Archive for the ‘Apollo40’ Category

One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 Forty Years On, Piers Bizony

March 15, 2010

Last year was the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. You would have thought an achievement so important would have resulted in more of a celebration than actually took place (I did my bit). Neil Armstrong was the first human being to set foot on another world. The fact that no one has been back since the last Apollo mission in 1972 – thirty-eight years ago – only makes the achievement more astonishing.

However, a number of authors and publishers were happy to celebrate Apollo 11’s anniversary. I listed the books on the subject that were published last year on this blog here. One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 Forty Years On by Piers Bizony is one of those books. It is a large and copiously-illustrated coffee-table book intended to be, according to Bizony’s introduction, “a celebration of Apollo 11”. It also “gathers together more images of Apollo 11 than any mass-market publication has attempted before”.

However, One Giant Leap is not simply a collection of photographs. In five chapters, Bizony comments on the Apollo programme, making some excellent points as he does so. Forty years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, airliners were carrying people all over the world. Forty years after the transistor was invented, computers were embedded in everything from hand-held games to cars; and we had the Web too. Forty years after Apollo… and astronauts and cosmonauts are still strapped to the tops of cylinders full of highly explosive fuels and blasted into space. The benefits of the Apollo programme were spread across many areas of modern life, they’re not immediately obvious. Which makes it hard to see exactly what technological progress the programme was actually responsible for.

Bizony is also keen to place much of the credit for Apollo at the feet of James Webb, NASA’s administrator from 1961 to 1968. It was Webb’s leadership of NASA, and the way he set up the entire programme, which led to its success. And, ultimately, its cancellation. Because it was not the cost of Apollo which closed the programme down. The US government was spending more money on a mismanaged and ill-considered war in Vietnam. It has been calculated that NASA’s budget during the 1960s was “less than two dollars a month from each American citizen”. Nor was it a lack of achievement – NASA had met every goal it had been set. But Webb was on old-school Democrat, and believed that the “bounty” of Apollo should spread far and wide across the US, to create jobs and bring wealth to as many different areas as possible. That’s why the launch pads were in Florida, Mission Control in Texas, the spacecraft built in California and New York, and so on. But when the Republicans got into power, they scaled back Apollo as a response to “what they perceived as the over-reaching intrusion of the government into the nation’s affairs”.

One chapter of One Giant Leap is dedicated to Project Constellation, which was cancelled earlier this year. But the chapter makes the important point that a return to the Moon would be just as difficult today as it was in 1969. Yes, there has been much progress in many areas – such as computing. But launch vehicles are not much different, and not much safer, than they were forty years ago. The problems Apollo solved to get the Moon also remain the same, and their solutions were elegant and reliable. Any solutions Constellation might have come up with were likely to resemble Apollo’s – as the Orion Crew Module resembled the Apollo Command Module.

One Giant Leap is an excellent retrospective of Apollo 11. Not only does it contains a huge number of photographs, many of which have never been seen before in a book, but it also make a series of interesting and insightful points about the programme. Highly recommended.

One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 Forty Years On, Piers Bizony (2009, Aurum Press, ISBN 978-1-84513-422-8, 157pp + bibliography)

The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams

October 19, 2009

I had intended to publish a short story on this blog as part of my 40th anniversary celebrations of Apollo 11, but with one thing and another I never actually finished the story. Recently, however, I needed to come up with a flash fiction piece (i.e., under 1,000 words) as part of my writing group’s contribution to a local literary festival. And it occurred to me that the story I’d planned to publish here would be perfect. But first I had to finish it. And then chop it down to 1,000 words. Which I did. And I think it came out quite well.

So here it is:

The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams

“Radar lights are out.”

“That’s a Verb 57?”

Capcom confirms, “You’re go for a Verb 57.”

LMP Gerald P Carr punches it in on the DSKY. The computer will now accept data from the landing radar.

“Descent rate 70 feet per second… passing through 36 thousand… pitch 72…”

Carr reads out the LM’s altitude and descent rate, while Commander Stuart Roosa, USAF, flies the spacecraft. Moments later, Houston signs off as the LM crosses the lunar terminator —

Apollo 20, the first mission to visit the dark side of the Moon.

The LM approaches the Mare Ingenii, a lava-flooded crater. It looks like a real sea. Except it’s grey, a flat featureless grey like an under-exposed black and white photograph. A collapsed rim resembles two fjords. Carr can imagine a fishing port at the shore, a cluster of monochrome houses, with a monochrome jetty and little monochrome dories. Carr is USMC, he knows boats.

“Okay at 20,000,” Carr says. “Computer and PNGS on the button. 1:20 to pitchover.”

He feeds flight data to Roosa. They pitch over and begin to descend vertically.

“Ready for touchdown.”

