the program, has produced a stellar history of the Apollo program.

Granted, it would be difficult to write a poor history of the Apollo program; even a staid recitation of the facts could not conceal the drama of the United States committing itself to landing on the moon in under a decade, relying on technology, training, procedures, and knowledge that didn't yet exist -- and then doing it repeatedly while all the world watched. Chaikin focuses only on Apollo, opening with "The Fire" (which killed the crew of Apollo I during a routine test), but the book suffers nothing for this, as information about Mercury and Gemini filters in through the accounts of the lives of the astronauts.  Had Chaikin focused only on the technology and politics of Apollo, he could have written a fine work, but his emphasis on the human aspect of lunar exploration, based on extensive interviews with the astronauts,  makes the account truly shine. He allows the reader to join the men of Apollo -- to  hurl ourselves into the blackness of space for three days, protected only by a paper-thin metal shell, and then step foot on another world where to witness the sum of our prior existence as a blue ball hanging alone in the sky. How did such a profound sight effect them?

Although a long an enthusaist of the space program, this book and the drama based on it have opened my eyes to how little of the story I knew. Apollo 11, which is in the news recently owing to Neil Armstrong passing away, was the culimination of a series of flights that tested the command module that took the astronauts from the Earth to the moon, and of the lunar module that carried them down.  To go from the Earth to the moon, from primitive rockets to sophisticated spacecraft that linked worlds -- if only for a decade --is a marvelous feat,  doubly so given the challenges. Even as humanity looked toward the stars, it waged war against itself:  the United States could have easily been distracted by Vietnam and the increasing furore of the Civil Rights movement. The program itself was checkered with problems: its first mission ended in total failure, the crew engulfed in flames;  the astronauts had embarked on an exploration of terra so incognita it wasn't terrra at all.  How does a company on Earth, its every experience dominated by the gravity of Earth, create a vehicle that could travel through the stars and navigate on the moon? What a triumph to human ingeunity and creativity. And then there were the personal problems. This is a story that is dedicated to all of the men who took part in the adventure of lunar exploration, and it doesn't end with Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins. Every man has a story to tell, like Alan Shephard. The first man in space, he sat out most of the space program for medical reasons until experimental surgery made him flightworthy again. His return to active status made him the oldest man in space, and he had to prove himself against not only the young bucks who he had been supervising, but the bittersweet legacy of his own accomplishment. Sure, he had been the first American in space -- but he spent fifteen minutes up there, and never even achieved orbit. Or take Harrison Schmitt, a geologist who took part in the last Apollo mission. He was the first scientist on the moon; all who went before him were pilots first and scientists second. And the story doesn't end with the men: the majority of them were married, and Chaikan's account explores the unusual stresses astronaut families had to endure through the years.

This history of Apollo is, in a word, marvelous -- not just for remembering what was done, but reflecting on what it meant to the astronauts, and what it means as a society today. In the epilogue, Chaikan touches base with each of the men involved, and most regard Earth's failure to pursue the possibilities of further human spaceflight with disappointment.

"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."

Chaikin, p. 583

Having grown up with the shuttle program, I regarded its demise with sadness. But now, reflecting on the legacy of Apollo, the shuttle seems so utterly pedestrian. We once pushed the envelope and landed on other worlds, and now we're content to make runs around the block?  But I have hope. Earlier this month, just as I was reading this work, NASA experienced another astounding victory by landing the largest rover yet on Mars. Its landing procedures have to been seen to be believed,  and I'm as astonished and excited about that as Chaikan made me about Apollo.  And outside the United States, other nations are more aggressive about venturing into space. Humanity's return to the moon is inevitable -- and when it happens, it will be a testament not only to the scientific and material prosperity of modern nations, but the courage and spirit of the men of Apollo.

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