Book Review: ‘Apollo Explorations of the Moon: The NASA History – 50th Anniversary Edition’

(C) 2019 Dover Publications and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. – President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Rice University, September 12, 1962

On April 17, 2019, Dover Publications of Garden City, NJ published Apollo Expeditions to the Moon: The NASA History – 50th Anniversary Edition, a lavishly illustrated hardcover book about one of the landmark achievements in American history – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Project Apollo, the manned space program that took nine three-man crews on the 240,000-mile journey from the Earth to the Moon.

Edited by Edgar M. Cortright, former Director at NASA’s Langley Research Center,and originally published in 1975 by NASA’s Scientific and Technical Information Office as an official publication known as Apollo Expeditions to the Moon, No.SP-350, this 368-page volume covers the entirety of Project Apollo (which started out as a follow-up to Project Mercury) from its inception in early 1960 to the final Moon landing (Apollo 17) in December of 1972. (Apollo Expeditions to the Moon was published after the July 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Program [ASTP] flight, which was the last mission to use Apollo hardware originally manufactured for the canceled Apollo 18-20 Moon flights, so that mission is only mentioned in the 50th Anniversary’s added material, and only in the timeline of the Apollo Program.)

From the Dust Jacket

(C) 2019 Dover Publications and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

This special edition of Apollo Expeditions to the Moon, an official NASA publication, commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the July 20, 1969, Moon landing with a thrilling insider’s view of the space program.  

Essays by participants — engineers, astronauts, and administrators — recall the program’s unprecedented challenges. Written in direct, jargon-free language, this compelling adventure features more than 160 dazzling color photographs and scores of black-and-white illustrations.

Insights into management challenges as well as its engineering feats include contributions from Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, Alan Shepard, and other astronauts; NASA administrator James E. Webb; Christopher C. Kraft, head of the Mission Control Center; and engineer Wernher von Braun. Their informative, exciting narratives explore the issues that set the United States on the path to the Moon, offer perspectives on the program’s legacy, and examine the particulars of individual missions. Journalist Robert Sherrod chronicles the selection and training of astronauts. James Lovell, commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13, recounts the damaged ship’s dramatic return to Earth. Geologist and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt discusses the lunar expeditions’ rich harvest of scientific information. These and other captivating firsthand accounts form an ideal introduction to the historic U.S. space program as well as fascinating reading for all ages.

This new expanded edition includes a chronology of the Apollo project, additional photographs, and a new Foreword by historian Paul Dickson that offers a modern retrospective of the Moon landing, discussing its place in the world of space exploration and its impact on American history and culture. 


The caption in the book reads:  
“An exciting Earthrise greets the Apollo 8 crew as they return from the far side of the Moon. This was the first time men had ever directly seen Earthrise or the far side, though photos had been taken earlier. Potential landing sites were photographed from the 70-mile-high orbit.” Image Credit: Bil Anders/NASA


“At some point in the history of the world”, editorialized The Washington Post, “someone may have read the first ten verses of the Book of Genesis under conditions that gave them greater meaning than they had on Christmas Eve. But it seems unlikely … This Christmas will always be remembered as the lunar one.”

New York Times, which called Apollo 8 “the most fantastic voyage of all times”, said on December 26: “There was more than narrow religious significance in the emotional high point of their fantastic odyssey.”

As Apollo 8 began its tenth and last orbit, CapCom Ken Mattingly told the astronauts: “We have reviewed all your systems. You have a GO to TEI” (trans-earth injection). This time the crew really was in thrall to the SPS engine. It had to ignite in this most apprehensive moment of the mission, else Apollo 8 would be left in lunar orbit, its passengers’ lives measured by the length of their oxygen supply. Ignite it did, in a 303-second burn that would effect touchdown in just under 58 hours. Apollo 8 reentered at 25,000 mph and splashed down south of Hawaii two days after Christmas.

The stupendous effect of Apollo 8 was strengthened by color photographs published after the return. Not only was the technology of going to the Moon brilliantly proven; men began to view the Earth as “small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence”, as Archibald MacLeish put it, and to realize as never before that their planet was worth working to save. The concept that Earth was itself a kind of spacecraft needing attention to its habitability spread more widely than ever.