“20 feet… 10 feet… contact.”


Not even a vibration through his boots. Carr feels a moment of vertigo, the moonscape visible through the window tips one way then the other. He blows out noisily; it’s enough to break the spell.

He says, “Engine stop, engine arm, command override off, PNGS on auto.”

Roosa says the magic words, but Houston can’t hear them:

“Centaurus has landed.”

Both astronauts want to go out onto the lunar surface, but they’re not scheduled for EVA for another three hours. First is a rest period, but they’re too keyed-up to sleep.

“What they used to call this?” Carr asks.

Mare Desiderii.”

“Sea of…” His Latin isn’t up to it.

“Sea of Dreams. But it’s not a mare. Except this bit, so they called it Sea of Cleverness. Ironic, huh?”

“I guess.” Carr is not big on irony. He’s a marine.

“What’s that?”

Roosa bounces round to face Carr. “What’s what?”

“I saw something flash.” Carr points north-east. The rim of Thomson there is broken, forming inlets into the “sea” of the crater’s floor.

“A flash? Like a reflection off a mineral?”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Worth checking out.” It’s some 12 kilometres away, so about an hour on the LRV.

The CSM is overhead, so Roosa tells CMP Paul Weitz their plan. He can inform Houston when he orbits back to the near-side.

“Be careful,” says Weitz.

Roosa acknowledges. He turns to look at the LM — bright silver, with its golden skirt. He got to come here, he marvels. Three days on the dark side. He made a first, he’s going down in the history books.

Like Neil Armstrong.

The floor of Thomson could have been made for the LRV, the going is so smooth. Roosa pushes the T-bar forward, and the speedometer needle creeps up to 15 kph.

“Boy,” says Carr, “we’re really motoring here.”

“Yeah. Who needs a Corvette?”

Carr directs Roosa to where he saw the flash. Roosa nudges the T-bar and the LRV arcs to the right.

Ahead, something sparkles. Sunlight spilling over the horizon makes the lunar surface a place of black shadows and grey twilight. But there’s something bright hiding in a fold in the tumbled-down rim.

From a kilometre away, it’s hard to tell what it is, though vision is sharp in the vacuum. Carr squints and makes out a suggestion of…

… something regular?

“You think it might be a Luna? One of those Russian probes?”

No, it’s too big. Carr has seen photos of the Luna probes: they looked like boilers on legs, like some robot from a 1950s B-movie.

The LRV slows to a stop. Roosa sits and stares at the object in the shadows. It’s a spacecraft. It lies crumpled against the slope, broken-backed, its engine bell towards them.

They disembark, and Roosa approaches the crashed spacecraft slowly. Is it alien? He’s heard of UFOs, of lights buzzing planes; but he doesn’t subscribe.

He can see the upper half of the craft. It looks familiar.

“Holy shit,” he says. “You’re not gonna believe this.”

It’s obvious now. Roosa can see exactly what it is:

A Mercury capsule.

Just like the ones flown by Al, John, Gus, the Original Seven. He can see the words “United States” on its side.

“Jesus,” says Carr. “How the hell did that get here?”

Roosa moves up the slope. The capsule looks undamaged. He’s close enough to see the hatch… and the curve of a helmet within.

“Stay back,” he warns.

There’s no movement, but it pays to be cautious. His breath is louder than the PLSS fans. The hatch is cracked open a few inches. He hauls it up.

Inside, belted into the single seat, sits a figure in a silver pressure suit. His head is slumped forward, hiding his face.

“No way is Houston going to believe this.”

The dead astronaut has the Star and Stripes on his shoulder. It’s impossible.

Roosa reaches in and shifts the body. Now he can see the nametag:


The only Kincheloe he knows of died back in 1958, killed at Edwards when his F-104 augered in. Could it be the same man? Maybe they faked his crash, maybe they sent him here instead.

“Jesus,” says Carr. “I found a flag stuck on a pole here.”

“Stars and Stripes?” asks Roosa. He’s still staring at the dead astronaut.


Roosa steps back from the capsule. He looks down at his feet, and sees his bootprints. They’ll last a million years. He sees more bootprints, not his. Kincheloe survived the crash.

“Know what this is?” Roosa remembers now. “I heard about it back at Edwards. Project Pilgrim. A one-way shot to the Moon.”

They actually went and did it. They sent a man to the Moon on a one-way ticket. He planted a flag here, then he died.

“Neil will be pissed,” Roosa says.

(all images NASA)

First on the Moon, Armstrong, Aldrin & Collins

July 20, 2009

Forty years ago, the first person from this planet set foot on Earth’s satellite, the Moon. He was Neil Alden Armstrong, and with Buzz Aldrin he formed the crew of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle (Michael Collins remained in orbit about the Moon aboard Command Module Columbia). They were followed by a further six missions, one of which – Apollo 13 – did not make it to the lunar surface. On 14th December 1972, Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt climbed back into the Apollo 17 LM Challenger and shortly afterwards it departed. No one has visited the Moon since.

