Archive for June, 2009

Celebrating Apollo40

June 24, 2009

In just under a month it will be the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, when Neil Armstrong became the first human being to step foot on Earth’s satellite. NASA will be celebrating the event and have all ready put together a web site. No doubt there will be other celebrations scattered across the Internet, and even in Real Life too – such as Buzz Aldrin’s rap, ‘Rocket Experience’, here.

And I’ll be having my own little celebration on this blog too. No hiphop, happily. Just a bunch of reviews of books about Apollo 11 and the three astronauts who crewed it – Neil Alden Armstrong, Edwin Eugene ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, Jr and Michael Collins.

But until then, I thought it might prove interesting to pimp some of the books being published for Apollo40. Some of them I might buy – and so will subsequently be reviewed here at some point – but not all of them.

The Apollo 11 Moon Landing: A Photographic Retrospective, by Dennis R Jenkins & Jorge R Frank (Speciality Press)

Moonfire: The Epic Journey of Apollo 11, by Norman Mailer (Taschen)

Voices from the Moon, by Andrew Chaikin (Viking Press)

Moon 3-D, by Jim Bell (Sterling)


Apollo: Through the Eyes of the Astronauts, by Robert Jacobs (Harry N Abrams)

One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 Forty Years on, by Piers Bizony (Aurum Press)

Moonshot: The Inside Story of Mankind’s Greatest Adventure, by Dan Parry (Ebury Press)

Apollo 11 Owner’s Workshop Manual, by Christopher Riley & Phil Dolling (Haynes)


Missions to the Moon, by Rod Pyle (Sterling)

Hornet Plus Three: The Story of the Apollo 11 Recovery, by Bob Fish (Beagle Bay Books)

T-Minus: The Race to the Moon, by Jim Ottaviani, Zander Cannon & Kevin Cannon (Aladdin)


The Soaring Achievements of John C Houbolt, by Robert E Sterling (CreateSpace)

Saturn V / Apollo Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, edited by Robert Godwin (Apogee Books)

Lunar Module Familiarization Guide, edited by Robert Godwin (Apogee Books)

I know very little about any of the books above. Moonfire: The Epic Journey of Apollo 11 looks like it might be very good, but unfortunately it’s priced at £599.99! T-Minus: The Race to the Moon is a graphic novel and looks really interesting. Speciality Press, er, specialise in aviation books – such as the very good Magnesium Overcast on the B-36, Hypersonic on the X-15, Valkyrie on the XB-70 and the Warbird Tech series, among others. Both Chaikin and Bizony are excellent writers on space-related matters. The book on Houbolt is self-published via Amazon’s CreateSpace, but the subject is relevant so I included it.

The Pilgrim Project, Hank Searls

June 19, 2009

I don’t normally review fiction associated with the Space Race on this blog, chiefly because there’s little fiction available which seems appropriate. There have been novels written which are based on the subject, or based on the technology of the various NASA and Soviet space programmes – and, in fact, it was one such novel which partly rekindled my interest in the Space Race. That novel was Ascent by Jed Mercurio, and I reviewed it on my other blog here. The other book which inspired me to start this blog was Andrew Smith’s Moondust.

But. Fiction set in and around and about the Space Race. There’s Space by James Michener, of course. I read it many years ago, and I may well reread it to review here. And there’s Donald Wollheim’s Mike Mars series, some of which I own. There are also assorted novels by Jeff Sutton, Barry Malzberg, Stephen Baxter, Homer Hickam, Martin Caidin, and others.

And there’s The Pilgrim Project by Hank Searls.

The Pilgrim Project is a fictional account of the first landing on the Moon. But this is not an Apollo mission. According to the novel’s foreword, at a symposium in New York in 1962, members of the Institute of Aerospace Sciences proposed sending an astronaut on a one-way trip to the Moon. He would have to survive there for about a year, while NASA figured out how to rescue him. The plan was never taken seriously, and work moved on apace on the Apollo programme.

Searls did well get his novel out so quickly. The Pilgrim Project is copyrighted 1964, so he must have started writing it shortly after the symposium mentioned above. Unfortunately, future events have made an alternate history of the story. For example, the novel opens with the crew of Apollo 3 in orbit. The year isn’t given, but I’d guess it was roughly contemporaneous with the book’s publication, so the mid-1960s. Sadly, the Apollo 1 fire, in which Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White lost their lives, delayed Apollo, and the first manned flight wasn’t until Apollo 7 on 11 October 1968.

Some of the actual details Searls gives of the Apollo programme and spacecraft are also slightly off. Admittedly, it seems a bit silly to complain about the accuracy of Searls’ depiction of the space programme, since the book was written while Apollo was still being planned. In fact, the writing of The Pilgrim Project predates the first manned Gemini mission, Gemini 3, on 23 March 1965.

