Apollo 11: The Inside Story - book review

Apollo 11: The Inside Story - book review
Harrison Schmitt is retrieving lunar samples during the Apollo 17 mission.

July 20, 2019, the 50th anniversary of the first manned Moon landing. David Whitehouse's Apollo 11: The Inside Story is one of the many books inspired by this golden anniversary. It not only takes us behind the scenes at NASA, but also shows us the space race as a battlefront in the Cold War.

The author and the book
Whitehouse began his career as a professional astronomer, and then became a broadcast journalist before going on to provide extensive science coverage for newspapers. He covered the US space program for the BBC in the Apollo days, and as well as meeting all of the Apollo astronauts, he interviewed most of them.

The title is a bit misleading. The book isn't a detailed account of the Apollo 11 mission. It begins with rocketry enthusiasts and takes us via World War II to the main event, the Cold War space race. I found this interesting, but it might disappoint anyone looking for a book specifically about the ins and outs of Apollo 11.

There were visionaries like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who formulated principles of rocketry and space travel even before the first airplane got off the ground. And alas, the first long-range rockets were sent from Nazi Germany to other countries, not space. The creations of rocket enthusiast Wernher von Braun caused several thousand deaths and injuries. But post-war, Americans were keen to gain his expertise. He and many of his colleagues made it to the USA, the less fortunate ones ended up in the USSR.

Rockets don't have to be missiles to be weapons
With World War II over, the USA and the USSR – formerly allies – eyed each other warily. Both sides wanted to show the nonaligned world that their system was best. Although the communists and the capitalists worked on their long-range missiles, they also came to realise the propaganda value of demonstrating their superiority in space.

Von Braun became a key player for the capitalist team. The Saturn V vehicle that took Apollo missions to the Moon was developed from his V2 rocket. The USSR's leading light, rocket enthusiast and talented engineer Sergei Korolev, had been imprisoned, tortured and sent to a gulag under Stalin. Fortunately for him, that all changed. He even became a state secret referred to simply as the Chief Designer. The powers-that-be feared that he could be an assassination target.

Who's winning?
The book takes us back and forth between the USA and the USSR, showing successes and failures in each space program and how each side was determined to win.

Korolev didn't have the resources he needed, but he cleverly made do with what he had. (The first cosmonauts parachuted back to Earth because it wasn't safe to land in the spacecraft.) His basic strategy was to do it first. Sputnik, the first satellite in orbit, was pretty basic, but it got the Americans in a panic. What if it carried weapons overhead, rather than just orbiting and beeping?

Sputnik was followed by a dog in space, then the first man, and later the first woman. And the sky wasn't the limit, because they not only sent the first successful lunar probe, but also managed the coup of giving humanity its first ever view of the far side of the Moon.

The USA was frustrated at every turn, but were working methodically to increase their knowledge and develop their spacecraft and equipment. But if Korolev was a bit reckless, some thought the USA was too cautious. A delay in Alan Shepard's flight, which the Mercury astronauts believed unnecessary, meant that Gagarin – not Shepard – was first into space.

Death on the launchpad
I had never fully grasped what a shambles NASA was when a fire took the lives of three Apollo astronauts on the launchpad during a launch rehearsal. The investigations found a project whose project management was appalling, lacking the necessary checks, controls, protocols, documentation, or lines of authority.

But the outcome of these three deaths was to shake up NASA and set it straight and on course to make Apollo the tremendous achievement that it was. Yet I felt sad to think that when people talk disapprovingly about the high cost of Apollo, they're only referring to the dollars.

The good, the quibbles, and the verdict
I had only two difficulties with the book. The first is a quibble. Sometimes those involved in the space program tell the story, presumably as taken from Whitehouse's interview archives. A good idea, but I found these bits rather dull compared to the rest of the narrative.

The book spans several decades, and my second problem was trying to remember who was who, especially – but not exclusively – on the Soviet side. There's supposed be an index and notes, and I hope this would solve the problem for any other puzzled reader. However the review copy didn't include them, so I'm not able to say how helpful they are.

Did you know that of the people alive today only about 20% of us were alive when Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon? A surprising thought. No wonder so many people seem ready to believe Moon hoaxers. But Whitehead's evocation of the tensions of the Cold War, and the desperate desire of the USSR to win that war, support the reality of Apollo in a way that doesn't need technical details.

My verdict: Thumbs up for a fascinating account by an experienced communicator and knowledgeable witness to history.

David Whitehouse, Apollo 11: The Inside Story, Icon Books Ltd, 2019

Note: I obtained the book as a review copy from Astronomy Now who received it from the publisher.



You Should Also Read:
In the Shadow of the Moon
Cosmonauts – Birth of the Space Age
Carrying the Fire

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Content copyright © 2018 by Mona Evans. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Mona Evans. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Mona Evans for details.