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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 was because so much went wrong along the way. The Apollo 11 landing apart, the two things that really stand out in the memory about the Apollo programme are when things went wrong - the terrible disaster of Apollo 1 and the skin-of-the-teeth survival of Apollo 13. What Brown gives us on a much smaller scale is a whole litany of problems that the engineers faced and overcame. Just occasionally (twice, to be precise) there were a few pages where things did get a little slow, but mostly this was genuinely fascinating.

One of the things that most impressed me is that, by the end of the book, I really understood why it has been so long since anything significant has been achieved in manned space flight. It had always seem strange how everything just seemed to stop, but Brown makes it clear what an exceptional effort Apollo was, how it would have been impossible to continue with that intensity and how NASA lost its drive. He is also good in setting the political background alongside the race for space - not just the rivalry with the Soviet Union, but also things like the Vietnam war, the peace movement and other, wider political concerns.

The only small negatives I can find are that Brown can sometimes be too folksy in his language and the disappointment that a book published by OUP should only have units like degrees Fahrenheit, pounds and miles. I appreciate they're looking to the US market, but it wouldn't have harmed to have had scientific units too. But there's nothing to put anyone off. It's a great addition to anything you may have read about the space race with so much material I've never seen before.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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