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The Space Review: Review: Chasing the Moon

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Chasing the Moon: The People, the Politics, and the Promise That Launched America into the Space Age
by Robert Stone and Alan Andres
Ballatine, 2019
hardcover, 384 pp., Illus
ISBN 978-1

US $ 32.00

As the 50th anniversary celebrations of Apollo 11 reach their crescendo this month, television is getting into the act. A number of documentaries is scheduled for the coming weeks, such as a version of the Apollo 11 movie that appeared in theaters earlier this year (see "Review: Apollo 11", The Space Review, March 4, 2019) will be on CNN July 20. PBS, meanwhile, is airing a three-night, six-hour documentary, starting July 9, as part of its American Experience series called Chasing the Moon that examines the events that led to Apollo 11.

Accompanying that series is a book, also called Chasing the Moon by filmmaker Robert Stone and Alan Andres, who served as a consulting producer and researcher for the series. That book treads familiar ground in its overview of Apollo, but does so in a way that should be interesting to those who know much of that history already.

The book's subtitle notes are emphasis on "the people, the politics, and the promise" of going to the Moon. That is an accurate assessment of the book's contents, which focuses on personalities and policy versus science and technology. Looking for a detailed technical analysis of the development of the Saturn or the Lunar Module, or the science that the lunar landings and the samples they returned enabled, this is not the book for you.

Clarke's interest in spaceflight started with a book he got as a teen titled The Conquest of Space by David Lasser, whose career was primarily spent in organized labor and had a bid to get a government job derailed in the 1940s when a congressman described him as a "crackpot with mental delusions that we can travel to the moon!"

If, though, you are curious about the people who made Apollo possible, this is an engaging book. Chasing the Moon focuses some attention, as you would expect, on key individuals in the program, from Wernher von Braun and NASA administrator James Webb to the Apollo 11 astronauts. However, the book also devoted attention to some of the lesser known, more tangential figures who were either involved in Apollo or influenced in some way: science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, NASA public affairs head Julian Scheer, and Poppy Northcutt, the first woman to work in Mission Control during Apollo.

The book does not offer much in the way of revelations about the program or people involved, at least for those people who have read their fair share of Apollo historically. However, the book does help establish the human dimension of what has been described as a political and technical achievement. Clarke, for example, had his interest in spaceflight started by a book he got as a teen titled The Conquest of Space by David Lasser, whose career was primarily spent in organized labor and had a bid to get a government shave, who joined NASA after working as a newspaper reporter who covered the civil rights movement, helped administrator Thomas Paine defuse to the Moon! demonstration by civil rights activists outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center the day before Apollo 11's liftoff; he also has a second career as a children's book author.

The book, of course, touches upon the bigger, better known issues and controversies as well, such as von Braun's Nazi and the political debates about the race to the Moon, including those that came after the Apollo 1 disaster in 1967 The emphasis is, as with other aspects of the book, not the rockets and spacecraft, or the missions they have, but rather the people who made it possible. That makes this book — and, presumably, the documentary that it supports — a useful counterpart to the other histories, including those published this year, focused primarily on the big names and the big rockets.

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