A thorough recounting—as full in human terms as in scientific and technical detail—of NASA’s first manned Moon landing.
Ever since that day, Jul. 16, 1969, when the Apollo 11 mission put its lunar module on the surface of the Moon and astronaut Neil Armstrong took the last long step down its ladder, critics have argued the purpose and strategic value of that incredibly daunting, expensive and risky project. In the capable hands of Nelson (Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations, 2006, etc.), however, those arguments simply give way to inspirational history. The event seems strangely remote, something brief and shining—or, as the author quotes one NASA executive, “almost a kind of blip.” The author’s real achievement is the vivid re-creation of the atmosphere within the program, complete with unsolvable problems, oscillating team morale and serious career envy. For example, astronaut Buzz Aldrin was initially slotted to step first to the surface, but mission commander Armstrong exercised the privilege of rank. The result, the author calculates, negatively affected Aldrin for years afterward. (For more detailed information, see Aldrin’s upcoming Magnificent Desolation, 2009.) Nelson also offers lucid insights into the gilded bureaucracy of the space program—NASA’s tech-speak often served to isolate the press and public from the complexity of longer odds and much higher risks than outsiders suspected. Nelson capably decodes it as the tale unfolds. He quotes astronaut Michael Collins, who stayed in lunar orbit: “To me, the marvel is that it all worked like clockwork. I almost said, ‘magic.’ There might be a little magic mixed up in the back of that big clock somewhere. Because everything worked as it was supposed to, nobody messed up, and even I didn’t make mistakes.”
The definitive account of a watershed in American history.