The death of Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong has caused many people to reflect on what the 1968-1972 Apollo missions to the Moon meant to them personally and to the nation.
Last Saturday I was at the planetarium to talk to a couple of reporters about Armstrong’s death, and while waiting for them to arrive I hung out near the planetarium’s Moon Rock display (we have a nice large chunk of a rock from Apollo 15 here) and talked to the people walking around in our “lunar landscape” exhibit.
Some visitors took the news of Armstrong’s death as something of a shock. Neil Armstrong clearly meant something to them.
But for some people, the reactions ranged from “Who’s Neil Armstrong?” to “Oh.”
So it occurred to me that if you want to bone-up on what the Apollo missions were and why they and Neil Armstrong should matter to you, I strongly recommend to you a few books and movies:
First, three books:
Space, by James Mitchner. In the grand sweeping style that Mitchner gives all his books, Space blends massive amounts of the fascinating history of the US space program with a fine mesh of expertly written fiction to bind together an amazing and thoroughly enjoyable story of how the space race changed America. If you are at all interested in personalities and the technologies that put America on the Moon, Mitchner’s Space is a must-read.
The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe. This is the story of how America’s first astronauts got to be astronauts, how the “space race” changed the lives of these amazing men, and how they in turn made history.
Yes, I know about the movie, but as is so often the case the movie does not do justice to the book. The Right Stuff is entirely a work of non-fiction, but it is written in style that is so engaging and so personal, and the people Wolfe describes are themselves so fascinating and the things they did so astonishing, that you’ll feel like you’re reading some kind of techno-thriller.
Apollo Expeditions to the Moon, edited by Edgar Cortright (NASA). This book changed my life. It’s impossible to find in book stores, but you might find it in a few libraries. Used prints in various conditions can be found online. Fortunately, NASA has put the entire book on the web.
For a nuts-and-bolts description of the problems NASA faced when it accepted President Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to get Americans on the Moon by the end of 1969, and how they met that challenge, this book is without equal. It’s well-written, extremely readable, loaded with pictures and diagrams, and intellectually “chewy.” The book is filled with great information to keep your brain churning on what it must have been like in the 1960’s to have the job of figuring out how to send humans to the Moon and get them safely back to Earth.
And of course, there are the movies:
For All Mankind (1989, 80 minutes) is a documentary film about the Apollo program that is as beautifully filmed and lovingly presented as any documentary on the history of Apollo could ever be.
For All Mankind uses the voices of the astronauts themselves, the actual footage they shot, and a haunting, beautiful score by Brian Eno to tell the story of the Apollo landings on the Moon.
In the Shadow of the Moon (2007, 109 minutes) is a documentary that took the 2007 Sundance Film Festival by storm. Like For All Mankind, the film has no narration; the astronauts look into the camera and tell the story themselves. The nice thing about In the Shadow of the Moon is the way the film focuses on how the Apollo program changed the astronauts personally; what they were like before and during the program, and how their experiences changed their lives.
The Dish (2000, 101 minutes) is the true story of how a modest radio telescope in the middle of an Australian sheep paddock ended up playing a crucial role in getting the TV signals of Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on the Moon to the three billion people on Earth who were glued to their TV sets on July 20, 1969. The Dish is funny, warm, witty and filled with endearing, memorable characters. It has a powerful, positive message and a great ending. I’ve seen the film many times and I am unable to fathom how it earned a PG-13 rating. To me, the film seems more like it should be PG at worst.
And of course…
Is it really necessary to describe this Ron Howard masterpiece? No fictional peril experienced by Indiana Jones can compare to the real-life adventure, danger, cleverness and heroism that took place in 1970 as NASA struggled to save the lives of three astronauts in a crippled spacecraft that is outbound from Earth, halfway to the Moon.
If you’ve ever heard the phrases, “Houston, we’ve got a problem,” or “Failure is not an option,” or have been inspired by the crisis management technique of, “OK then, what do we know that’s good?” then you’ll want to watch Apollo 13 to see how those words became part of our national consciousness.
So whether you’re under the age of 40 and the Apollo program seems like an abstraction to you, or you’re old enough to remember Apollo but think it’s time for a little refresher on how we became the world’s leader in space exploration, take a look at any of the books and movies above and you’ll understand better why so many of us who remember Apollo spent time last weekend in thoughtful reflection about Neil Armstrong’s life and accomplishments, and what the Apollo program meant to America.