Robert Stone and Alan Andres, Chasing the Moon: The People, the Politics, and the Promise that Launched America into the Space Age. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2019. Appendix. Images. Notes. Hbk. 384 pp.
By Dr Brian Laslie
In recent months, From Balloons to Drones has highlighted and reviewed numerous books, both old and new, that deal with the Space Race, the moon landings, and the Apollo Program writ large. As the proliferation of printed materials continues to grow – not only as the moon landings themselves recede into memory but as there is an increase of ‘Apollo at 50’ printed materials – it becomes necessary to ask the question, what makes any new work different? What does a particular book tell us about the Apollo program or early space exploration that we do not already know? The answer, in this case, is a surprising amount and denotes that there are still new areas to research and historical stories to be told when dealing with early space exploration.
Chasing the Moon: The People, the Politics, and the Promise That Launched America into the Space Age is equal parts social history, cultural history, Cold War history, and political history. The authors state that the journey to the moon (p. x) ‘was a story of courage, adventure, and scientific exploration as well as an exercise in geopolitics.’ This is the long view of reaching the moon. Although the book is billed as ‘a companion to the American Experience film on PBS,’ it is also about the Russian, German, and British experience in the long narrative of the journey to the moon. This is one of the aspects that makes this book unique; it is not viewed either as a singular American accomplishment or as a struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. While the entire space race could rightly be said to be both of those things, it is not only those things. Chasing the Moon brilliantly and adroitly links the global history of reaching for the stars, or – from the first rockets to the first footprints on Luna.
Within these pages are the origins stories and names that are familiar to the early days of rocketry: Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Goddard, and Hermann Oberth, but other familiar names have a role as well. The legendary Arthur C. Clarke’s appearance in these pages is a welcome addition and demonstrates how the melding of pure science and science-fiction enabled the latter to become science-fact, and how both helped advance the cause of the other. Fact and fiction advanced together thanks to their symbiotic relationship, which also helped in America’s understanding of space exploration at large.
Short of a full biography, Chasing the Moon does an admirable job of telling the good and the bad of ‘The Man Who Sold the Moon,’ Werner von Braun. Von Braun’s importance to the development of rocketry is intertwined with his Nazi past; neither is ignored here. His celebrity nearly eclipsed that of the ‘original 7.’ This was of course helped by his appearance on Walt Disney’s television show Disneyland, which helped promote not only Disney’s ‘Tomorrowland,’ but also the concepts and ideas of rocketry and space that von Braun was so passionate about (pp. 58-9). It was von Braun’s association with Disney (p. 60) that ‘bestowed an imprimatur of American Respectability on the former official of the Third Reich.
While the astronauts do not play second fiddle in this work, this is really the story of those actors who have not traditionally garnered as much attention as the Apollo crews themselves. Obviously the first several classes of NASA’s ‘exemplars of American masculinity, courage, resourcefulness, and intelligence’ appear here, but this work gives agency and voice to the ‘others’ who get their (over)due attention here. These include Julian Scheer, James Webb, and Frances ‘Poppy’ Northcutt, and it is their stories that make Chasing the Moon such a worthwhile endeavour (p. 77).
If there is a downside to this work, it is that several of the Apollo missions, including 7, 9, and 14-17, are mentioned only in passing, but the authors can be forgiven as this is not the story of the Apollo program or of moon exploration, which has more than been adequately covered elsewhere. This is the story of humanity’s journey to the moon. The authors state in the closing pages that ‘[T]he enduring meaning of the space race remains elusive half a century after it came to its end,’ but this work helps give meaning to the space race itself as both a jobs program and an imprimatur of achievement in the twentieth century (p. 301).
This book will appeal to anyone interested in humanity’s journey to the moon, but especially those who are looking for the longer view of that journey: one that traces the voyage from the dawn of rocketry to that small step for a man. This excellent works stands on its own and is destined to become a classic in its own right. Stone and Andres will surely join the likes of Andrew Chaikin, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Jay Barbree, Charles Murray, and Catherine Cox.
Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. He is also the author of Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header Image: Fifty years ago on 20 July 1969, humanity stepped foot on another celestial body and into history. (Source: NASA)