But then The Pilgrim Project is pretty much a potboiler. The prose is direct and mostly inelegant. The characters are typical for the type of novel: the men are hard-talking, manly astronauts, and the women are all beautiful and needy. Some historical figures are named, such as Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley; while others are referred to only by their position – the President and the Vice-President, for example.

One of the latter is “the colonel”, the volunteer astronaut for the one-way Moon shot. He’s described as a Mercury astronaut, and Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Gordy Cooper and Wally Schirra are all named in the narrative. Which would make “the colonel” Scott Carpenter, who was actually a US Navy aviator. Another recurring character in The Pilgrim Project is “the Navy commander”, who is quite clearly based on Alan “the icy commander” Shepard (see my review here of Neal Thompson’s biography of Shepard, Light This Candle).

The hero of The Pilgrim Project, however, is Steve Lawrence, a civilian test pilot. The only civilian test pilot of the first post-Mercury group of astronauts, the New Nine, was Neil Armstrong. Lawrence is mentioned as having served with distinction in Korea, which Armstrong did indeed do.

In the novel, the Soviets take the first steps to a lunar mission of their own, sending up a Vostok to their unnamed space platform. Scared they might be beaten to the Moon, the Americans dust off Project Pilgrim, and “the colonel” begins training. The Pilgrim Project uses a Mercury capsule, launched into orbit on a Saturn 1B, and with a modified Polaris missile rocket for Lunar Orbit Insertion and an unnamed liquid-propellant throttleable rocket for landing. Prior to launch, a shelter and supplies, Project Chuck Wagon, would be sent to the Moon.

However, when the Russians declare that their astronaut is a civilian geologist, the President refuses to let “the colonel” fly the Pilgrim rocket. Steve Lawrence is asked to volunteer, and does so. If Lawrence is indeed based on Armstrong, then Searls was remarkably prescient. Or very lucky.

The story of The Pilgrim Project chiefly describes the run-up to the launch: the politicking which results in the project being given the green light, and Lawrence’s training. He does not actually launch until the penultimate chapter. Much is made of Lawrence’s home situation – his wife is a recovering alcoholic – and his conflicted motivations for accepting the job.

The Pilgrim Project is by no means great literature, but it’s certainly worth reading by those interested in the Space Race. A film was made of the book in 1968, Countdown, starring James Caan as Lee Stegler (a renamed Steve Lawrence).

The Pilgrim Project, Hank Searls (1966, Mayflower-Dell, No ISBN, 221pp)

21st Century Apollo

June 19, 2009

Nature News is tweeting the Apollo 11 mission as it were happening today at ApolloPlus40. Now there’s a conflation of 1960s and 21st Century technologies….

But the question is: when Project Constellation finally makes it to the Moon in a decade or so, will we be following the mission step-by-step in real-time? And how?

How to Build Your Own Spaceship, Piers Bizony

June 1, 2009

The title of How to Build Your Own Spaceship is not entirely accurate. Nor indeed is its sub-title, “the science of personal space travel”. Bizony’s book actually provides an introduction to the space industry.

Over seven very readable chapters, Bizony gives a brief history of space exploration, and outlines the various opportunities available in the space industry – either working directly for a government organisation such as NASA or ESA; working for a company manufacturing components for a government organisation; or for a NewSpace entrepreneur like Scaled Composites, T/Space, or SpaceX, among others.

How to Build Your Own Spaceship is a “pop-sci” book, and as such is chiefly aimed at readers who are interested in, but mostly uninformed on, the subject of space travel and getting into orbit. And it does this very well. It’s not only informative, but also an entertaining read. Bizony peppers his “advice” (the book is addressed directly to the reader) with anecdotes, and facts and figures on the topic. I hadn’t known, for example, that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was so-named because it was created around the work of Jack Parsons, inventor of the Jet-Assisted Take-Off (JATO) rockets. Which were called “jet” because it was felt the word “rocket” had negative connotations for the military.

It is difficult at times to figure who is the book’s intended readership. Bizony is a British writer, Portobello Books is a British publisher. Yet all monetary figures are given in US dollars, and some of the cultural references are distinctly American – mention of a“government goon knocking on your door with a SWAT team and an arrest warrant” (p 25), for example. In other sections, the book describes the US laws and regulations governing space from the point of view of a non-US company or entrepreneur.

If I have any complaints about How to Build Your Own Spaceship, it is its lack of diagrams. A few simple pictorial representations of the concepts being described would, I think, have much improved the book. Nonetheless, How to Build Your Own Spaceship is an excellent introduction to the business of putting people into orbit, and bringing them back.

How to Build Your Own Spaceship, Piers Bizony (2008, Portobello Books, ISBN 978-1-84627-125-0, 241pp + acknowledgments and selected bibliography)