First on the Moon by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins is the definitive account of the first mission to land on the Moon. It was published immediately after the event, and was written with the assistance of Gene Farmer and Dora Jane ‘Dodie’ Hamblin, two of the Life journalists who had exclusive access to the astronauts and their families.

You would expect the most authoritative book on the Apollo 11 lunar landing to be one written by the three men who actually made the trip. But would that necessarily make it a good book? Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins are, after all, astronauts and not writers – Farmer and Hamblin’s presence on the title page notwithstanding. So it came as a pleasant surprise to discover that First on the Moon is very good indeed. Not only because it tells the story of the mission with authority, but because it is readable, well-structured, and a fascinating read from start to finish.

The book is written in several voices – there are transcripts of the mission, some parts of which are annotated; there are passages by the three astronauts, typically in answer to questions; there are sections describing events at the homes of the astronauts as their families watch the mission on television; and there are passages more typical of a non-fiction record of Apollo 11, not all of which feature the Apollo 11 crew or their families. Together these build a mosaic, rich in detail, of what happened during the flight, for both those aboard and those who remained behind.

Having now read First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong (see here), Buzz Aldrin’s Return to Earth (see here), and Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire (see here), I feel I have some idea of the character of the three astronauts – and First on the Moon does nothing to dispel the impression of them as people I had gained from those three books. Armstrong still talks like a flight manual, Aldrin is as blunt as he is in his autobiography, and Collins provides the light relief and culture. Those three books, however, do not cover Apollo 11 – surely the defining moment of their lives – in as much detail as First on the Moon.

First on the Moon also scores highly in another area. Since Farmer and Hamblin were embedded with the Apollo families, they witnessed the reactions of the wives and children to the mission. The families are certainly not ignored in First on the Moon, and they are quoted almost as extensively as the astronauts themselves. It makes for a rounded view of Apollo 11 – the three astronauts in space in their CSM, while their spouses and children watched and waited at home.

The book finishes with an excellent epilogue by Arthur C Clarke, entitled ‘Beyond Apollo’. It’s typical Clarkeian futurism, and with the benefit of hindsight we can see that his optimism in many areas was unfounded. After Apollo 17, no one ever left Earth orbit again – so there are no moonbases, there have been no missions to Mars. Which is a shame: I think I would have liked the late twentieth century Clarke depicts. Those familiar with Clarke’s novels and stories may spot references to his fiction in some of the points he makes.

Of course, since First on the Moon was written by the Apollo 11 crew, with the help of Life journalists, it’s not going to be “warts and all”. It puts a positive spin on the whole endeavour, and no one comes out of it looking bad. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; after all, Apollo 11 should be celebrated. When talking to Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins aboard USS Hornet after their return, President Nixon said, “This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation”. Hyperbole aside, putting two men on the Moon was an astonishing achievement; and even more astonishing when you consider the time at which it happened, the 1960s. Most of the technology required was in its infancy then. Now, we have the science, technology and engineering to repeat the achievement, and it would not be nearly so difficult.

Even if some nation does put an astronaut on the Moon in the next twenty years, and several have declared an intent to do so, it will never be as impressive an accomplishment as Apollo 11.

There are many books available on Apollo 11 – and yet more being published this year to celebrate the its fortieth anniversary. First on the Moon not only has the advantage of being written by the crew of Apollo 11, but also having been written shortly afterward. It’s an excellent study of the mission. Highly recommended.

First on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, with Gene Farmer and Dora Jane Hamblin (1970, Little, Brown, No ISBN , 433pp + epilogue, acknowledgment and notes)

First Man, James Hansen

July 19, 2009

There are two approaches to writing a biography. In the first, the subject is treated as if he or she were the protagonist of a novel – their life is dramatised. A good example of this type would be Rocketman by Nancy Conrad and Howard Klausner (see here). The second approach is far more academic, and treats its subject as just that, the subject of the book. To me, what the first type gains in readability it loses in authority. First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong by James R Hansen also proves the point, albeit from the opposite direction.

Neil Alden Armstrong is, of course, the first man to set foot on the Moon. On 20th July 1969, he climbed down from the hatch of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle, stepped onto the lunar regolith and said, “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.

(Although Armstrong actually said “one small step for man”, and repeated studies have deemed it unlikely he ever uttered the implied “a”, he has said he certainly intended to speak the article. Besides, the phrase is nonsense without it, and given its historical importance I feel it’s best to quote it as it should have been said.)

