I was too young to remember much of the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. My main memory is of a Frosties cereal promotion where you could send away coupons to get simple plastic astronaut figures. The cereal box had lists of facts about the expedition, and I remember cutting these out and saving them with the figures. Was it Frosties? Googling has revealed some toy promotions – like the ugly little Boglins – that I haven’t given a thought to since 1994, but I can’t find the cereal promotion I’m describing. It’s also not terribly relevant to what I want to talk about.
(As a sidebar, that box would probably be valuable to the right collector nowadays. Those kinds of food promotions – sold widely enough to be briefly common, ephemeral enough that they’ve become rare – are excellent collection fodder, and there are enough aficionados of NASA paraphernalia that I’m sure at least one of them has an unopened box of that cereal. Whatever it was. By the way, I recently read a great article on the world of vintage Kool-Aid packets (here), and I appreciate the simplicity of collecting something whose entire collection can fit in a shoebox!)
Anyway, today’s the fiftieth anniversary of the first human on the moon. As it happens, I’ve read several moon-related books in in the past six months. So why not share them in the hopes, as ever, that something will spark your interest.
Moon Shot is cowritten by astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton (along with Jay Barbree). Although it’s ostensibly an overview of the American space program from its infancy to the late 70s (with a few chapters on Sputnik and Gargarin), the second half runs closer to autobiographies of Shepard and Slayton with looser asides on what everybody else in NASA was doing. Which is no bad thing as long as you’re expecting it; it’s always great to hear astronauts talk about their own experiences, and the more first-hand accounts the better. But the book still functions as a handy overview of the rise of NASA and the people who worked within it. Even if I do take with a pinch of salt the grousing about how easy it would have been for the Americans to beat the Russians to a lot of their records with a bit more political will.
More unashamedly an autobiography is The Sky Below by Scott Parazynski and Susy Flory. Now, the big question when you’re reading someone’s autobiography is whether they’ve done enough to fill a whole book. In Parazynski’s case, the answer is definitely yes. In fact, he’s the kind of person who makes you feel tired just by reeling off all the stuff he’s done. With five space shuttle flights and seven spacewalks, there’s a lot to draw on even before you get into all the mountaineering and suchlike. (Such as: when it was looking like NASA wouldn’t send him into space again soon, he became fluent in Russian and relocated to their space program. It took six months before they discovered he was too tall to fit into any of their spaceuits.) Anyway, it’s a useful account of what it was like to be an astronaut in the 1990s and 2000s, though it does make you question whether you’re making the most of your free time.
Onto fiction, though given the considerable quantity of research that went into Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, you could read these and get a good idea of what NASA would have been like if it had been panic-kickstarted in the early 1950s. In fact, Kowal says that early on she had a lot of trouble convincing editors and beta-readers that all the women computers had historical basis. It wasn’t until the book and film Hidden Figures popularized the idea that Kowal’s books became more publishable.
That gives you an idea what the books are about: an accelerated version of the space program (driven by the terror of a meteorite strike in the first chapter) from a woman’s perspective, decades before the real NASA had any female astronauts. There’s some good extrapolations of how 1950s media sexism might apply, and I do appreciate that Elma York has plenty of blind spots of her own. While there’s a lot of research on the page, the book always keeps a strong emphasis on the cast’s emotional relationships, though this might not be to everyone’s taste. In all books you can see the strings of the author manipulating the reader, and in a lot of Kowal’s work I find myself unable to forget those strings. Still, I enjoyed the books, and judging by the awards they’ve been collecting (The Calculating Stars recently won a Nebula), other readers have a more enthusiastic reaction than that.
(Incidentally, while Kowal initially planned the two books to be two halves of one big story, the first book works as a standalone volume with a satisfying and thematically appropriate end and minimal lingering threads. While the second book probably works on its own, it’s better to read with the first relatively fresh in your memory).
Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust, on the other hand, very much does not have emotional relationships at the core of its narrative. They do exist, but in just enough quantity that the reader feels invested in what’s otherwise a thought experiment. It’s a classic, almost stereotypical SF setup: some characters get into an exotic predicament, in this case sinking into one of the lunar powder-seas, and the rest is spent figuring out how to rescue them. While such seas don’t exist (this book was written in 1961 after all) the physics is treated with absolute plausibility, and like good rescue fiction the tension isn’t so much on whether they get rescued, but given the limited resources how they can possibly get rescued. I suppose it’s a type of SF story recent popularized by Andy Weir’s The Martian, now that I come to think about it, though that has just as much Robinson Crusoe in its DNA as well. Anyway, A Fall of Moondust is gripping stuff and has become one of my favorite of Clarke’s novels.
Speaking of, Weir’s second book, Artemis, is set on a lunar colony. While I read this when it first came out in 2017, a segue is too hard to resist. As you might imagine, it’s also well researched (you might be seeing a theme here) and the conspiracy/adventure is a fun page-turner, even if it lacks the alchemy that made The Martian such a hit. But there was one detail early on that really struck me: the lunar settlement’s air is kept at a lower pressure so they don’t need much nitrogen. But that low pressure means water boils at around 60C, meaning that Earth-tourists hate the tea and coffee served there. It’s a lovely tactile detail of the world, and I was really impressed that it was just dropped in as an aside, no song and dance… and then I read A Fall of Moondust and discover that Clarke made the same observation a half-century earlier, and included the insight even more fleetingly.
And now we come to the grandaddy of them all. Sure, there have been stories about trips to the moon running all the way back to Lucian of Samosata in the second century CE. (A True History is… interesting but definitely not science fiction, unless could also count things like Baron Munchausen and the Spaniard who rode gansa swans to the moon.) But nobody treated the subject with more rigor than Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon.
How rigorous? The first book doesn’t even reach the moon! The entirely of From the Earth to the Moon is about the proposal, funding and construction of the first spaceship and enormous cannon it’s fired out of, and the book ends with its launch. In the second book the astronauts don’t even land, merely orbit the moon once, and Verne resists the urge to invent moon-dwelling civilizations except in mere glimpses, fleeting and uncertain. What the books offer is accuracy. Verne deduces a lot of what space travel must be like (the main exception being G-forces on a spaceship shot out of a 270 metre long canon), and a lot of early NASA employees cite the books as inspiration. Which is not to say it’s all dry; there’s plenty of satire about Americans and their propensity for mania, which amused me greatly. After all, the book starts with arms manufacturers lamenting that the Civil War is over, and there won’t be a market for all their wares anymore. Isn’t there some peacetime application for their vast ballistics research? At which their president has an idea…
If you’re curious, I recommend Walter James Miller’s translation of From the Earth to the Moon. With so much physics, science and contemporary satire it’s useful to have a heavily annotated edition that not only explains obscure references, but also compares Verne’s predictions with reality. I just wish there was a similar edition for Around the Moon, which as far as I know doesn’t have a good English annotated edition. Unlike Kowal’s books, reading From the Earth to the Moon by itself is frustrating. After an entire book working towards reaching the moon, you really want to know what they actually saw up there.