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A Man on the Moon and Apollo: The Race to the Moon are among the now-classic accounts of the Apollo program.

Apollo 11’s greatest hits and misses: a short reader’s guide

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Members of the space community are eagerly devouring the spate of new books and documentaries marking the fifty-year Apollo anniversaries, some of them noted here at The Space Review. At the same time for many others, these new accounts represent their introduction to the Apollo story.

Most likely, some of these new contributions to the literature will stand the test of time, while others will end up in the bargain bin.

Thirty years after its initial publication, Apollo is still widely regarded as the best account of the program ever written.

So, to guide the reader new to Apollo—and as fodder for the endless debates for the old-timers—the following is a short list of the best, the essential, Apollo accounts that have endured. This list is by no means complete, but intends to provide an introduction to the Moon missions themselves, the men behind the scenes who made them a success, and the best first-hand accounts and biographies of the Apollo 11 crew.

Finally, as a cautionary tale, we will revisit two books that should be avoided at all costs.

The hits

A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin. Viking, 1994.

Chaikin interviewed all 23 surviving astronauts who flew to the Moon and made use of the newly released (at the time) classified onboard voice recorders to produce this well researched account of all the Apollo lunar missions. His meticulous scholarship is evident in his readable narrative. That Chaikin’s book was used as the basis for the acclaimed Tom Hanks-produced HBO series From the Earth to the Moon is a measure of this book’s stature. For one reading about Apollo for the first time, this is the best place to start.

Apollo: The Race to the Moon by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox. Simon and Schuster, 1989. Reprinted with a new introduction as Apollo, South Mountain Books, 2004.

Thirty years after its initial publication, Apollo is still widely regarded as the best account of the program ever written. Murray and Cox eloquently tell the story of the men behind the scenes who worked tirelessly for nearly a decade to fulfill Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the Moon. Based on interviews with dozens of Apollo workers, Murray and Cox tell their stories with wit, insight, intelligence, and elegance. The chapter on the first Saturn V launch is perhaps the most riveting and evocative narrative of that crucial milestone, and my personal favorite (see “‘And then on launch day it worked’: Marking the 50th anniversary of the first Saturn V launch”, The Space Review, October 30, 2017). If you’re going to read just one Apollo history, this one is it.

Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys by Michael Collins. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974.

Collins comes across in his autobiography as an affable, self-effacing Everyman who is training as Command Module Pilot for the first Moon landing mission while worrying whether his roses have blackspot. Not exactly what you expect from the Right Stuff guys, but Collins is clearly his own man, comfortable in his own skin, even if he’s risking it to go to the Moon. He memorably provides one sentence critiques of his fellow astronauts (“Pete Conrad should play Pete Conrad in a Pete Conrad movie”) and gives the best first-hand account of what it was like to fly a Gemini mission: his Gemini 10 flight (see also Collins’s more detailed, expanded account in his later book Liftoff, Grove Press, 1988).

First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen. Simon and Schuster, 2005.

Forget all those one-sentence five-star reviews on Amazon: Rocket Men is the worst space history ever published.

Neil Armstrong died unexpectedly in 2012, but thankfully, not before James Hansen completed his biography that captures a life in full of the famously reticent astronaut. From naval aviator to X-15 test pilot and on through Gemini and his history-making Apollo mission, Hansen gives the reader Armstrong the man—not just The First Man on the Moon but, equally important, Hansen humanizes Armstrong. In his lifetime Armstrong had inevitably passed into mythology. But Hansen’s personal rendering makes one not only appreciate Armstrong as a singular human being but also how fortuitous it was that a supremely competent pilot, yet self-effacing man, ended up the perfect choice to become the first man to set foot upon the Moon. It was a responsibility—and a burden—that Armstrong carried with grace for the rest of his life. This book is the basis for the 2018 biopic of the same name.

…And the misses

Every genre, every subject has its classics and its clunkers, and Apollo is no exception. But there are two books that are so terribly written, so riddled with errors of fact and interpretation, that they vie for the dubious distinction of Worst Space History Ever Written.

They are:

Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon by Craig Nelson. Viking, 2009.

Forget all those one-sentence five-star reviews on Amazon: Rocket Men is the worst space history ever published. Nelson packs so many factual errors as well as what one reviewer aptly termed “techno-babble” into his account of Apollo 11 that one wonders how such a train wreck of a book could have ever passed the scrutiny of his editors, much less fact-checkers.

The howlers in Nelson’s mangled account have become legendary: Neil Armstrong logged 4,000 hours in the X-15? (Do the math on that one: a ten-minute X-15 flight divided into 4,000 hours equates to 24,000 flights for a program that flew a total of 199 times.) Or his fantastical account of the first Saturn V launch where “two F-1 engines abruptly quit during liftoff,” sending the Saturn hurtling back to the ground until the guidance system straightened it out. I’m still waiting for that footage of the Saturn V pulling a loop-de-loop. The clueless list of errors goes on and on.

Needless to say, if Nelson’s dismal account is your introduction to space history, your head will be filled with nothing but misinformation. (For a more detailed critique, see “Don’t know much about history: Setting the Record Straight on Rocket Men,” The Space Review, May 24, 2010.) Avoid at all costs, unless it satisfies your sense of schadenfreude. (Note: Do not confuse Nelson’s Rocket Men with Robert Kurson’s well-received 2018 account of Apollo 8 that inexplicably recycles the same title.)

For All Mankind by Harry Hurt III. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988.

Hurt’s equally dismal book adumbrates Nelson’s by two full decades and is an equally clueless, mangled account that leaves a knowledgeable reader shaking his head. Filled with incorrect dates, more factual errors and, yes, more techno-babble, it disappoints doubly as it was initially published as the companion book to the late Al Reinert’s acclaimed documentary of the same name. How Reinert could have produced a such superb film that still holds up well today while Hurt’s book is such a shambles is a literary mystery.

But it gets worse: The publisher currently plans to release a new edition, “updated with a new introduction by the author,” scheduled for release on July 16, the Apollo 11 launch anniversary. Two like-minded colleagues and I have repeatedly written to the publisher offering to fact-check the new edition. We have received no response. It remains uncertain whether this new edition will fix the multitude of errors or simply reprint them. Caveat emptor.

Bibliographic note: Most of these titles are out of print, and many of the OP prices for copies on Amazon or eBay have reached exorbitant levels. But all are held by public libraries worldwide. If your local library doesn’t own a copy, ask them to order it for you on interlibrary loan.

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