Saturday, September 25, 2021

Reading | A Man On The Moon and Apollo 13

A Man On The Moon | Andrew Chaikin

In spellbinding stories and neat, clean prose, Chaikin offers a brief prologue to the American space program, then dives in earnest to the Apollo missions. The moon landings. Just as each real-life mission built upon the successes of past missions, so does Chaikin build each spaceflight upon the others, leaving out the details that read more or less the same, and zeroing in on what made each voyage unique. Yes, there are some technical bits about lift-to-drag ratios and mid-course corrections, but Chaikin is at his best when he describes in vivid detail the particular landscapes where the astronauts landed, the different tasks they performed, and best of all, the colorful personalities of the moonwalkers and the fascinating dynamics of their lunar partnerships. A delightful, enjoyable ride.

Apollo 13 | Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger

Yes, this is the nearly disastrous mission where the oxygen tank exploded with the three astronauts already well on their way to the moon, and their wildly dangerous but ultimately successful trip back home. Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell gets a well-deserved author credit for living to tell his story, but it's Jeffrey Kluger, his writer, who truly makes the story sing. Deftly weaving together terse technical details and terrifying plot developments, Kluger focuses on the considerable positive vibes and the profound sense of teamwork that bound together all the major players in the crisis, both in space and on the ground, and tells the story - especially the last sweet notes - with aching tenderness and sensitivity.

* * * * *

By now, you may be worried about me and this eight-months-and-counting space obsession of mine. Not only am I reading non-stop about Apollo but I think about the players and plot points of this fascinating space drama every waking moment. My conversations are peppered with references to the moon missions and my family members roll their collective eyes every time - and it is often - I start a sentence by saying, "You know, the astronauts used to (fill in fascinating tidbit here)."

But dash gummit, the space race generated truly amazing and action-packed stories, and these two books in particular relay those details in fresh, interesting ways. And you don't have to take just my word for it - both books caught the attention of Ron Howard and Tom Hanks, master storytellers of our times, and under their guidance made the weird and distorted giant leap into film. 

Co-produced by Hanks, Howard and others, Chaikin's A Man On The Moon was developed into a 12-part HBO mini-series called From Earth To the Moon that employs perhaps a few too many artistic contrivances but is recognized as a highly accurate telling of Apollo story. And Hollywood's legendary Apollo 13 movie, directed by Howard and starring Hanks, earns kudos for its technical accuracy, even if it portrays the crew bickering and the ground team grandstanding to extremes that fall far outside the tight rein that the real players kept on their emotions. 

So sure, if you're looking for a place to dig in to the delicious banquet that is Apollo, by all means watch the miniseries and the movie to get a taste for the great adventure. Please take them with a grain of salt. Then do yourself a huge favor and get your hands on these books, so you can truly feast on the stories that charmed us all, Ron and Tom and me. 

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