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

Tim Woollings - Four Way Interview

Tim Woollings is an Associate Professor in Physical Climate Science at the University of Oxford, leading a team of researchers in the Atmospheric Dynamics group. He obtained his PhD in Meteorology in 2005 and since then has worked on a variety of topics spanning weather prediction, atmospheric dynamics and circulation, and the effects of climate change. He has studied how the jet stream varies over weeks, years, and decades, and how we can better predict these changes. He was a contributing author on three chapters of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. Tim worked at the University of Reading as a postdoc, research fellow and then lecturer before moving to the University of Oxford in 2013. He is now the Oxford Joint Chair of the Met Office Academic Partnership. His new book is Jet Stream.

Why climate?

It has never been more important to learn about how our climate system works, and how we are affecting it. You certainly get a lot of satisfaction when your work touches on hugely important …

The Apollo Chronicles - Brandon Brown *****

There were two reasons I wasn't expecting much from this book. Firstly, there have been so many titles on the Apollo programme and the space race. And secondly, a book that focusses on the engineering involved would surely be far too much at the nut and bolt level (literally), missing out on the overarching drama that makes the story live. Also there were so many people involved - 400,000 is mentioned - that we couldn't have much human interest because we would be bombarded with lists of names.

Instead, I was charmed by Brandon Brown's account. His father was one of the engineers, but he isn't given undue prominence - Brown picks out a handful of characters and follows them through, bringing in others as necessary, but never overwhelming us with names. And while it's true that there is a lot of nitty gritty engineering detail, it rarely becomes dull. Somehow, Brown pulls off the feat of making the day-to-day, hectic engineering work engaging.

I think in part this …

Saturn – William Sheehan ****

This book marks something of a milestone in my reviewing career: it’s the first time I’ve seen an excerpt from one of my reviews printed on the back cover. It comes from my review of Sheehan’s previous book, on Mercury, which I said ‘easily convinced me the Solar System’s 'least interesting' planet is still a pretty fascinating place.’ That wasn’t an easy task for the author, given Mercury’s unspectacular appearance and reputation – but Saturn is a different matter. With its iconic rings, easily visible through a small telescope, it’s the favourite planet of many amateur astronomers. For space scientists, too, it’s a prime target – given that two of its moons, Titan and Enceladus, look like the kind of places we might find alien life. So Sheehan’s challenge this time wasn’t to find enough material to fill 200 pages, but to distil a potentially huge subject down to that size.

He meets this challenge just as successfully as the previous one – but not quite in the way I was expect…