Skip to main content

The Man Who Ran the Moon – Piers Bizony ***

I have to confess, on picking up this book, there was a slight feeling of “oh no, not another book about the history of manned space flight.” We had already had the definitive look at the conflict between the US and the USSR in Deborah Cadbury’s Space Race, and an interesting political history of the race to get to the moon in Gerard deGroot’s Dark Side of the Moon. In fact, at first glance there seems to be a strong overlap with de Groot’s book, and for the same reason that title only got 3 stars, we can only give 3 stars to this. It doesn’t mean it’s not a very readable book – it’s a real page turner – but there’s hardly any science in it (as, cynics would say, there was very little science but plenty of politics in the race to the moon).
I ought to stress, by the way, that there is no suggestion that this book or de Groot’s is a “me too” title. It’s very easy for two books to come out on a similar topic at the same time – I’ve had this happen to me as an author, and it’s highly frustrating! There just seem to be moments when the same ideas bubble up, either because new information is released or the topic is timely. Incidentally, Bizony’s book actually predates de Groot’s – we just got the review copy later.
However, this is no matter anyway, because there is no conflict between the two – in fact The Man Who Ran the Moon sits very well alongside de Groot’s book. Where Dark Sidewas looking at the moon project from the government viewpoint, Bizony’s book is very much seen from the NASA side of the project. It’s rather like one of those “two sides of the coin” dramas, where you experience the same scene from two different personal views. In particularly, this book concentrates on the work of James Webb, the NASA leader who took things almost, but not quite all the way to the moon landing (he resigned after the painful investigation into the Apollo 1 fire), though it does cover the moon landings, and NASA post-Apollo (the latter in a rather summary fashion).
The result is a truly fascinating view of the attempt to develop and pull together this huge, rambling organization, fragmented across the country, split into many units not from any good business or technical reasons, but in order to placate various senators who would then support NASA’s budgetary requirements. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way. Webb rarely seems to have seen eye-to-eye with all his subordinates at any one time, and his relationship with presidents Kennedy and Johnson was always lively.
Perhaps the strongest feeling the reader gets from this book is amazement that the NASA venture to the moon ever succeeded. This is partly because of the sheer challenge of managing such a complex engineering project across so many locations, and partly the point made strongly in de Groot’s book that the whole thing was a pointless exercise with no great scientific value. Yet most of all, the striking revelation from Bizony is how deeply un-American the whole idea is. After all, US culture is strongly against big central funding and control – yet NASA was asking for billions of dollars for a federal project managed from Washington that had very few quantifiable benefits.
An excellent insight into this dramatic period in NASA’s history.

Paperback 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…