Monday, March 1, 2010

Binary Moon: two views of the Apollo Missions

Alan Shepard & Deke Slayton were two of the original intake of astronauts for the American space program. Shepard was the first American into space but soon after was removed from active flight duty due to an ear problem that affected his balance. Slayton was also removed from flight duty because of a minor heart problem. These two men remained with NASA as managers of the astronaut department

The writing of Moon Shot is credited to Shepard and Slayton but its writing had a significant contribution from Jay Barbree and Howard Benedict, journalists with a background in aerospace reporting.

Moon Shot gives a good general (and brief) coverage of the space race of the 1960s – early 70s, with a more detailed concentration on the roles of Shepard and Slayton and how they overcame their health issues to be reinstated to active flight service. Shepard was reinstated in time to command Apollo 14 and become the 5th man to walk on the moon. Slayton missed out on a moon mission and barely scraped into the last pre-shuttle mission, a joint USA- USSR flight in which the rendezvous and docking of the two nations' craft was achieved.

I read the book immediately after Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon and my reading experience suffered because of it. Chaikin’s book is much more detailed and to my mind much better written. He interviewed almost every surviving astronaut from the Apollo era as well as their wives and many of those behind the scenes. His descriptions of events and memories were written using information gained from these interviews but without the obvious flights of imagination used in Moon Shot.

In my previous post I mentioned the Moon Shot account of the first moon landing which gives an imaginative description of Neil Armstrong’s eyes as “tired but warm with anticipation”.
This was only one example of what marred the book. How about this description of the separation of the stages of a rocket?
“Explosive charges blew apart the two stages with all the velvety touch of a locomotive thundering off a high trestle to roll down a rocky slope”.

I also found that parts of the book were over-sentimentalised and soap-opera like. Yes, I’m sure that astronauts and their families did experience some strong emotions – but those feelings could have been explored with greater skill than was utilised.

In my previous post I described the book’s style as “new journalism gone mad”. So much was written that was not based on obtainable fact or observation – so much imaginative speculation was presented as fact (as in the Armstrong eyes example). “New Journalism” at its best gives literary style to description without resorting to unverifiable detail. At times it might get into the head of a “character” and explore his/her thoughts and emotions, but the exploration needs to be based on substantial evidence from interview with (and observation of) the person being portrayed.

In contrast, I don’t know whether there could be a better book of its type than Chaikin’s. It addresses the major developments in the space programme from the beginning through to the climax of the moon missions, examining every moon landing (and the aborted Apollo 13 flight) with enough detail to highlight the individual achievements of each Apollo crew.
The book provided the basis for Tom Hank’s mini series From the Earth to the Moon.

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