The former chief historian of NASA examines the history and lasting impact of America’s program to reach the moon.
Launius (The Smithsonian History of Space Exploration, 2018, etc.) begins with one of the most significant scientific feats of the 20th century, the July 20, 1969, landing of the Apollo 11 astronauts on the moon. After summing up that historic moment, he turns to the ways it has been viewed since: as an awesome achievement in its own right, a waste of valuable resources better used otherwise, an abuse of government power, or even (by a minority) a hoax. The author then examines every phase of the program: creating rockets powerful enough for the job, building the spacecraft and moon lander, and devising the technology to guide and control it—all of which had to be done from scratch. The human component—the astronauts and their support team—receives similar scrutiny, with a focus on how the astronauts were positioned (and marketed) as real-life heroes and how they were received by the public. As for its scientific impact, the program essentially changed our understanding of the moon, while attempts to apply its management principles to more mundane projects—e.g., city management—were less successful. One chapter takes the historian’s viewpoint, examining how the many artifacts generated by the program have or haven’t been preserved. Especially interesting is a chapter on how the images captured by the astronauts have made an impact on the world, notably the iconic images of the Earth from space. Launius even attempts—without notable success—to figure out why, despite all evidence, some continue to deny that the moon landing occurred. The book also provides extensive background material on the space program, both from within NASA and from outside observers, as well as a useful annotated bibliography for those who want to do their own research.
A valuable summary of an important piece of modern history and its effects and a must-read for space enthusiasts.