Tuesday, November 15, 2011

MOON SHOT by Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, and Jay Barbree ✰✰✰

There are some events in the history of mankind which can never be duplicated.  Only one person could be the first to orbit the earth in a spacecraft, or drift outside its confines, or walk on the face of our moon.  The 1950s through the 1970s were a special time in the great, epic story of our race.  A few dozen men with skill, nerve, and willingness to put their lives on the line to experience the impossible, for themselves and their fellow human beings, stepped up for perhaps the greatest endeavor in earth’s history.  To land a man on the face of the moon and return him safely home.  Aided by the sharpest minds in rocket science, aerospace engineering, and computer and communications systems, these men of courage expanded our frontier, some at the expense of their lives.
The four hundred pages of this book flew by for me.  Beginning with the choice, in the waning days of World War II, of a group of German rocket scientists, led by Wernher von Braun, to surrender to the Americans, which became the genesis of the United States’ rocket program, the initial printing of this book ended with the Apollo-Soyuz mission (a joining, in 1975, of a U.S. and a Soviet spacecraft while they orbited the earth).  Both astronauts involved in the writing, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton, have passed away since the original printing in 1994.  Journalist Jay Barbree wrote an update for the latter version, which I read, which has been rereleased in 2011 for the 50th anniversary of the advent of the space program.  His update felt rushed and gave very little specific information about the space program since the last Apollo flight; I would have appreciated a less political stance and one which gave more concrete information.
If you are looking for a fast ride through the history of the U.S., and to a very minimal extent, the Soviet, race to the moon, this is a solid place to start.  It is also a good book to read if you want to believe that there was very little tension and competition among the astronauts themselves and the various engineers-something that other writings lead me to know is patently untrue.  While I can appreciate the desire of the authors to produce an account free from mudslinging, the book does have a “nicey-nice” ring to it that got a bit too saccharine at times.  However, the passion of those involved in the early space programs, the spirit of the unknown that drove them, and their sheer love of what they were doing, comes through clearly in the exciting flow of the narrative.  This book made me laugh, cry, and cheer, despite prose that verged on melodramatic at times.
Moon Shot focuses on the United States’ side of the space race, but if you are interested in a balanced account which includes the parallel history of the Soviet side (albeit with much less information from the U.S. viewpoint than Moon Shot), I would like to suggest Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race.  This book was written by U.S. astronaut David Scott-Apollo 15 commander, and Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov-the first man to walk in space, and tells their simultaneous stories from opposing sides of the Iron Curtain.  These two men also worked together on joint U.S. and Soviet projects later in their careers.  As someone who grew up during the Cold War, I found this collaboration absolutely engrossing, although, like Moon Shot, it is not the most well-written of books.

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