In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo program, Zenith Books has published two books that are perfect for space enthusiasts.
The first, a re-release of 2002's Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon covers the complete Apollo program from its inception in 1963 to its final mission in 1972 as well as a good deal of background information on the history of rocketry, including the German rocket program and America's pre-Apollo Mercury and Gemini programs.
Apollo does a good job of recounting the technological and political history of the moon program, but the most interesting part of the story is the depiction of Werner von Braun as a consummate promoter and salesman for rocketry and space exploration.
In The Right Stuff, the Mercury astronauts famously establish the minimum ratio of bucks to Buck Rogers. You get none of the latter without plenty of the former. While the German rocket scientists saw the astronauts as nothing more than glorified space monkeys, the men saw themselves as iconographic heroes of America's new shining age. More importantly, they knew that the public wanted to see them that way as well, and would keep signing the checks so long as they kept delivering the space heroes. The only thing more essential to space exploration than rocket fuel is funding.
Apollo establishes this same equation from von Braun's point of view. Long before the American space program was up on its feet, von Braun knew that the initiative would rise or fall on media optics. He took his team to see science fiction movies about space exploration and impressed upon them that America was not Nazi Germany: advanced programs weren't funded by the triumph of the dear leader's will. In America, public opinion drove leadership, not the other way around. The public all wanted to see Buck Rogers, and that's what the rocket engineering team had to deliver.
Far from the driven but politically naive German technician of The Right Stuff, Apollo's von Braun is part PT Barnum, part Henry Ford and part Cecil B. DeMille. This multi-layered, media-savvy, psychologically manipulative von Braun is closer to the Thomas Pynchon version than the Tom Wolfe version, and it makes for an entertaining and enlightening read.
For more technically minded readers, Zenith offers Apollo 13: Owners' Workshop Manual by David Baker. Baker, a veteran of both the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs and former editor of Jane's Space Directory, tells the story of Apollo's most famously problematic moonshot with a fascinating combination of technical details, human drama and political reality.
Apollo 13 unfolds like a taught techno-thriller. In telling the story, Baker moves from from the flight planning stage through the launch, to the post-"problem" improvisations and the post-mission failure investigation, covering every conceivable detail of the mission, from the issues with this or that o-ring to the operation of the on-board computer to the coffee break schedule in Mission control to President Nixon's diplomatic schedule without ever allowing the pace of the story to drag.
Throughout the book, Baker emphasizes both the immense complexity and immense precision of the Apollo program. If you've ever watched Ed Harris' go/no-go sound off in Ron Howard's Apollo 13 and wondered just what all went into putting all those systems together, Baker is the guy who can tell you. Because he kept all the receipts.
Jason Shankel is a writer and creative director from San Francisco for whom failure is not an option. It's a standard feature.