Skip to main content

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole book.

Despite the fact we know exactly what will happen, from the low of the Apollo 1 disaster, through Apollo 11 itself to Apollo 13 and the final missions, Whitehouse keeps the drama going. I had to stop reading just before the first moon landing, and was quite irritated. There are only two slight problems with the later part of the book. Firstly, we've been introduced to a whole lot of people from both sides - whether it's the astronauts, the engineers or the mission control people, and it can become a bit of a blur as to who is who. (It's no surprise, bearing in mind hardly anyone can name the numbers  3 and 4 astronauts to land on the Moon.) And secondly, Whitehouse includes quite lengthy chunks of interview with astronauts and ground controllers. I know why he does it, especially as quite a lot of these are interviews he did himself. But, to be honest, these people can be quite dull. (Dull, on the whole, is what you want from an astronaut.)

This doesn't mean, though, that Whitehouse doesn't capture the whole period and transition from science fiction dream to reality wonderfully. An obvious comparison is Deborah Cadbury's 2005 book Space Race, which gives more details on the precursors to Apollo, but doesn't achieve the same level of engagement, or depth on Apollo. For a reader like me, who is part of the 20 per cent (I still remember building a Gemini capsule plastic kit), there's wonderful nostalgia and great insights into aspects that weren't obvious to the public (for example, how often things went wrong). For someone who wasn't around, the book gives a chance to see what we're missing out on now we aren't travelling outside our own space back yard - and perhaps a hint of what may be possible again in the future.
Paperback 

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The World According to Physics - Jim Al-Khalili *****

There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.

That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…

Outbreaks and Epidemics - Meera Senthilingam ****

This book was written before the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, though it has been updated to include it: it's certainly not any kind of attempt to cash in, but rather a sober reflection on how outbreaks and epidemics work, what process the world has in place to deal with them and how a changing, globalised world has magnified risk.

If I'm honest, I'm not a great fan of medical books, but Meera Senthilingam gives an important introduction to disease outbreaks and epidemics, giving enough detail to make sense of them without ever being too technical for the general reader. This is careful journalism, which can sometimes come across as rather dry, but that's not necessarily a bad thing given the topic.

The book starts by plunging us into the beginnings of the 2003 SARS epidemic, then brings in COVID-19 (as of, by the look of it, around the start of March 2020) and measles before plunging back to smallpox and the origins of vaccination. There is a strong section on disea…

Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.


Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…