Addressing a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy proposed putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. This was almost science fiction at the time, but through a remarkable series of steps and the contributions of an estimated 400,000 people, the U.S. achieved that goal just under the wire. This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and while there aren’t quite enough new space books to reach the moon, there are plenty to choose from. Here are five of the most interesting.
How we did it
If you weren’t glued to your black-and-white TV watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin climb out onto the moon on July 20, 1969, it might be hard to understand the marvel felt by those who were. Reading Craig Nelson’s intricately detailed Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon might help.
Nelson assumes a certain knowledge and level of interest, which also makes his book a perfect choice for the seasoned Apollo fan. He works in details that put readers into the heart of America’s space program, including the smell of the fuel atop a Saturn V (like trout), signs hanging around NASA hallways to keep employees focused (“Will you be ready?”) and descriptions of life as an astronaut (relentless training, low wages, the press). Nelson’s writing can be clunky in places, but the breadth of his coverage suggests his research was nearly as comprehensive as the planning of the missions themselves.
Men on the moon
For most of the Apollo moonwalkers—more so than for their crewmates like Apollo 11’s Mike Collins, orbiting solo in the command service module—the missions were the easy part; retelling them ad nauseam has been the rub. Andrew Chaikin, one of the foremost space historians, spoke to 22 of the original 23 Apollo astronauts when researching A Man on the Moon, an exhaustive book about the Apollo program. He combines quotations from those interviews with archival photos—as well as stills from 16mm film—in Voices from the Moon: Apollo Astronauts Describe Their Lunar Experiences, co-written with his equally Apollo-obsessed wife, Victoria Kohl. “Landing on the moon, to a lot of us, wasn’t the be-all and end-all of life,” Frank Borman (Apollo 8) says. That, combined with Pete Conrad’s (Apollo 12) “You can never get over the fact that you were an astronaut,” sums up the conundrum facing the men of Apollo.
Still, they talk about things like seeing Earth from afar (“I was just wishing I could spin it all around and look at the rest of it.”) and Neil Armstrong even muses about being on the moon (“In my view, the emotional moment was the landing. That was the human contact with the moon.”).
In Apollo: Through the Eyes of the Astronauts—edited by Robert Jacobs et al., with an introduction by Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy—we get the astronauts’ opinions on the many images taken during the Apollo era. Combining their choices (subtly designated with a cutline and a tiny red square) with other images, the editors also include particulars about each mission, including any firsts (live TV broadcast, flights of spacecrafts, use of special spacesuits).
As the intro says, this is the work of “twenty-nine amateur American photographers whose entire portfolio spans the five short years from 1968 to 1972.” Equipped with specially built Hasselblad cameras, they captured iconic shots like a blue half Earth rising majestically over the moon’s horizon and a full Earth centered on the black field of space. But other, less grand images—the family photo Apollo 16’s Charlie Duke left on the moon, astronauts wearing Chuck Taylor All-Stars—are equally compelling.
Though often seen in Chucks or Ban-Lon trousers (see Nelson’s Rocket Men) here on Earth, the classic images of astronauts show them in white spacesuits adorned with mission patches, name label and shiny red, blue and silver hose connectors. Spacesuits: The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Collection pays homage to the aesthetics of these personal life support systems through Mark Avino’s gorgeous photographs of mission suits, prototypes and training gear. The images pop off the black pages—radiographs of gloves and suits, as well as arrangements of helmets are particularly stunning—and are complemented by archival images and publicity stills from NASA.
Spacesuits also charts the evolution of the suits, with informative text written by Amanda Young, a specialist in spacesuits and astronaut equipment at the museum. She begins with the first pressure suits from the 1930s, works through to the shimmery attire of the Mercury era (green nylon coated in aluminum powder), and onto Gemini and Apollo. She then continues through Skylab and Shuttle suits, as well as those of Apollo Soyuz and Soviet missions. Throughout, she includes mission specifics and interesting tidbits. The book closes with a chapter on the deterioration of the suits, with eerie photos of morgue-like racks full of suits, some with mannequins inside. As Young explains, this “is the only way to keep it from collapsing on itself from its own weight—once that happens, it is almost impossible to open it up again to a ‘normal’ shape without creating further damage.”
Tom Sachs: Space Program documents his 2007 installation of a lunar module and control center, and a performance art staging of a complete “lunar” mission from launch to splashdown, at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. Full-color photos on high-gloss paper show every aspect of the piece, while art historian and philosopher Arthur C. Danto places Sachs’ art along a continuum of Duchamp, Warhol and Lichtenstein. A conversation between Sachs and Buzz Aldrin rounds out the intro text.
Space Program, the project, was a sophisticated cross between a faithful re-creation and witty observation on 1960s culture: Sachs’ LEM includes a well-stocked liquor cabinet and library, and a collection of soul hits from the 1950s through 1970s. For mission control, he puts a vintage steel before rows of monitors—and “Applause” and “Silence, please” signs.