Non-Fiction Reviews

The Apollo Chronicles
Engineering America’s First Moon Missions

(2019) Brandon R. Brown, Oxford University Press, hrdbk, £19.99, xiv + 269 pp, ISBN 978-0-10-68134-0


In total, roughly 400,000 people worked in the Apollo programme. The astronauts, and particularly Neil Armstrong, have always emphasised that their accomplishments were at the pinnacle of a huge organisation whose members’ ingenuity, dedication and perseverance enabled them to do what they did. According to James R. Hansen’s First Man (2nd edition, 2018), Armstrong’s turning away from public life began with his irritation that the attention was focussed on himself rather than allowing him to credit the many others whom he felt that he represented.  Even the other astronauts are now to some extent forgotten, except by enthusiasts, and Rod Pyle’s Heroes of the Space Age was an attempt to redress that.  But even that gives chapters to only two non-astronauts: Mission Controller Gene Kranz, and software engineer Margaret Hamilton.

Brown has attempted to put the missions into the context of the enormous engineering effort which preceded and surrounded them – perhaps going slightly too far, depersonalising the crews by referring to them as simply ‘the astronauts’ in the text and giving their names only in footnotes.  If he was to write what he describes as, “a book that could leave the remaining engineers nodding in approval”, it had to be written now – the key word in that phrase is ‘remaining’. In the early 2000s, I was privileged to attend the annual Charterhouse conferences of the British Rocketry Oral History Programme, which was an effort to record and take down the reminiscences of the comparatively small teams who created Britain’s space and rocket programme (the SR-53, Blue Steel, Black Arrow, Blue Streak and Black Arrow).  To do the same for the pre-Apollo and Apollo programmes would be a near-impossible task: as Brown says in the Preface, “The stories, even the ones we haven’t yet lost, are nearly endless. Any attempt to honour the four hundred thousand minds that pioneered the missions would be as impossible to assemble and write as it would then be to read. You will meet a number of the engineers but avoid long parades of names.”  Although he doesn’t say so and doesn’t include it in the references, I suspect the book he has in mind is Earthbound Astronauts by Beirne J. Lay (Prentice-Hall, 1971) which did attempt to give credit where it was due while the programme was still ongoing, but did consist largely of lists of names and was still far from comprehensive.  Brown’s own father features quite prominently, for the obvious reason that he and his recollections were the most accessible, but as we say in Scotland his book is ‘nane the waur o’ that’ [none the worse for that], and there’s a lot more to it.

Despite the title and subtitle, the book actually begins with the surrender of Wernher von Braun and his colleagues to allied troops at the end of World War 2.  Quite a lot of the book follows their subsequent fortunes, with little emphasis on the home-grown developments at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory – their story makes an interesting parallel recounted in Fraser MacDonald’s Escape from Earth: A Secret History of the Space Rocket (Profile Book, 2019). JPL doesn’t enter Brown’s story until the Ranger, Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter missions of the mid-60s, focussing on Project Mercury as the US response to Sputnik and not reaching the origins of Project Apollo until more than a third of the way through.

In the detailed account of the breakneck race to the Moon which follows, one point that Brown clearly makes is that there was always a feeling that the good times might not last.  He ascribes he unpopular decision to locate the Manned Spacecraft Centre in Houston not to Lyndon Johnson, even though the Centre was named after him, but to the Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee, who was furthering the interests of Rice University, ensuring that the ‘donation’ of the land did not include the oil and gas rights below, and that “the modern, multi-building facility could transition into a college campus after the possibly temporary space programme came to a close”.  More tellingly, despite von Braun’s public optimism, planning Kennedy Space Centre for 30-40 Saturn launches per year, he felt that he had spent the last two years before Apollo 11 not in preparing for it or to follow on from it, but in winding down the facilities, making sure, under orders, that by 1972 the capabilities that had been so painstakingly acquired would all be removed, so that the decision to end the programme could not be rescinded. With it went a lot of the goodwill, which Apollo had gained for the USA around the world.  Perhaps the saddest quotation in the book comes, not from any of the 300,000 who were put out of work when Apollo was cancelled, but from a formal US Naval officer who led an expedition upriver in Cambodia, who was followed by cheering children shouting, “Apollo! Apollo!” because they recognised the flag. “They didn’t know to distrust us yet”.

This book does not tell the whole story, or even attempt to, and much of its material has been published before.  But it’s a very good, comprehensive overview, from a perspective that has been little covered before – an excellent counterpart to the books like: Earthbound Astronauts, Gene Kranz’s Failure Is Not an Option, Hamish Lindsay’s Tracking Apollo to the Moon and Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, which belong on the enthusiast’s shelf along with the much longer row of books by or about the astronauts themselves.

Duncan Lunan


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