The Moon Men: "Rocket Men" and "Voices from the Moon"

by Carolyn Gramling
Thursday, January 5, 2012

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first step taken on the moon on July 20, 1969. Since that historic small step — which 600 million people around the world watched breathlessly — other space missions have captured headlines: NASA’s Space Shuttle program, the International Space Station, the intrepid Mars rovers. But none, perhaps, has had quite the impact on our imagination as the giant leap that Neil Armstrong took for mankind.

Two new books, Craig Nelson’s “Rocket Men” and Apollo historian Andrew Chaikin’s “Voices from the Moon," commemorate the occasion, discussing somewhat different facets of the lunar story.

“Rocket Men” focuses on the Apollo 11 mission, the first to land on the moon, and particularly on its three astronauts: Commander Neil Armstrong, Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin and Command Module pilot Michael Collins. It’s a rich story, full of interviews with the astronauts and their families, friends and colleagues that give insight into the personalities of the men. All three were quiet, private men, in contrast to the popular image of flashy, carefree astronauts: As Aldrin tells Nelson, “None of us was going to have an easy time with the public relations part of our mission.”

To put the triumph of the Apollo 11 mission in context, Nelson goes over some well-trodden ground: the history of the Space Race with the Russians, how President John F. Kennedy’s support for the space program burgeoned after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and the previous Apollo missions that set the stage for the final showdown with the Russians over who would get to the moon first.

But many of the most interesting parts of the book are the smaller details: a disagreement over who would be the first to set foot on the moon (Aldrin wanted it, but as commander, the cooler and more enigmatic Armstrong ultimately decided he would take that first step); Armstrong and Aldrin worried that the American flag — which they could only pound a few inches into the hard lunar soil — would topple over on TV; a large gap between the lunar lander and the surface of the moon meant that first step was actually not that small.

There are also glimpses of the early culture of NASA (“a nation-state of brilliant tinkerers”), including how the agency struggled with public relations, getting the astronauts to communicate their feelings about the mission to journalists and the public — a particularly ironic struggle, given that the Apollo mission ultimately provided the agency with its most compelling public relations moment.

Also compelling are the scattered transcripts of the astronauts' recorded conversations with Mission Control in Houston. The final section of the book, for example, is a minute account of the Apollo 11 mission itself, including what the astronauts said (Collins: “Jesus Christ, look at that horizon! Goddamn that’s pretty, it’s unreal”), what they ate (“ham, tuna and chicken salad sandwich spreads squeezed out of a tube”), and what they did on the way to the moon (the “astronauts … willingly endured what could only be described as the world’s worst camping trip”).

Their banter, alternately awestruck and amusing, reinforces the sentiment behind Armstrong’s famous, but uncharacteristically wordy, statement. Like his small step, it’s a reminder that this extraordinary story was also the story of three ordinary men.

“Voices from the Moon” also tells the story of Apollo astronauts in their own words, but includes interviews with 22 of the 23 surviving Apollo astronauts from all of the missions. It’s a beautiful, elegant book, with 160 photographs, many never seen before.

The book is not organized chronologically by the different Apollo missions; instead, it’s divided into several sections that roughly parallel the overall timeline of a moon mission, from preparations and launch to landing and return. The comments of the astronauts, who are introduced in the opening pages, are then scattered throughout the book next to the images.

Apollo 13, the ill-fated mission in which the three astronauts never made it to the moon and nearly lost their lives (that inspired the Tom Hanks movie), does earn its own section. The photographs of anxious flight controllers, NASA managers and astronauts in the mission control room during the crisis tell Houston’s side of this tense story. For the astronauts, meanwhile, the failure of the mission was heartbreaking. “Biggest disappointment of my life,” says Apollo 13 Lunar Module pilot Fred Haise.

Interviews with Apollo 13 Flight Commander Jim Lovell and Apollo 16 Command Module pilot Ken Mattingly (who was removed from the Apollo 13 flight at the last minute for health reasons but helped during the crisis) also suggest that the flight crew and the ground crew had slightly different takes on the crisis. Lovell has found some meaning in the failure of the mission; when asked how the crisis was solved, he asserts: “More than anything [it was up to] the crew on 13.” Mattingly, on a facing page, says that while the crew’s efforts were key, “It was a ground mission; no question about it.”

Overall, however, the book expresses the astronauts' lingering sense of wonder. “The biggest philosophy, foundation-shaking impression was seeing the smallness of Earth,” says Apollo 8 Lunar Module pilot Bill Anders. “It’s not how small the Earth was, it’s just how big everything else was … And that’s why I don’t think we’ve ever really gotten it across to people through the photography about what I call the perspective of it.”

That philosophy-shaking perspective, and a kind of wistfulness at being unable to really describe it to those back home, is a theme for many of the astronauts. Mattingly says, “Money should have been spent to find one guy … a Hemingway that can capture the feeling [of going to the moon] and describe [it].” Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut, adds, “I have done things and been places you simply would not believe, and I keep that inside me.”

Hemingways or not, there is something profound about the way these often humble, reserved scientists and engineers struggle to find words to describe what they felt and what they saw on their way to the moon — and, combined with gorgeous photos, their words make for a deeply engrossing book.

Still have moon fever? NASA has recently digitized the audio recordings of conversations between Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins on their way to the moon. Transcripts of the recordings, as well as more Apollo 11 history, are here. Newly restored video of the Apollo 11 moonwalk will be streaming hourly from noon to 7 p.m. July 16 and 17 at NASA TV, or you can watch it here.

NASA has more information online about events celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. If you're in Washington, D.C., this weekend, stop by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on Sunday, July 19, to see Apollo astronauts Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Alan Bean, who will be signing their respective books.

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