Sunday, 12 April 2015

A Man On The Moon - Andrew Chaikin - book review

By the time I was old enough to appreciate some of the finer points, it seemed that the main excitement of the Space Age was over. On closer reflection, this is a superficial and simplistic view to adopt, but by the same token I wish that I had been old enough to take in the full magnitude and importance of the events in the late 60s and early 70s, by which I mean the moon landings. A highly intriguing and absorbing take on that era is provided by Andrew Chaikin's superb book, "A Man On The Moon - The Voyages Of The Apollo Astronauts", originally published in 1994.

Chaikin relates the story largely from the point of view of the Apollo astronauts themselves;their aspirations, their motivations, their fears, their varied, often tortuous paths towards their goals, and their diverse personalities. There is much emphasis on some of those who are perhaps less prominent in the mainstream public imagination. The book manages to combine a chronicle of the human elements of the Apollo program with a look at the scientific dimensions, the latter looming larger in the second half.

The author also eschews a dry chronology of the era, with the less heralded episodes garnering just as much attention as the "marquee" missions and events. The most noteworthy and fascinating parts of the enterprise were not necessarily those which were most widely publicized and documented. So, for example, some bits of the iconic Apollo 11 mission are left out, and more exhaustive analysis given to notable aspects of the other missions.

I particularly relished the passages which sought to explain and rationalize why certain astronauts were selected for missions, whilst some eminently qualified men seemed to be passed by. As the program flourished and grew in scope and scale, it was quite easy it seems to be supplanted or overtaken by talented, ambitious and determined newcomers, and to become "yesterday's man". Also, it was often a case of being in the right place at the right time. In relation to these matters, there is some focus on the relations and tensions between the different generations of astronauts, and the differing ways in which chemistry developed among the various crews.

It is also striking how all-encompassing and demanding an astronaut's remit and job description were. As well as training and planning, there were innumerable other demands on their time and energies;liaising with contractors and research institutions, as well as ambassadorial and public relations duties. Indeed, the facet of the astronaut make-up which most stood out for me in this book was the sheer capacity for hard work, diligence and concentration which they needed to possess, not to mention the requisite amalgam of experience, expertise and qualifications.

The accounts of the lunar expeditions are beautifully executed, conveying the onerous nature of the objectives,the meticulous preparations undertaken for each task, but also the often humbling impact of exploring another world. I found the story of Apollo 8 especially absorbing. There is lots of humour and "human interest" material in there too.

One of the most illuminating avenues which Chaikin goes down is the exploration of what made each individual astronaut tick - their perspectives on their experiences and the dangers, and how visiting the moon affected their lives and their outlook on the world. These thoughts are often brought out in the mini-biographies, which detail their backgrounds and their struggles and successes. Some overcame adversity to achieve cherished goals, others were left unfulfilled, while others fell by the wayside. These stories serve as a reminder that beneath the heroic, superhuman veneer, these people were human beings, with many of the attendant insecurities and weaknesses.

The "popular" version of the moon program which is sometimes heard is that the initiative became somehow devalued as it went on. Here, Chaikin persuasively illustrates that this was not the case, demonstrating that a focus on scientific discovery (geology, in particular) was at the heart of the final two or three trips to the moon. More substance was seemingly acquired towards the close of the Apollo epoch, because of lessons learned and experience and information gained on previous trips. To back up these assertions, the author goes into some depth about the geological dimension of the final lunar explorations in 1971-72.

"A Man On The Moon" evokes a time when little appeared beyond the reach of mankind. It also delves beyond popular legend and gets us inside the minds and souls of some of those who helped to push the boundaries and limits. A riveting read.

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