A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts

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Up and Down

This book is a fascinating fly-on-the-wall panorama of the extraordinary efforts made by NASA to land a man on the moon before the onset of the year 1970, and then the subsequent missions in the early 70s.

You look up at the big moon in the sky and it doesn’t look all that far away, but if the earth was a basketball, then the moon would be a baseball a distant 23 feet away, or a quarter of a million miles to full scale. And the technology available to get the astronauts there (and back) was fairly rudimentary by today’s standards; all foil, duct tape and steaming, simmering rocket fuel. The computer on board Apollo 11 contained less hardware than a pocket calculator, with a paltry 64 kilobytes of memory.

This book takes you through all the missions leading up to the 1969 moon landing (and beyond), and it becomes clear that the men inside the rockets were taking a very big risk every time they sat on those colossal vats of liquid hydrogen and got blasted into space. Manoeuvring out of earth orbit and then into lunar orbit required very precise burns of this rocket fuel to alter their speed and direction, and if these were miscalculated or if there was a malfunction, then they would have drifted into the blackness of space until their oxygen fizzled out, like Major Tom.

And the glamour of space flight loses some of its gloss when you hear the graphic descriptions of globules of urine, vomit and diarrhoea meandering randomly around the cabin. After several days cooped up inside the cabin the smell got so bad that one navy swimmer who released the astronauts from their command module in the Pacific Ocean wretched when he opened the hatch.

But there is also the sheer amazing exuberance of that first historic walk out onto the lunar surface. With Armstrong and Aldrin; two serious, highly intelligent and rigorously trained aviators bouncing around in the moon’s one sixth gravity like toddlers on a trampoline, and the surrealism of them being so ridiculously far away and so isolated, and yet being watched by 600 million viewers on live TV and having a phone chat with President Nixon. It’s so bizarre that it’s no wonder there are some cretins who think the whole thing was a hoax.

Like the moon, this story waxes and wanes in cycles of climax (the first moon landing and the Apollo 13 near-disaster) and anti-climax (Apollo 12, the second moon mission and Apollos 14-17, when moon geology becomes the main focus and the Apollo programme just gradually peters out). But despite these anti-climaxes, the audiobook tells the full story in rich detail, and you really feel as if you were there on the moon with those first pioneers. Recommended.

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