A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, by Andrew Chaikin

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.

With regard to Apollo 13 in particular, Chaikin shares the ingenuity that enabled the astronauts to return alive after an oxygen tank exploded on the ship, resulting in a life-threatening buildup of carbon dioxide. They solved this problem by constructing an air purifier out of cardboard from a flight plan book, two lithium hydroxide canisters, a couple of plastic bags, and some tape.

Chaikin shows that this solution involved more than on-the-spot ingenuity. The ingenuity required to solve this and other problems they encountered was made possible by a great deal of earlier thinking about “what-if” scenarios. As Ken Mattingly, one of the astronauts at mission control during Apollo 13, observed, “Nearly every solution the teams were coming up with had already been thought of, and sometimes even tested, on previous missions” (p. 315).

Such observations shed radiant light on the virtues of the men who made these voyages possible. Just as their solutions to such problems were less about off-the-cuff thinking during the crises than they were about clearheaded thinking far in advance, so too for every aspect of these complex missions. These men thought for a living. And that is why they were able to do what they did.

Chaikin shows that the fundamental value that made the Apollo voyages possible is the faculty of reason, man’s capacity to observe reality, to integrate his observations into concepts and principles, and thereby to grasp highly abstract truths and to project them into the future, into outer space, and back again. He shows, for example, how the transmission of knowledge from a simulator to a mission, and from the findings on a mission to the planning for the next mission, and so on, drove the projects forward. As knowledge expanded, it was put to use in future thinking, put on a checklist, or incorporated in a spaceship’s software. He shows that the integration of knowledge and of products across several specialized fields added up to the rockets and modules and spacesuits that the astronauts manned and relied on. And he shows not only how massive and complex these projects were, but also how astonishingly high quality were the people involved on every level.

Consider this excerpt from the chapter devoted to Apollo 16. Prior to the launch, Ken Mattingly—who would be on board—went to the Cape to look at the Saturn V rocket that would take him and his fellow astronauts into space.

And he’d realized, as he gazed at the towering machine, that he barely knew what he was looking at. Sure, he understood the basic design, and he knew the parts and pieces he had to know. But there were, what—several million parts in the whole thing? And each one had been designed, fabricated, tested, and installed by someone. Standing there, he knew the scope of Apollo was beyond the grasp of any one mind.

He rode the elevator up to the place where the third stage met the spacecraft adapter section, and there, at the juncture, was an open hatchway. He climbed through until he was standing inside a great metallic ring lined with pipes and electrical lines and all kinds of components. The lone technician who was working in there was startled—“Who are you? Get out of here.”—but once he understood that he was talking to one of the men who would ride this rocket, he was just as gracious as could be. He said to Mattingly, “You know, I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like for you. But I can tell you this: It won’t fail because of what do.” Mattingly realized the reason Apollo worked at all was because thousands of people had said to themselves, “It won’t fail because of me.” From that moment on, Mattingly had taken that statement as his credo. He’d told himself as launch day grew near, and then, lying on his back in the command module, just before the engines lit, It won’t fail because of me. (p. 457)

Such stories, told with such insights into the thinking of the astronauts (and others involved in these missions), make A Man on the Moon a gripping guide to these historic voyages and the heroes behind them.

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