Half a century ago, humans landed on the moon for the first time. Here are some great books about events before, during, and afterwards.
“Amazing Stories of the Space Age: True Tales of Nazis in Orbit, Soldiers on the Moon, Orphaned Martian Robots, and Other Fascinating Accounts from the Annals of Spaceflight,” Rod Pyle, 2017.
When the space travel of science fiction became a reality, many outlandish, risky, and sometimes foolhardy ideas seized the imaginations of individuals and world superpowers. Most of the wilder ideas never progressed further than paper studies. Some of the most impossible-sounding dreams, however, happened. Rod Pyle skillfully guides us through both major moments and forgotten corners of spaceflight triumphs and tragedies with a sense of entertaining drama, and reminds us that the “impossible” can be anything but.
“We Came in Peace for All Mankind: The Untold Story of the Apollo 11 Silicon Disc,” Tahir Rahman, 2008.
I enjoyed this book as, instead of being too narrowly focused (as a story about one little object might sound at first), it tells the story of a tiny disc left on the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts as just one symbolic element of the first mission to the lunar surface. Not just for the committed space-geek, this book does a good job of conveying some of the wonder of that first lunar landing mission, both in words and in beautiful full-page images. As a snapshot of the world of 1969, it is fascinating.
The disc, intended as a symbolic gesture, turns out to tell many more stories than its original intention, and in many ways summarizes the whole venture. As the book describes the rush to add last-minute messages to the disc, hurriedly collecting messages from world leaders, so we come to understand the tensions between science, engineering, PR and politics that were taking place in the busy run-up to the Apollo 11 launch. Some arguments, such as whether to include religious wording to symbolic statements, sound very familiar to some current political debates.
The political reasoning behind some of the messages, and also why some nations declined involvement, gives an interesting insight into late-1960s global politics. It's very interesting to read all of the messages themselves as a reflection of the times. Some of the blandest statements come from the major powers on the world stage, with smaller countries such as Liberia, Guyana, the Ivory Coast, Trinidad and Tobago providing some of the most thought-provoking words as they decide how to claim their own little intellectual corner of the mission. The messages come from countries which in many cases no longer exist or have been renamed, from leaders long gone, long deposed, and in many cases long discredited. Very few of the heads of state, such as Queen Elizabeth II, are still around.
Without any commentary, the end of the book is nevertheless perhaps the most powerful part. Giving a brief biography of each of the leaders whose words appear on the disc, in many cases we are treated to a rogue's gallery of dictators, coup winners, corrupt tyrants and those who went on to murky and inglorious ends. A good portion of the leaders are people who, today, we may view as the last names we'd want representing humankind in a message to the future. While aiming for a high purpose, the disc therefore also inadvertently summarizes what a messy and imperfect world we lived in in 1969. Perhaps, in doing so, it gives extra luster to the Apollo 11 mission itself, which managed to reach above its Cold War origins and achieve something for all humankind. A very interesting work, presented in beautiful form.
“From Tajikistan To The Moon: A Story of Tragedy, Survival and Triumph of the Human Spirit,” Robert Frimtzis, 2012.
Some years ago, I met one of the most self-assured, outwardly serene and happy people I have ever met. Robert Frimtzis was born a Moldovan Jew in 1930 and escaped first the ravages of Nazi invasion, then anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, by walking thousands of miles, near-starved, to escape persecution. He finally ended up in the United States, where, as he relates, within a few short years he was doing important work with people such as Neil Armstrong on the simulators that were vital for training to fly to the moon. This wasn't the only space program he worked on. If you're looking for a whole bunch of insight on the space program (which is my primary reading interest), this isn't really the book. But to learn more about how immigrants to this country made vital contributions, and how some seemingly ordinary people may be outstanding examples of courage, forgiveness, and perseverance, read this book. It's one heck of a life story. How someone can make the best of life and be as happy as he apparently is, having lived through so much, is remarkable.
“Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space,” Lynn Sherr, 2014.
This is a book I never thought I would see - certainly a book that never would have been written by Sally Ride (disclaimer: my former boss) herself, or published during her lifetime. She was an intensely private person, and there are stories here that could never have been told until now. Other books written about someone after they pass away can suffer from having no access to the subject. This book, written by someone who knew her as well as anyone was allowed to, offers a great deal of personal insight, and greatly benefits from first-hand access to her papers, plus conversations with her closest friends and family. Unlike many authorized and family-approved books, it does not flinch from describing both the positive and negative sides of a complex personality who didn't please everyone she came in contact with. It's an honest, intensely readable and deeply fascinating book. And as all those who knew and worked with Sally Ride that I have heard from have said - this book really nails it.
“The Cosmonaut Who Couldn't Stop Smiling: The Life and Legend of Yuri Gagarin,” Andrew Jenks, 2012.
As a very informative and also entertainingly written account of the very first person to travel into space, I would highly recommend this book. It is a fascinating read, with new and original research within Russia and from Russian-language-only sources, something few other English-language books about this era have done. It's new and original, which makes it so refreshing.
Jenks not only gives a great description of Gagarin's life and flight, he also makes a concerted effort to get behind the myths that have grown up since around the man. I learned a lot, and it is a book I will enjoy rereading, I know.