I received several good comments and e-mails from my post of a few days ago regarding things to read and watch about the moon landing and the space program. Thanks to all who submitted your thoughts. As a result, here are a few more books, movies, and documentaries for armchair astronauts to explore:
Naturally, The Right Stuff is a real classic. Tom Wolfe’s prose captures the devil-may-care zeitgeist of the early days of the space program. But for my money the film — (The Two-Disc Special Edition is a good version) — really evokes the spirit of the times… and the cast is incredible — especially Ed Harris as John Glenn and Dennis Quaid as Gordo Cooper. (And I still can’t believe the movie lost Best Picture to Terms of Endearment… geez.)
But as Craig Nelson writes in the excellent new Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon:
Instead of the recurring myth of a great and raging NASA battle between astronauts and engineers, during the Apollo era, astronauts were engineers, and engineers, pushing the program forward through a risky series of missions, had as much cowboy sensibility as any flier. Though Tom Wolfe may have accurately captured something of the character of the men and women of Project Mercury, by the time of Apollo, The Right Stuff would be wrong.
To understand better the contrasts of the Mercury and Apollo eras, look no further than the biographies Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard and First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.
The former is about the first American in space; the latter, the first man on the moon.
Shepard, with his forceful persona, embodied the swashbuckling nature of the Mercury missions — a character that emerged a decade later on Apollo 14 as he became the first man to swing a golf club on the moon (fun fact: Shepard was originally slated to fly on the “successful failure” Apollo 13 mission, but he swapped slots in order to have more time to train). Armstrong, taciturn and icily-focused, was a test pilot (he was one of a handful to fly the X-15) and engineer who quietly but commandingly led the Apollo 11 crew through its mission with history. Shepard is undoubtedly the more colorful character, and consequently his story is more engrossing; but Armstrong’s tale is fascinating nonetheless.
For a better understanding of what the whole moon experience was like, Voices from the Moon: Apollo Astronauts Describe Their Lunar Experiences tells the tale in words and pictures. It’s by Andrew Chaikin, who has already written the definitive history of the Apollo program.
On the video front (in addition to the documentary I wrote of previously, In the Shadow of the Moon), one poster recommends — and I strongly agree — For All Mankind, a 1989 documentary by Al Reinert. It is one of the few documentaries that captures both the astonishing technical achievement as well as the sheer emotional poetry of the Apollo program. (I remember this was also one of the first great CD-ROM titles in the early days of computer multimedia.)
Beyond just the Apollo program itself, Discovery has put out a mesmerizing four-disc set covering NASA’s history, When We Left Earth – The NASA Missions. From Mercury through space shuttle, to Hubble and beyond, this is a great journey through the fifty years of NASA achievement.
Finally, for the ultra-minutae-minded, I recommend the entire output of boutique film producer Spacecraft Films. They have issued super-detailed and carefully-crafted documentaries of nearly every Apollo mission, as well as fabulous and comprehensive portraits of the Mercury and Gemini programs. They also offer hardware-intensive films such as one covering the mighty Saturn V rocket. They are soon to release Live from the Moon: The Story of Apollo Television, a two-hour documentary of the moon missions as we saw them at home.
Have more suggestions? Please let me know.