Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Man on the Moon (Chaikin, Andrew)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1994
Genre: Nonfiction, history, space
Read again? Yes!

Subtitle: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts.

This is the book that ultimately spawned Tom Hanks' "From the Earth to the Moon" HBO miniseries.

I'm definitely an Apollo geek, though I came late to it. The only memories I have of it might not even be real--I seem to remember TV footage of one of the lunar buggies kicking up dust some 250,000 miles up, but I was 4 or 5 at the time. I envy those who got to see it all, from the first Sputnik to the last Skylab. My space ship was the Columbia shuttle--and cool as that was, it's just not the same.

Chaikin garnered interviews with people who were there--on the ground, in the capsules, on the home-fronts. He certainly delivers the goods, too. Each section of the book has enough technical info to satisfy the space geek in me without being boring.

We're taken through the manned missions in sequence, getting a short biography of each set of three men who would take the coolest ride ever. We begin most appropriately--and most briefly--with the deaths of Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee on January 27, 1967. The mission wasn't even to be called "Apollo 1." It was just another test flight (AS-204), but the unmanned Saturn I-B and Saturn V shots that followed now became Apollo 4, 5, and 6.

Apollo 7 and 8 launched on October and December 1968, respectively, and that second mission brings one of my favorite moments in the book. After Frank Borman got messily space-sick, Bill Anders and Jim Lovell spent the rest of the mission dodging Space Puke. We're treated to Anders' recollection of a green, pulsating glob floating along, splitting up, and going after and smiting a cornered Lovell. At this point, we're barely 100 pages into nearly 700 pages of book (nearly 600 pages of following the missions, and another 100 of appendices and notes).

Each mission gets a good bit of the remaining space, and Chaikin's straightforward style keeps our attention where it belongs.

You might want to have wrist supports on when you read it, though. The book is a heavy beast even in paperback, and as much as I enjoy reading, I have to admit that I was glad to be done. If you only want a Cliff's Notes version, you can see the story in 12 easy pieces by watching "From the Earth to the Moon."

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