Earl Swift, Across the Airless Wilds: The Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the Final Moon Landings. New York, NY: Custom House, 2021. Illustrations. Notes. ARC. 365 pp.
Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie
It is rare for the team at From Balloons to Drones to cover machines that run across the ground. After all, our name literally describes the history of aircraft. I feel somewhat sheepish, then, in covering a book that is essentially about a car, but here we are. That being said, in his new book Across the Airless Wilds: The Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the Final Moon Landings, author Earl Swift has produced an important, much needed, and excellent history of the lunar rover vehicle and its excursions on the final three Apollo missions. In addition, Swift has written the seminal history of the concept, design, and creation of perhaps the most unique automobile ever built.
Swift’s thesis is straightforward. As the author states:
It comes to this: Remembered or not, the nine days the final three missions spent on the moon were a fitting culmination to Apollo, and a half-century later remain the crowning achievement of America’s manned space program.
While the world remembers Neil Armstrong’s “One Small Step” and Apollo 13’s “Houston, We’ve had a problem here,” the visits, footprints, and rover tracks at Hadley–Apennine, Descartes Highlands, and Taurus–Littrow Valley are certainly less well-remembered. Even the individuals who took these steps, including Jim Irwin, Charlie Duke, and Harrison Schmitt, are not the easiest of names in the Apollo Program to recall. Of note, Irvin, Duke and Schmitt all authored excellent books later in life that are worth adding to your collection. Each of the commanders of these missions: Dave Scott, John Young, and Gene Cernan, Gemini and Apollo giants that they are, are oft-forgotten for those who do not read and study this particular section of space-exploration history. It is also worth mentioning that, although not covered in Swift’s account, the Command Module Pilots: Al Worden, Ken Mattingly, and Ron Evans spent the longest amount of time flying solo around the moon and conducting their own scientific experiments.
Swift divides his new work into seven different sections, more or less covering the principal characters, the ‘Practical Considerations’ of building a lunar automobile, which also details the various designs and concepts for lunar vehicles never produced – Oberth’s moon car is worth looking up – and two sections on building the rover. However, it is section six, ‘Across the Airless Wilds’ where Swift really shines. Here the book is strikingly similar to the ‘Outward Odyssey’ Series by the University of Nebraska Press. If you enjoyed these books on the Apollo program, Swift’s work is definitely one you will want to read. The final three Apollo missions (the ‘J’ missions) were the ultimate in scientific exploration. Swift’s account of the rover’s operations clearly demonstrates that much of the discoveries made during these missions were not possible were it not for the Lunar Rover.
There are some minor drawbacks to be found herein. Swift admits this is not an academic work. Since the version provided to From Balloons to Drones was an advanced reader’s copy, I cannot speak for his bibliography. Swift often breaks into the first-person perspective, and for a work of non-fiction, this can be slightly distracting. However, since these sections discuss Swift’s travels across the country to meet with the creators of the rover or visit the locations where it was tested, this is a relatively minor distraction.
Across the Airless Wilds is part history, part travelogue, but one hundred per cent terrific space history. Swift has written a book that provides unique, personal accounts and, at the same time, is deeply researched and throws fresh light onto a well-traversed subject.
Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Command Historian at the USAF Academy. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of three books with his most recent being Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (2021). His first book, The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header image: One of a series of images taken as a pan of the Apollo 15 landing site, taken by Commander Dave Scott, 1 August 1971. Featured is the Lunar Roving Vehicle at its final resting place after EVA-3. At the back is a rake used during the mission. Also note the red Bible atop the hand controller in the middle of the vehicle, placed there by Scott.