First Man is authoritative. Hansen was chosen by Armstrong as his biographer in 2002, and the book quotes the astronaut extensively. It was also uses a great many quotes from Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire (see here) and Buzz Aldrin’s Return to Earth (see here)… which does give a somewhat odd effect: for example, Armstrong is commenting on Apollo 11 after more than thirty years, but his crewmates’ commentaries are from no more than a couple of years after the lunar landing. This also gives Armstrong the benefit of three decades of thought on the matter. But while he has been chiefly characterised as an introspective, thoughtful man, there isn’t actually that much evidence of this in the book.

Which is perhaps an unfair characterisation of Armstrong. He is notoriously taciturn, and when he does speak it’s often difficult to comprehend his meaning. At the press conference for the New Nine, he was asked why he had applied to become an astronaut. He said, “It was the general challenge of the unknowns of the program, and the general alignment of this part of it with our national goals”. Only when he is actually describing events, or discussing an engineering topic, does he make sense.

But then Armstrong saw himself first and foremost as an engineer. He was a test pilot for NASA prior to becoming an astronaut, but all those worked with him during that part of his career stressed his engineering expertise over his flying abilities – in fact, in Carrying the Fire, Collins remarks he had been told Armstrong was “one of the weaker stick-and-rudder men”. And yet, but for Armstrong’s flying abilities Apollo 11 might very well have come a cropper. When LM Eagle undocked from CSM Columbia, the docking tunnel still contained air. This gave Eagle sufficient push such that the onboard PNGS no longer accurately showed the LM’s position. So when the craft reached the final section of its powered descent, Armstrong and Aldrin found themselves heading for an area that was unsuitable for landing. So Armstrong manually flew the LM further and they landed with only 25 seconds of fuel remaining.

That Armstrong could do this, and do it successfully, is chiefly a result of his monomaniacal approach to his training for the mission. The best training device for the lunar landing was the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle, which was notoriously dangerous – so much so that Director of Flight Operations Chris Kraft wanted to eliminate it. In fact, Armstrong nearly met his death in the LLTV, but managed to eject in time. That afternoon, he was back behind his desk, filling in a report.

First Man is an excellent resource on the whats and whens of Armstrong’s career – from his birth and childhood, through his service in Korea, his time at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Centre at Edwards AFB, Gemini 8 and Apollo 11, right up to the time of the book’s writing. Hansen takes care to debunk several myths which have grown up about the astronaut, chiefly stories whose details have become inflated over the years, but he never really seems to come to grips with the man. Since Armstrong speaks for himself – either in NASA transcripts, or in interviews or correspondence with Hansen – it’s difficult to grasp his character. The fact that he often talks using the tortured English of an engineering report doesn’t help. It makes for an interesting comparison with Collins, whose character comes across plainly in his Carrying the Fire; and Buzz Aldrin, who is not as open in Return to Earth but is certainly far less inscrutable than Armstrong.

Collins described the Apollo 11 crew as “amiable strangers”, and as commander Armstrong bears most responsibility for that situation. He created the character of the team. It’s tempting to suggest that everyone in his life – bar immediate family, of course – was no more than an amiable stranger to him. There are occasions when the mask slips – the crew joking about in Columbia during the trip back to Earth, when discussing the tragedies he has experienced – but even then Armstrong permits only a carefully-controlled slippage.

First Man is an important book because its subject is important. Neil Armstrong was the first man on the Moon. He is also something of an enigma, and while First Man fails to solve that puzzle it comes closer to a solution than any other book. It is also an excellent historical document because it is a well-researched, comprehensive and authoritative treatment of its subject. The writing is perhaps not great, running from the serviceable to the occasionally bizarre: “To achieve jettison, the astronauts had to depressurize their cabin once again…” (p530). But it does its job.

First Man is an important book, although not a great biography. But it definitely belongs in the collection of any self-respecting space enthusiast.

First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong, James R Hansen (2005, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-0-7432-5631-5, 648 pp + acknowledgments, notes, bibliography and index)

Return to Earth, Buzz Aldrin

July 18, 2009

Last month, Buzz Aldrin, with Snoop Dogg, Quincy Jones, Talib Kweli, and Soulja Boy, recorded a hiphop single, ‘Rocket Experience’. All the proceeds from it will go to the ShareSpace Foundation, a non-profit organisation founded by Aldrin. A hiphop song is perhaps an odd way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, but Aldrin has been promoting space exploration since retiring from the US Air Force in 1972. He is the only one of the three Apollo 11 crew who currently engages with the public on the topic.

However, Aldrin hasn’t always been such a vocal and tireless proponent of space exploration. After Apollo 11, he returned to the US Air Force as commandant of the Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB in California, but stayed there only a couple of years before retiring from the military. His first book, Return to Earth, covers this portion of his life.

