Reviewed in the United States on July 18, 2012
I've read a fair number of books on the glory days of NASA's manned space program, from Mercury through Gemini and Apollo, and though this book focuses mostly on the moon landing missions (as should be obvious from the title), when asked which single volume is best for the general, non-technical reader to get a comprehensive, readable history of the space program, I'd recommend this one. The author chose to tell the story AS a story, from the viewpoint of the astronauts involved. People want to read about people, not about machines; they want to get the human side of the story, and that's what this book sets out to tell and it succeeds. At the same time the author presents enough of the more technical aspects of the story in a simple enough fashion for the non-technical reader to get a decent grounding in these aspects.
Like most books written about the Apollo program, even those written by the astronauts and the engineers and technicians and program managers, the book ends on the sad note that the manned exploration of deep space was abandoned at the end of Apollo, almost 40 years ago, and that except for the occasional grandiose plan that never got past the stage of blueprints, there has never been serious consideration of a return to manned exploration of space outside the orbit of Earth.
I was eight years old at the time of Apollo 11, and my memory of the space program goes back only to Apollo 7. I remember, as a kid, being completely riveted by the moon missions, watching every second I could of them on TV, even as the general population lost interest in them, sending away to NASA for their PR kits on each mission (you'd get neat color photos of the crew, stickers of the mission patches, press bulletins, etc.) and clipping and saving moon stories from the newspapers, while speculating with like-minded friends on the future of space exploration (I remember that we couldn't wait until 1981, when we were supposed to be landing on Mars!), only to see our enthusiasm fizzle as NASA was steered into the endless boondoggle of the Shuttle program.
I've since come to regretfully realize that the Moon landing was something of a dead end. This was proven by the unmanned deep space probes of the late 70s and the 80s, when we sent Voyager-2 out scouting the outer planets of the solar system, Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune, and their satellites, and confirmed that there wasn't a single other world in our solar system that made a viable destination for a manned space mission. The distances were too great to be reached by any existing technology--even to reach Jupiter would force astronauts to live in a space ship for over 4 years and the space ship itself to carry food, air and other consumables for that same length of time--a complete impossibility even now, decades after the successful moon landings. Then, if the aim is to find another world that could be inhabited and colonized by humans, we'd have to search outside the solar system, in which case, again because of distances, such worlds, if they exist, and if we could find them, could not be reached in the lifetime of any human being, which meant that those astronauts would have to be sent out with no expectation that they would return alive, that they'd have to breed in space and that their offspring would live their entire lives in their space ships, breed again, for generations, for, possibly, thousands of years, in the forlorn hope that we could find such a planet. To even reach another solar system might take the same span of time that, on Earth, stretches from the building of the pyramids to the present day, and even then there's no way of knowing that a habitable planet would exist in that solar system.
No, after the moon, there's no place left to go. We could land on Mars, I guess, but there is no chance of that happening in the lifetime of anyone now living because the will to spend the enormous amount of money it would take to do it does not exist anywhere on the Earth. We could also return to the moon, but even in 1972 people were so bored with moon landings that they'd complain when re-runs of "I Love Lucy" were pre-empted for telecasts from Apollo. The question is, even with these limited missions, who is going to pay for them? Even the scientific community is split, many (it seems to me most) scientist believing that unmanned robot probes are more worthwhile than manned missions. If even scientists doubt the value of humans in space, how can we expect the average citizen to support "Man in Space"?
We have to finally admit that Apollo was the result of a specific set of political circumstances that can never be repeated or recreated. We went to the moon because we wanted to beat the Russians. That is all it was about. All the science and technology that came from the moon program were collateral benefits. We had to beat the Russians. I'm not scoffing at this as a goal. It was important. It was the single most important victory of the cold war. We succeeded in reaching the moon. The Russians tried and failed. They knew how difficult this was, and, if you read the reminiscences of the Russian scientists and technicians and military managers, their respect for American "know how" and ingenuity grew because of our success, to the point that when Reagan announced the so-called "Star Wars" program in the 80s, while the wise guys in the West scoffed at Reagan, the Russians believed we could succeed. Why? Because we managed to land on the moon! In their attempts to keep up with us in our developing Star Wars program, they bankrupted the Soviet Union. The success of Apollo and the prestige this success lent to US science, technology and industry was one of the main factors in the collapse of the USSR.
The irony is that while during the Moon missions, pundits spoke of how "500 years from now, everything else about our civilization will be forgotten, but the one thing we'll be remembered for is landing on the Moon", now, only 40 years later, many people don't believe we did. They think it was a hoax! Sometimes we hear the suggestion that we should go back to the moon just to prove we were actually there once before, to prove it to the hoax theorists, but who's going to spend that kind of money to convince a cult of knuckle-dragging imbeciles whose noisy opinions are of little importance to anyone living in the world of reality? No, let's accept Apollo for what it was--a successful bid for international political prestige during a period of conflict which, because of the existence of thermonuclear weapons, couldn't be settled by war. It was a program established to fulfill national goals that no longer exist. And a return to lunar exploration, or a manned mission to Mars, will never take place until it is once again a matter of equal importance to the survival of a political system involved in a deadly rivalry, a struggle for survival, against an implacably hostile political enemy. It's hard to imagine such a circumstance arising today, but it may in the future.