The Apollo program captured the world’s imagination. And it seemed to all that a golden age of human exploration had been ushered in when Apollo 7 did the first test flight of the command module in 1967. In a way it had, but now, 49 years after Apollo 11, only 5 men who walked on the moon are still alive. The last two, the late Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt, lifted off in 1972. Since then, the Soviet Union gave way to the Russian Federation, Americans and Russians linked up starting with Apollo-Soyuz, then the shuttle and Mir, and now the International Space Station, and China now has a blossoming manned space program. It’s a different world, one where the moon is very much on the minds of public and private space entities.
But Apollo was something special, as shown in Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon. The book was originally published in the 1990s and begun when Apollo 13 Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert died. Swigert died young, That left 32 astronauts who had flown Apollo, 27 of whom went to the moon, and 12 who walked on it. They weren’t getting younger, and their mentor/boss Deke Slayton, one of the original Mercury 7, would be gone by the time the book came out. So Chaikin set out to interview all the surviving Apollo crew members. The result earned him a consulting gig on the movie Apollo 13 and this book becoming the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.
Chaikin starts where every history of Apollo must begin: The Fire. In February, 1967, NASA slated what is now dubbed Apollo 1 (there were no Apollos 2 or 3, ironically, just Saturn booster tests) to be the first manned test of the command and service modules. As has been documented over and over, a fire during a ground test killed the astronauts, Mercury and Gemini veteran Gus Grissom, Gemini’s first space walker Ed White, and Apollo rookie Roger Chaffee. It was a sobering wake-up call for NASA to slow down and double check things. What emerges is a portrait of each crew, including those who flew test flights in Earth orbit. Landing on the moon was a challenge, but Apollo 9, the first test of the entire Apollo spacecraft stack, actually taxed its crew the most. The flight elevated commander Jim McDivitt to head of the Apollo Program Office, Dave Scott to commander of Apollo 15, and Rusty Schweickert to a leading role on the ground during the remaining Apollo missions.
Each man who flew had his own personality, but each crew as a whole did as well. As the program began, the astronaut core was composed of three groups, the Mercury 7, now down to 2 from attrition and death, the New Nine – those recruited to fill out the ranks for Gemini, and the Original 19 – a larger group that began emphasizing scientific knowledge more than test pilot skills.
The first two groups were exclusively test pilots, and they showed it. What made Shepard, Schirra, and Cooper great pilots for Mercury did not translate well for Apollo. Grissom did treat his mission like a Gemini mission as he would have been test-flying the Apollo spacecraft in a flight that resembled the Gemini tests. Shepard, grounded since 1962, had to postpone Apollo 14 to adjust to life as a commander on a moon landing. And Gordon Cooper, who flew what many believe was the best Mercury mission of the project, became frustrated and left NASA altogether. Contrast that with Apollo 11. Almost everything Neil Armstrong’s crew did was a first, even with Apollo 10 testing the system in lunar orbit a few months earlier. Armstrong was a sober, mission-minded commander while pilot Mike Collins essentially wrote the book on the command module’s solo flight around the moon. And Buzz Aldrin went from a Sheldon Cooperesque science nerd to the poet of the mission. In reality, Armstrong, who shunned publicity, was the perfect man to place humanity’s first footprint on the moon while Aldrin was and still is the perfect man to document it.
Pete Conrad’s crew turned the moonflight into a comedy, and why not? These three men, Conrad, Dick Gordon, and Alan Bean, had flown together since their test pilot days. They fine-tuned the landing prodedure for Apollo, but they also had more fun than other crews. Later crews began emphasizing what scientists in the back room really wanted. Starting with Apollo 14 (which took over Apollo 13’s original mission due to the service module accident), both test pilot and scientist-astronaut became newly minted geologists, a bit of culture shock for the likes of Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell, but a challenge for John Young, Charlie Duke, and Gene Cernan. The program ended with an actual geologist, Jack Schmitt, landing on the moon and performing what scientists thought was the most productive landing ever.
Chaikin doesn’t talk about it, but one has to look at the last Apollo mission, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, a mission that eventually led to the Shuttle-Mir missions of the 1980s and 1990s. Like Apollo 1, the crew featured one Mercury astronaut (Deke Slayton), one from Gemini (Tom Stafford), and one rookie from the Original 19 (Vance Brand). Perhaps as important symbolically, the Soviets sent up Alexei Leonov, the first human ever to leave his spacecraft in orbit. It’s never said, but Americans and Russians eyeballed each other in the space race, seeing what did and did not work. The Soviets had more go fever than the Americans (Apollo 13 was a missed defect, not a rush job), but each success on one side pushed the other and each failure revealed changes needed in the other’s spacecraft as well. Indeed, the shuttle built the ISS while the Soyuz remains its sole taxi pending Dragon 2’s debut this year.
One could say that Apollo’s been done to death already, especially since the movie Apollo 13 and Tom Hanks’s miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. But as the book and movie Hidden Figures proves, there are still a lot of stories to tell. And they need to be told before this era passes from living memory.