Return to Earth opens with the Apollo 11 splashdown. Aldrin then goes on to describe the quarantine which followed – in case the astronauts had brought any “Moon germs” back to Earth – and then the subsequent world publicity tour. Aldrin holds little back. He finds the Norwegians “not at all enthusiastic”, is surprised the British don’t present the astronauts with a decoration or award, and declares the Shah of Iran’s wife the most thoughtful of the state leaders’ spouses they meet on their travels. There’s surprisingly little culture-clash, perhaps because Aldrin served in Germany with the US Air Force for three years from 1956. But there are still one or two telling incidents – such as the Apollo 11 astronauts’ dinner at 10 Downing Street, at which “the recently deposed Labour leader landed in his cups and gave a speech ripping his country’s present administration” (p 71). That would be Harold Wilson attacking Edward Heath’s government. As a Brit, this strikes me as entirely unremarkable – but not, perhaps to a US military man who must never “embarrass the Chief”, a phrase which appears several times in Rocketman, the biography of Pete Conrad (see here).

Return to Earth then leaps back to Aldrin’s childhood and his early career. Like many astronauts, he had early exposure to aircraft – nothing notable now, but it certainly was in the late 1930s and early 1940s. While his father arranged for Aldrin to attend Annapolis, the US Navy academy, Aldrin chose instead to go to West Point and then into the US Air Force. He fought in Korea, and downed two enemy MiG-15s. He then served in a variety of places, including Germany, before attending MIT to earn a doctorate in astronautics. His doctoral thesis was titled Line-of-sight guidance techniques for manned orbital rendezvous, a subject he deliberately chose with an eye to becoming an astronaut. He’d already applied once, asking that the requirement for attending test pilot school be waived in his case. The request was refused.

In fact, at NASA Aldrin was sometimes known as “Dr Rendezvous” because of the work he’d done on the subject. He joined NASA in the third group of astronauts in 1963, after they’d dropped the test pilot school requirement. Initially, he was assigned as backup to Gemini 10. This meant – following the usual rotation schedule of “miss two missions, fly on the the third” – he would not actually fly until Gemini 13. But there were only twelve missions planned. But then the crew of Gemini 9, Charlie Bassett and Elliot See, died in a plane crash, and so Gemini 10 became Gemini 9A… which in turn meant Aldrin would fly on Gemini 12.

After the Gemini programme finished, Aldrin was assigned as backup on Apollo 9, which would have put him in the prime crew for Apollo 12. Then it was learnt that the Lunar Module would not be ready for the Apollo 8 flight, so that became Apollo 9, putting Aldrin as backup on what was now Apollo 8 and so prime on Apollo 11. At that point, Apollo 11 “seemed a much too optimistic candidate for the first lunar landing” (p 198). Besides, Aldrin admits several times he would sooner fly on a later mission, one which spent longer on the Moon and performed more science.

The rest, as they say, is history. On 16th July 1969, Apollo 11 launched from launch-pad 39A, and on 20th July Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon in the Lunar Module Eagle. Aldrin devotes less than eight pages to the time spent on the Moon, and while he has become known for the phrase “magnificent desolation” as a description of its surface, he does fail to evoke what it was actually like to be actually there.

That is, perhaps, the major failing of Return to Earth. It is very matter-of-fact. Aldrin is honest; he pulls no punches. But writing his style is an odd mix of frankness and self-aggrandisement. He gets the details across but rarely succeeds in presenting them memorably to the reader. While his preference for facts over opinions is laudable, it does make for a dry read. This doesn’t mean he entirely avoids giving his own opinion; far from it. While at West Point, he charged another cadet with cheating, but there was not enough evidence for a court-martial. The cheating student, however, was honour-bound to confess. He failed to do so and “is now a very high ranking officer in the armed services” (p 115). Aldrin admits to feeling bitter, to having his confidence in the system severely shaken, but also realises he was guilty of “rather naïve idealism”.

Aldrin’s idealism and naivety is a common theme throughout Return to Earth. His lack of political nous at NASA nearly saw him bumped from a flight. After joining the Astronaut Corps and being sent on public engagements, he was misquoted by the press on many occasions, and admits to being very angry over it. Even after he left NASA, he tried to set up a youth congress, only for it to fail. But this did work in his favour on occasion – after rejoining the Air Force, he was assigned as commandant of the Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards, where he set about changing the school’s culture to make it more open and egalitarian. He was successful.

Return to Earth is, unsurprisingly, an unflinchingly honest self-portrait. Aldrin admits to an extra-marital affair and the precariousness of his marriage; he details the mental illness he suffered which persuaded him to retire from the Air Force; and, while the word “alcoholism” is never actually used in the book, there’s certainly a great deal of drinking mentioned in its pages. The book is very informative and an excellent account of Aldrin’s early life and career. It also gives an indication of his character – its honesty alone suggests he had not, at the time of writing, lost his “rather naïve idealism”. But that’s no bad thing.

