- Apollo's Stepchildren: New Works on the American Lunar Program
It should come as no surprise that the upcoming fortieth anniversary of the first journey by humans to the surface of the Moon has inspired new works on the program that took them there. There were, arguably, explorations more important in the history of humanity than Apollo 11's flight in July of 1969, but none watched as closely by so many with such instantaneous professions of support or dismay. The New York Times, shortly after the lunar module Eagle touched down, printed them all: quotations from celebrities awed, inspired, and perplexed by humankind's first landing on another world.1 Project Apollo's achievement was hardly dimmed by the finding that the Moon's "magnificent desolation" offered human visitors little of comfort or value; never before had the discovery of nothing been so heralded. Even the ostensible purpose of the trip—to demonstrate that the Soviet New Man would not inherit the Earth—hardly seemed to matter once human feet hit lunar dirt.
Apollo soon earned the kind of literary canon reserved for major wars, with thousands of works produced ranging from pop-up books to solid institutional histories. For Walter McDougall, military service in Southeast Asia in the summer of 1969 provided little respite for contemplating interplanetary spaceflight. His Pulitzer Prize– and Dexter Prize–winning 1985 [End Page 449] political history of the early years of the space age (and warnings of its consequences for the American polity), . . . the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, informs virtually every history of the subject written since.2 So does Tom Wolfe's uproarious The Right Stuff, disabusing people of their illusions about America's earliest astronauts while still somehow burnishing their reputations.3 In recent years, a spate of biographies and memoirs of astronauts and engineers have further broadened the story of the first great space age.4 And these have been joined by scholarly treatises on Apollo's innovative management, resonance in popular culture, unique workplace, foreign competition, and gendered construction. 5 Meanwhile, popular media have found renewed inspiration in homeric retellings of the Apollo missions themselves, with contributions like Ron Howard's 1995 film Apollo 13, Andrew Chaikin's A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (1994),6 and Tom Hanks's 1998 miniseries adaptation From the Earth to the Moon. These works, if offering little new to experienced space scholars, combined stirring narratives with hyperrealism and visceral awe, a formula that made them hits.
Authors tackling the legacy of Apollo these days must grapple with a literature already so vast that it would seem to leave few historical Moon rocks unturned; new works from Gerard DeGroot and the interplanetary tag team of Francis French and Colin Burgess confront this problem in different ways. For DeGroot, trawling through libraries for evidence of the collective insanity of lunar flight in Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest, well-worn anecdotes take on a sinister gloss as the characters and motivations of the Moon race are reimagined as less reasoned than they may have once seemed.7 For French and Burgess, the technical and political histories of Project Apollo are the backdrop for [End Page 450] the almost mythic accounts of participating individuals, whose recollections the authors exhaustively compile and lavishly annotate for In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965–1969 . 8
Until Dark Side of the Moon came along, freeing people of their illusions about Apollo appeared to be going out of style; spaceflight historiography had mostly wrested free of the cold war. Lest we forget that Apollo was expensive and pointless, though, DeGroot reminds readers of the paranoia that spawned the Moon race and the zeal that sustained it. Like "two bald men fighting over a comb," DeGroot writes (p. xiii), the United States and Soviet Union expended vast sums in the 1960s pursuing a goal with no intrinsic worth to either of...