During the last week of 1968 the Associated Press repolled its 1278 newspaper editors, who overwhelmingly voted Apollo 8 the story of the year.
Time discarded “The Dissenter” in favor of Borman, Lovell, and Anders; and a friend telegraphed Frank Borman, “You have bailed out 1968.”

My Take

The caption in the book: “Charred and dripping, the Apollo 8 command module is hoisted from the Pacific and eased down on its trailer aboard the USS Yorktown. Its remaining propellants have to be drained off and its precious film magazines recovered. Then spacecraft engineers will go over it carefully to study the effects of a trip around the Moon.” Image Credit: National Archives via U.S.Navy and NASA

I was born in the spring of 1963, so like all kids born at the tail end of the Fifties and the early Sixties, I am old enough – barely, in my case – to remember the era of Apollo. I don’t remember any of the Mercury or Gemini missions; NASA flew those one-man and two-man flights when I was too young to care, much less understand the gravity of sending astronauts to the Moon. We moved from Miami to Bogota, Colombia when Gemini was winding down and Apollo was gearing up; the Apollo 1 fire of January 1967 occurred before my fourth birthday, so I was blissfully unaware of that tragedy until I was older and read about it in books about the space program sometime later.

Even though the passage of time has blurred my memories of what I call my “Colombian Childhood,” I can say that I do remember the Apollo 8 mission, or, more precisely, that I remember being aware that the U.S. was sending astronauts to orbit the Moon. I have watched so many documentaries and dramatizations (especially about Apollo 8, 11, and 13) that depict America’s space program that my own memories of my experiences as a child have been overwritten. I do remember some of the emotions I felt then; I was awestruck by the reality that the country where I was born had sent three astronautas a la Luna. (One of the things I still recollect clearly was wandering out into the yard of the place Mom was renting at the time and squinting up at the night sky, hoping to see the Apollo spacecraft circling the Moon. Of course, I could not see anything except the cold white light from Earth’s celestial companion, but, hey, I tried!)

My memories from 1969 are a bit more vivid, though most of the ones that are not overwritten by the many books, movies, and documentaries I’ve avidly consumed over the last 52 years are mainly centered on emotions rather than accurate recollections of what I saw (in black-and-white) on Colombian state-owned Inravision. Again, since at the age of six I was aware that I was a U.S. citizen – the only one in my mother’s family at the time – I felt an inordinate sense of pride in an American achievement.

I remember, for instance, that I constantly drew doodles of Saturn V rockets and astronauts in their bulky spacesuits and life support backpacks. They were not finely-drawn or accurate, and of course I don’t think Mom kept any of them, but I do remember trying to place the various indicia (the American flag, the USA and UNITED STATES markings) correctly on my renditions of Saturn V boosters.

NASA Graphic showing a typical Apollo mission profile. Image Credit: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

My mom even clipped out a poster from a 1969 edition of El Tiempo, one of Colombia’s major newspapers, which had as its centerpiece a beautiful artist’s rendition of a typical Apollo lunar mission, showing every major maneuver from liftoff to splashdown. I can’t recall if the poster showed NASA official photos of the astronauts or if Mom clipped another illustration and mounted it on wood for me along with the Moon mission profile. Sometimes I remember it as being just one graphic, and other times I remember it as being a collage. Regardless of its composition, that “poster” hung in my room during the last two and a half years of our Bogota life. It was also the one possession that I remember bawling about because we could not bring it to the States when Mom and I moved back to Florida in the spring of 1972.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.   – President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, May 25, 1961

I am, as I said before, a Child of the Apollo Era. I was too young to understand the geopolitical and psychological undertones of America’s space program; as Apollo Expeditions to the Moon – especially in the new foreword by historian Paul Dickson – points out, the whole “man on the Moon” brouhaha was conceived by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy as a bid for a U.S. victory in the Space Race with our adversary in the Cold War, the Soviet Union.

For me, the fascination with space was rooted in the fact that astronauts were elite aviators – highly trained test pilots who were either on active duty in the Air Force or Navy  or were ex-military. And as the son of a pilot who had – sadly – died in a plane crash a few years earlier, I had an affinity for anything to do with aviation and space exploration.