Return to Earth is perhaps not the most rivetting read about Apollo 11 that has been published, but it certainly belongs in the collection any self-respecting space enthusiast.

Return to Earth, Colonel Edwin E “Buzz” Aldrin, with Wayne Warga (1973, Random House, ISBN 0-394-48832-6, 338p)

Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins

July 17, 2009

I’ve read enough about Apollo 11 – and not just in my preparations for this Apollo40 celebration – to be aware of how its crew are normally characterised. Neil Armstrong is the strong, silent type, and has shunned all publicity since the Apollo 11 round-the-world tour. Buzz Aldrin is a fierce proponent of space exploration, extremely clever, but also very frank and blunt. And Michael Collins is the erudite one, the wine connoisseur, who was not as po-faced or serious as Armstrong or Aldrin.

These, of course, are the public perceptions of the three astronauts. And the best way to a better understanding of them is to read their biographies or autobiographies. Beginning with Michael Collins, whose Carrying the Fire is generally reckoned to be one of the best books of its type.

I’ve been disappointed by highly-recommended books on space before – see here – but happily I can confirm that both Michael Collins and his Carrying the Fire live up to their reputations. He is an engaging and readable narrator, surprisingly honest, and considerably more self-effacing than the other astronauts. (This last may also have been true of Pete Conrad, but his biography, Rocketman, was written after his death and doesn’t really give a true indication of the man – see here.)

Like Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins owes his place in the history books to misfortune – in this case, his own. He had been initially assigned to the crew of Apollo 8, but a cervical disc herniation requiring surgery resulted in him being dropped from flight status. After he had recovered, he was assigned to Apollo 11. If it had not been for his back problem, it’s likely Apollo 8 would have been his one and only Apollo flight – he was keen to retire from NASA after successful completion.

Which is a shame. Collins was command module pilot for Apollo 11, and remained in orbit about the Moon in Command Module Columbia. Of all the Apollo astronauts, Collins would probably have best described in prose what it was like to actually walk on the Moon. If he had not left NASA after Apollo 11, the normal rotation schedule would probably have seen him commanding Apollo 17… and so landing on the lunar surface. And then he would have been able to write about it.

For instance, take Collins’ description of his first sight of the Moon from close quarters:

“The moon I have known all my life, that two-dimensional, small yellow disk in the sky, has gone away somewhere, to be replaced by the most awesome sphere I have ever seen. To begin with, it is huge, completely filling our window. Second, it is three-dimensional. The belly of it bulges out towards us in such a pronounced fashion that I almost feel I can reach out and touch it, while its surface obviously recedes towards the edges. It is between us and the sun, creating the most splendid lighting conditions imaginable.” (p 387)

It is definitely the writing which lifts Carrying the Fire above other books of its type. In its approach to its topic, it is little different. It opens with a very brief précis of Collins’ early life, mentioning – of course – his first aeroplane ride. It covers his entry into the US Air Force and his career before joining NASA. He then discusses the other astronauts, and takes time to briefly characterise them. Of his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts, he says:

Neil Armstrong Makes decisions slowly and well. As Borman gulps decisions, Armstrong savors them – rolling them around on his tongue like a fine wine and swallowing at the very last moment … Neil is a classy guy, and I can’t offhand think of a better choice to be the first man on the moon.

Buzz Aldrin Heavy, man, heavy. Would make a champion chess player; always thinks several moves ahead. If you don’t understand what Buzz is talking about today, you will tomorrow or the next day. Fame has not worn well on Buzz. I think he resents not being first on the moon more than he appreciates being second.” (p 60)

To be fair, Carrying the Fire was published in 1974, at which point Aldrin was indeed failing to cope… but Aldrin did subsequently go on to “wear fame” the best of the three, and today is a tireless and vocal proponent of space exploration. And, of course, Aldrin’s own words on the second man on the Moon “controversy” are entirely different in his own book, Return to Earth (see this blog tomorrow). Later in Carrying the Fire, during the mission itself, slightly different characters emerge for the two; and Collins’ analysis on the trip back to Earth results in him referring to them as “amiable strangers” – an often-quoted phrase.

Collins provides a great deal of detail about his time in NASA. As all the astronauts were encouraged to specialise in an area related to the various missions, Collins chose space suits and Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA). He spent a lot of time testing the space suits for both the Gemini and Apollo programmes, and describes extremely well the experience of wearing them. In fact, Collins provides an impressive amount of detail about everything he did as an astronaut – most especially, of course, his two missions, Gemini 10 and and Apollo 11. His is the most descriptive and evocative accounts of missions from either programme I have read to date. And they are not only highly informative but a pleasure to read.

