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Review: Reaching for the Moon

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Reaching for the Moon: A Short History of the Space Race
by Roger D. Launius
Yale Univ. Press, 2019
hardcover, 256 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-300-23046-8

Well, we’ve almost made it: we’re near the end of all the events associated with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. The last several days saw the celebrations reach their climax, from a stunning show on the National Mall that projected the Saturn V and other imagery onto the Washington Monument, to events in Florida, Houston, Huntsville, and elsewhere. A few more are planned in the coming days to mark the successful return to Earth of the spacecraft and its three astronauts, but that will be about it for the mission—and for Apollo itself for the most part, since the subsequent missions, with the possible exception of Apollo 13, are unlikely to attract much public attention.

That makes Reaching for the Moon as good a book as any to, well, bookend the coverage of the books published for the Apollo 11 50th anniversary. Roger Launius, one of the leading space historians, has already written one book about Apollo, Apollo’s Legacy (see “Review: Apollo’s Legacy”, The Space Review, May 20, 2019) that offered perspectives on various aspects of the program and the original Space Race with the Soviet Union. This book is more of a basic history, but one that includes much of the thoughtful analysis of that other book.

Was Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon a “rational, pragmatic choice,” or did his background lead him to choose “a more combative approach towards the Soviet Union than required”?

Reaching for the Moon follows a chronological approach to the history of the Space Race, starting with the pre-history of efforts in the United States and Soviet Union to launch the first satellites and going through the Apollo missions to the Moon. In chapters in between, he touches on topics ranging from the selection of the Mercury 7 astronauts, Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon, and the development of the Apollo spacecraft and Saturn V rocket, along with the ultimately unsuccessful Soviet efforts to send men to the Moon.

The book, though, is not just a straightforward history of the Space Race. Launius analyzes many aspects of that effort, like Kennedy’s decision to make a human lunar landing the goal for the nation’s space efforts in the spring of 1961. Was it a “rational, pragmatic choice” as the best way the US could compete with the USSR given the Soviets’ early successes, as many have argued? Or, perhaps, “Kennedy’s tortured background and aggressive tendencies affected his decision making, causing him to take a more combative approach towards the Soviet Union than required.” In any case, Launius argues, the “illusion of the ‘golden age’ of Apollo has been difficult to overcome, and moving beyond the Apollo program to embrace future opportunities has been equally difficult.”

There is some overlap in the material in Reaching for the Moon with Apollo’s Legacy, such as in some of the analyses of Apollo, but the two books are distinct texts that serve different, but related, purposes. This book is particularly well suited for those who have only modest knowledge about the Space Race but want to learn more, and put that knowledge in a critical context versus simply memorizing names and launch dates. “The symbolism of the space race has held special appeal for the true believers of space exploration,” he writes in the book’s conclusion, arguing that those people believed space deserved “special consideration” that has, in large part, been lacking in the last half-century. “There is,” he concludes, “no second space race in the foreseeable future.”

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