A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, by Andrew Chaikin. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. 720 pp. $21 (paperback)
Although mankind has made huge advances in the nearly fifty years since the Apollo voyages began, these achievements remain some of the greatest in history.
It is therefore fitting that these voyages have inspired excellent books for children, such as Moonshot; fantastic guides full of technical details and illustrations, such as the Apollo 13 Owners’ Workshop Manual; and arguably the best miniseries ever, From the Earth to the Moon.
As I recently discovered, that last is based on a book by Andrew Chaikin, titled A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. And I wish I had heard of it sooner, because it offers an engrossing, in-depth, and behind-the-scenes look at these heroic missions.
Chaikin focuses on each of the voyages, one at a time, highlighting their unique goals and challenges, and concretizing these with great clarity. Here, for example, is how he recounts Apollo 8’s voyage to the moon, 240,000 miles away:
Up to now, human beings had barely strayed from their home planet; the world’s altitude record, set by Gemini 11 astronauts Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon, was a mere 850 miles. If the earth were a basketball, that would amount to just one inch from the surface. But in the same scale model the moon, 2,160 miles in diameter, would be a baseball 23 feet away. Getting to the moon and back would require acts of precision more demanding than any previous space flight.
To make matters more difficult, the moon is a moving target, barreling along in its orbit at a speed of 2,300 miles an hour. Apollo 8 [led by Frank Borman] would have to reach the moon’s orbit just as the moon was arriving. Then, like a car racing a locomotive at a crossing, the spacecraft would zip in front of the moon’s leading edge. After speeding behind the moon, Borman’s crew would fire the spacecraft’s main rocket engine and go into an orbit with a low point of 69 miles above the lunar surface—eight one-hundredths of an inch from the skin of the baseball. (pp. 68–69)
Of course, the challenge was not just getting into the moon’s orbit, but also, in later missions, landing on the speeding rock in precise locations, doing geological fieldwork on it, and then blasting off of it and getting back to Earth alive. As anyone familiar with the Apollo 13 voyage knows, much can go wrong. . . .