Also noteworthy is Collins’ ability to explain the arcana of astronautics in an easy-to-understand fashion. Carrying the Fire by no means talks down to its reader, but neither is it as dense with “technobabble” as, for instance, Tom Stafford’s autobiography, We Have Capture (see here). Collins writes, “NASA-ese is no worse than Air Force-ese or State Department-ese, I suppose each has its place, although none of them seems a desirable substitute for English” (p 76), and goes on to give examples of each. Carrying the Fire is, happily, written entirely in English.

Collins is also a nicely self-deprecating writer, not only unafraid to include his emotional responses in his account but also to comment on his own abilities and position (or lack thereof) in the Astronaut Corps. He is not always complementary about his colleagues, although he clearly likes and admires them. Neither does he agree that every decision made regarding Gemini and Apollo by NASA was the right one, or that the technology used was always ideal or best-suited to the job.

Above all, Carrying the Fire is an involving read. On finishing it, you’re left with an excellent impression of what it was like to have been on the Gemini 10 and Apollo 11 missions, rather being left with a knowledge of the life and career of Michael Collins, astronaut. Compared to other astronaut autobiographies I have read, this is unusual. I would also say it was a good thing. Interestingly, this is also one of the few autobiographies which was not ghost-written, or written with the assistance of a ghost writer. As Collins himself says, “No matter how good the ghost, I am convinced that a book loses realism when an interpreter stands between the storyteller and his audience” (p xvi).

Highly recommended. If you want to read one autobiography by an astronaut, I can confirm that this is definitely one of the best.

(Note: unlike the other books I have written about on this blog, my edition of Carrying the Fire is not a first edition. The book was first published in 1974.)

Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins (2001, Cooper Square Press, ISBN 978-0-8154-1028-7, 478 pp + appendix)

Apollo 11 Owners’ Workshop Manual, Christopher Riley & Phil Dolling

July 16, 2009

When I saw the cover to this Apollo 11 Haynes manual, I expected it to contain exploded diagrams and cutaways of the Apollo 11 spacecraft, “including Saturn V, CM-107, SM-107, LM-5”. The subtitle, “an insight into the hardware from the first manned mission to land on the Moon”, only further suggested this.

So imagine my disappointment when the book proved to contain nothing like this.

However, as I read the book my opinion changed. No, Apollo 11 Owners’ Workshop Manual does not contain the detailed exploded diagrams typical of Haynes car manuals; but it is a readable and detailed introduction to Apollo 11, the people involved and the hardware used. In eight copiously-illustrated chapters, the two authors cover everything from “the dawn of Apollo” to “misconceptions and conspiracy theories”.

The book opens with an introduction to the space race, from Tsiolkovsky and Goddard through von Braun and Gagarin to Projects Mercury and Gemini, and Lunar Orbit Rendezvous. The chapter finishes with a section on the crew of Apollo 11, including the back-up crew and flight directors.

Chapter 1 covers the development and technical specifications of the Saturn family of launch vehicles. Chapter 2 does the same with the Apollo Command and Service Modules. The Apollo Guidance Computer and guidance, navigation and control systems of the CSM and LM are described in chapter 3. The next chapter details the Lunar Module, followed by a chapter on space suits. The final two chapters cover “Communicating from the Moon” and “Beyond Apollo 11 – the J-class missions”. Everything is explained clearly and concisely, and well illustrated.

Much of the information in Apollo 11 Owners’ Workshop Manual can be found in other, more detailed, books on individual topics covered by this book. And, in fact, many of the diagrams are taken from NASA literature of the time – from such as the Apollo Spacecraft News Reference and Apollo Training. The photographs, however, are from a variety of sources.

As an introduction to Apollo 11, Apollo 11 Owners’ Workshop Manual strikes exactly the right balance between overview and detail. For example, in the chapter on the Lunar Module is a section titled “Landing on the Moon”, which gives a breakdown of the three phases – braking, approach, and terminal descent – and the computer programmes used by the LM during those phases. It’s difficult not to learn something new about Apollo 11 reading this book, at least not without reading an entire library on the subject.

Both Riley and Dolling are BBC producers who specialise in space-related programmes. Riley, in fact, was a producer on In The Shadow Of The Moon and Space Odyssey, and Dolling has executive produced programmes such as Space and James May’s 20th Century.

Apollo 11 Owners’ Workshop Manual is a very good introduction to its subject. If you want to buy a book about Apollo 11, then you could do a great deal worse than this one.

Apollo 11 Owners’ Workshop Manual, Dr Christopher Riley and Phil Dolling (2009, Haynes Publishing, ISBN 978-1-84425-683-9, 185pp + appendices)

40 Years Ago – Apollo 1

July 15, 2009

In five days, it will be the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. On July 20 1969, the first man from this planet stepped onto the surface of the Moon. That man was Neil Armstrong. He was followed twenty minutes later by Buzz Aldrin. In orbit about the Moon, in Apollo 11’s CSM, waited Michael Collins.

Over the next five days I will be posting reviews of books about Apollo 11. The schedule looks like this:

16 July: Apollo 11 Owners’ Workshop Manual, Dr Christopher Riley & Phil Dolling
17 July: Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys, Michael Collins
18 July: Return to Earth, Buzz Aldrin
19 July: First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong, James Hansen
20 July: First on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin & Michael Collins

Also on 20 July, around noon GMT, I will be posting something special.

However, to – ahem – launch this blog’s own celebration of the anniversary, here is a bibliography of books about the Apollo programme, by year of publication. There are far too many books on the subject to list them all, so I have had to pick and choose. Some of the books I own, some of them I have even reviewed here (these will be linked). You might also want to check this post for books published this year on Apollo 11 and the Moon Landing.

A Select Apollo Bibliography
Caidin, Martin. By Apollo to the Moon(1963)
Cooper, Henry SF. Apollo on the Moon (1969)
Ryan, Peter. The Invasion of the Moon 1969 (1969)
Gurney, Gene. Americans to the Moon: The Story of Project Apollo (1970)
Mailer, Norman. Of a Fire on the Moon(1970)
Collins, Michael. Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys (1974)
Cortright, Edgar. NASA SP–350 Apollo Expeditions to the Moon(1975)
Hurt III, Harry. For All Mankind(1988)
NASA SP–4205 Chariots for Apollo: The NASA History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft to 1969 (1989)
Murray, Charles & Catherine Bly Cox. Apollo: The Race to the Moon (1989)
Shepard, Alan & Deke Slayton. Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon (1994) Review here.
Chaikin, Andrew. A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (1995)
Hall, Eldon C. Journey to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Guidance Computer (1997) Review here.
Godwin, Robert. Apollo 8: The NASA Mission Reports (1998)
Allday, Jonathan. Apollo in Perspective: Spaceflight Then and Now (1999)
Godwin, Robert. Apollo 7: The NASA Mission Reports (1999)
Godwin, Robert. Apollo 9: The NASA Mission Reports (1999)
Godwin, Robert. Apollo 10: The NASA Mission Reports (1999)
Godwin, Robert. Apollo 11: The NASA Mission Reports Vol 1 (1999)
Godwin, Robert. Apollo 11: The NASA Mission Reports Vol 2 (1999)
Godwin, Robert. Apollo 12 : The Nasa Mission Reports (1999)
Zimmerman, Robert: Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8 (1999)
Godwin, Robert. Apollo 13: The NASA Mission Reports (2000)
Godwin, Robert. Apollo 14: The NASA Mission Reports (2000)
Godwin, Robert. Apollo 15: The NASA Mission Reports Vol 1 (2001)
Kelly, Thomas J: Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module (Smithsonian History of Aviation & Spaceflight) (2001)
Lindsay, Hamish. Tracking Apollo to the Moon (2001)
Godwin, Robert. Apollo 11: The NASA Mission Reports Vol 3 (2002)
Godwin, Robert. Apollo 16: The NASA Mission Reports Vol 1 (2002)
Godwin, Robert. Apollo 17: The NASA Mission Reports Vol 1 (2002)
Reynolds, David West. Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon (2002)
Sullivan, Scott. Virtual Apollo (2002) Review here.
Sullivan, Scott. Virtual LM (2002)
Schyffert, Bea Usmaa. The Man Who Went to the Far Side of the Moon: The Story of Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins (2003)
Godwin, Robert. Apollo 12: The NASA Mission Reports Vol 2 (2004)
Godwin, Robert. Apollo Spacecraft News Reference (NAA Command/Service Manual) (2005)
Godwin, Robert. Apollo Spacecraft News Reference (Lunar Module) (2005)
Smith, Andrew. Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth (2005)
De Groot, Gerard. Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest (2006)
Harland, David M. The First Men on the Moon: The Story of Apollo 11 (2006)
French, Francis & Colin Burgess. In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969 (2007)
Godwin, Robert. The Lunar Exploration Scrapbook (2007) Review here.
Godwin, Robert. Apollo Advanced Lunar Exploration Planning (2007)
Godwin, Robert. Apollo Training (2007) Review here.
Heiken, Grant & Eric Jones. On the Moon: The Apollo Journals(2007)
Woods, David. How Apollo Flew to the Moon (2007)
Harland, David M. Exploring the Moon: The Apollo Expeditions (2008)
Mindell, David A. Digital Apollo (2008)

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.

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?