A history of the space program told through the lens of the handful of astronauts who have seen the Earth from space.
Only 24 men, all Apollo astronauts, have seen our planet from afar. After delivering this bit of astronomical trivia, British science writer and former publisher Potter (You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe, 2009) rewinds the clock to describe how this came about. There is no shortage of histories of space travel; the author’s approach is quirky, scattershot, and full of digressions, but it works beautifully. He opens with Charles Lindbergh, perhaps the first digression, although he was as much an enthusiast for space travel as flight. Then Potter settles into his theme with portraits of the iconic pioneers—Robert Goddard and Wernher von Braun—followed by a long history of America’s manned space program, which peaked with the glories of the 1968-1972 Apollo moon flights. Without neglecting technical and biographical details, the author gives priority to the exhilarating effect of space travel on the astronauts and (fleetingly) everyone else. Readers will be amused to learn that Apollo’s designers considered photography a distraction and refused to permit cameras onboard until the astronauts themselves forced a change. More interesting is a long digression on Madalyn O’Hair, a celebrity atheist in the 1960s and ’70s whose hectoring persuaded NASA to discourage astronauts from delivering biblical quotes from space. The U.S. abruptly cancelled the Apollo program at the end of 1972, and today only one nation—China—has an active manned space program. As von Braun saw it, “to make a one-night stand on the Moon and go there no more would be as senseless as building a railroad and then only making one trip from New York to Los Angeles.”
Despite covering familiar ground, Potter delivers an enthralling account of the golden age of manned space travel that emphasizes the transcendent experiences of everyone involved, and he makes a convincing case that America lost something vital when it ended.