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)