Apollo Expeditions to the Moon: The NASA History – 50th Anniversary Edition was published in 2019. It was part of an avalanche of 50th Anniversary books that came out during the Gold Anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission – the first manned landing on the Moon…the one in which astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins crossed the finish line as winners of the U.S.-Soviet Space Race and fulfilled the late President Kennedy’s promise “to (achieve) the goal…of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth” before 1970.

Because it was written by NASA officials and Apollo astronauts as part of the agency’s history, the core of  Apollo Expeditions to the Moon is a book that gives readers an insider’s perspective into the 12-year-long Apollo Program from its birth late in President Eisenhower’s second term to its premature conclusion with Apollo 17. It is factual and steers away from the political and sociocultural controversies that surrounded the massive program throughout its existence.

Those controversies are mentioned in Dickson’s 2019 foreword, which mentions how Congress first eagerly supported Apollo by lavishing its budget during JFK’s brief Presidency and the early years of Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, then reversed course and began whittling NASA’s budget. In this “putting Apollo in context” section, we are reminded that conservatives in and out of government called JFK’s dream of reaching the moon before 1970 too expensive. They even coined a new word for it: a “Moondoggle.” And, of course, the 2019 foreword reminds us that for every fan of the Apollo program who was disappointed when Apollo 18, 19, and 20 were canceled in favor of the Space Shuttle, Skylab, and the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission with the Soviets, there was one critic who said, “We can land a man on the moon, but we can’t alleviate poverty.”

(C) 2019 Dover Publications and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Now, you’d think that a book authored mainly by NASA officials and astronauts would be dry, unengaging, or, worse, unintelligible. Spaceflight, after all, is chock-full of terms as ALSEP,MECO, CapCom, FAO, TEI, TLI, CSM, LEM, PLSS, and a huge alphabet soup pot of acronyms and abbreviations. It’s also full of jargon, most of it highly technical and loved only by engineers and aviators.

Surprisingly, Apollo Expeditions to the Moon is well-written and edited by people who were as skilled with the written word as they were with slide rules, in-flight computers, or Mission Control consoles. Some of the contributors, such as Administrator James E. Webb, shepherded Apollo during its early years and protected it from budget cuts or even outright cancellation. Others, including Capt. James A. Lovell, Jr. (U.S. Navy, Retired) flew to the Moon – in the case of some astronauts, including Lovell, Gene Cernan, and John Young, more than once – and returned safely to the Big Blue Marble we call home. Their perspectives give us an amazing and often moving look at Apollo’s most dramatic moments – both good and tragic.

The book caption says: “Striding confidently toward the transfer van that will carry them to the launch pad, Apollo 11 Commander Armstrong leads Collins and Aldrin past well-wishers at the start of their historic voyage. Since they are suited up with helmets in place, they carry portable breathing and cooling systems until they can plug into the environmental-control systems aboard their spacecraft.” (C) 1975, 2019 National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Still other contributors, such as former WWII correspondent Robert Sherrod, delve into the herculean efforts to make sure Apollo ran smoothly. In Apollo Expeditions to the Moon, we learn why Cape Canaveral was chosen as the ideal place from which to launch space-bound rockets and how the various crews were selected and trained for one of the greatest – and most dangerous – voyages of exploration in human history.

If you’re a Child of Apollo (like me) and want to relive those exciting – if often heart-rending – days when America still had that “can do” spirit that seems to be painfully absent in these turbulent and divided times, Apollo Expeditions to the Moon: The NASA History – 50th Anniversary Edition is a good place to start. It is lavishly illustrated with a mix of black-and-white and color photographs, NASA graphics, and artwork created in various media by many artists commissioned by the space agency to capture the human essence of the Apollo through art.

Apollo Expeditions to the Moon is also a book I’d recommend to the generations that came after Apollo 17 returned to Earth in December of 1972 and never experienced the “mission to the Moon” era personally. Many of those potential readers were born in a world where their smartphone has more computing power than existed on the entire globe in 1969 and the only manned spaceflights are low Earth orbital jaunts to an aging International Space Station.

My hope, as a now graying Child of Apollo, is that this new generation will embrace NASA’s – and private enterprise’s – bid to return to the Moon and, hopefully, go to Mars in manned spacecraft via Project Artemis and other endeavors so that humanity can revive its hunger for exploration and “boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say that we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours. – President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Rice University, September 12, 1962

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

%d bloggers like this: