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"If you don't build things, you don't know HOW to build things"
on 1 September 2009
A great big brick of a book telling the story of America's quest to put a man on the moon in nearly 600 pages could seem quite intimidating, but it is a great read and never gets dull or outstays its welcome. The style is very free-flowing and takes you through the Apollo programme mission-by-mission introducing the main players and the main achievements and disappointments as you go along and you are left with a really excellent feeling of how the whole amazing enterprise was put together and executed by a group of brave and clever people whose contribution to the expansion of human knowledge and the development of modern technologies is sometimes rather overlooked nowadays.
Technically, of course, it is three books in one as that is how the text is split up. Book one takes us through from the dreadful catastrophe of Apollo 1 through the various steps along the way towards the soaring success of Apollo 11 and the quite amazing technological leaps that had to be made to make that possible. Book two takes us through the middle "consolidation" period of lunar exploration with Apollo Missions 12-14 and includes dramatic descriptions of the ill-fated Apollo 13 which many people now regard as NASA's "most shining moment". Book three covers the astonishing successes of the last three moon landings, Apollo Missions 15-17, building on what had been achieved before and slowly uncovering more and more about the fascinating geology of the moon and leaving you with a slight sense of loss that the programme was not allowed to continue - not least when you discover what the Moon could still offer us in terms of solutions to our energy crisis for example - if only we'd been brave enough to stretch our minds to the possibilities on offer to us.
The book finishes with an epilogue telling where the former Astronauts were in their lives at the time of original publication back in 1994. This is a very thought-provoking and insightful piece which maybe should have been updated for the new edition in 2009, but wasn't. Possibly, as some of the main players involved are now no longer with us, it is more meaningful to remember them as they were then, but some kind of acknowledgement that time has once again moved on might have helped clarify things a little to a new audience. Nonetheless, a lot of what those Astronauts had to say was very meaningful and Ken Mattingly's comments about the lack of continuance in the engineering process ("If you don't build things, you don't know HOW to build things") seems to sum up the frustrations felt by many former key players from that generation.
The appendices are very useful giving all the biographical details of the various astronauts and a list of the relevant data of each of the Apollo missions in a handy "list" format which is useful to have. All-in-all this is a very satisfying and beautifully written book to have as an overview of this most fascinating of human achievements.