Andrew Chaikin: A Man On The Moon

5 stars (out of 5).

Tom Hanks writes, in the forward to A Man on the Moon, of preparing to play astronaut Jim Lovell in Ron Howard's 1995 film, Apollo 13:

I realized there was a great deal about the Apollo program that had never been brought to light, things that I did not know. I wanted to understand the events that enabled Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to make the first landing on the moon. I also wanted to know what went on when other men, like Pete Conrad, Al Bean, Dave Scott, Jack Schmitt, and Gene Cernan, made their footprints in the lunar soil in the five landings that came afterward. I wanted the whole story of mankind's exploration of the moon. I found it in Andy Chaikin's impressive and illuminating book.

I found it as well, in this detailed and well-written account of the Apollo space program.

Reading the book a second time inspired Hanks to create the 1998 HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon, and it became one of his primary resources for that series as well. Now, Hanks is just a few years older than me, and clearly we share the same fascination with and drew the same inspiration from the space program of the 60's and 70's. In high school in the mid-70's, I voraciously read the accounts of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, and the televised images of of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon in July 1969 were still fresh in my mind. I wrote away for lots of literature from NASA, everything they would send me, and when I saw how many of the astronauts and how much of the behind the scenes support for the space program came from MIT, I put MIT at the top of my list of college applications. When I received the thick acceptance package in 1977, there was no decision to be made.

All of this is to say that A Man on the Moon read like living history to me, like a flashback to a golden age -- of the world and of my own -- when anything seemed possible.

But like another icon of my youth, Puff the Magic Dragon, who found that all good things come to an end (and long before you're ready for them to), the Apollo program ended with Apollo 17, and in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate era, the golden age of space exploration and adventure was over. I started out an Aeronautics and Astronautics major at MIT; I wound up in Management. (Those who can't do... manage. :)

Chaiken feels this loss palpably, and expresses it poignantly in the Epilogue, in which he follows some of the moon walkers in the years after. Whether they landed well or poorly, it is a heartbreaking chapter, as is his conclusion:

Project Apollo remains the last great act this country has undertaken out of a sense of optimism, of looking forward to the future. That it came to fruition amid the upheaval of the sixties, alongside the carnage of the Vietnam War, only heightens the sense of irony and nostalgia, looking back twenty-five years later. By the time Apollo 11 landed, we were already a changed people; by the time of Apollo 17, we were irrevocably different from the nation we had been in 1961. It is the sense of purpose we felt then that seems as distant now as the moon itself.

We conquered the moon -- once -- thirty-five years ago. Using computers which make the eight year old Mac on which I'm typing out this blog seem like HAL 9000 by comparison. Heck, my cell phone probably has more MIPS than everything they had at their disposal in 1969. We do not have a technology problem; we have a failure of the human spirit. Of imagination. Of heart.

Which only makes the current quagmire of our groundedness all the more frustrating.

While you're waiting for humankind to get a clue again, this book is a great way to pass the time.

[GET IT]

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