By Dr Brian Laslie
Francis French and Colin Burgess, In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2007. References. Pbk. 435 pp.
One great thing about making a mistake is that you sometimes discover an entirely unexplored avenue for examination. We recently posted our space reading list. After publication, I discovered I had inadvertently left out an entire series of books devoted to space exploration. This was the University of Nebraska Press’ series ‘Outward Odyssey: A People’s History of Spaceflight.’ You can check out all of their titles here.
To that end, herein lies a book review, but also an overview of Nebraska Press’s ‘Outward Odyssey’ series. The overall series:
[p]rovides a popular history of spaceflight from the rocket scientists of the 1930s to today, focusing on the lives of astronauts, cosmonauts, technicians, scientists, and their families. These books place equal emphasis on the Soviets and the Americans and give priority to people over technology and nationalism.
Thus far every book in this series I have had the pleasure of reading is clear and accessible. Those who have studied space exploration for years and those approaching the topic for the first time will find much in these pages. While I believe academic presses are sometimes viewed as the publishing houses where academics publish their ‘esoteric’ studies, nothing could be further from the truth, especially concerning the ‘Outward Odyssey’ series. The entire assemblage of books is well worth your time and, as a collection, some of the best works written on spaceflight. Included in this series is one of my personal favourite of all astronaut biographies: Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele. These works also include exploration of space history not commonly covered including Skylab and the creation of the Payload Specialist Program for the Space Shuttle. Of the 19 books in the series, three merits special attention: Into that Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965 (2007); In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969 (2007); Footprints in the Dust: The Epic Voyages of Apollo, 1969-1975 (2010). Today the focus is on the second book.
In the Shadow of the Moon begins with an introduction from astronaut and Apollo 7 member Walt Cunningham. In it, he states (p. xii) that the space race was ‘a clash of cultures, systems of government, and a challenge to our way of life.’ However, this book is a much more personal account, eschewing the ideological backdrop, for a much more intimate portrait of Project Gemini and the early Apollo missions as well as the Soviet Vostok, Soyuz, and Voshkhod program and the men (and in the case of Valentina Tereshkova, woman) who flew them. This work takes the reader from the first Gemini mission through Apollo 11, the first (successful) lunar landing attempt. There are three aspects to this book that allows it stand out: the early focus on Gemini, its attention to the Russian space program, and finally its emphasis on the early Apollo the missions that tend to be overlooked in other works.
The attention on the Gemini missions opens the book up, and Gemini was fundamentally different from its Mercury predecessor. As an air power historian with a growing interest in space exploration, Gemini truly represents air power. Although astronautics and not aeronautics, the Gemini ships it can be justly said, could be flown. As Gus Grissom stated (p. 14) about the program Gemini, ‘was a machine I could maneuver.’ The personal accounts of the Gemini crew members, their struggles with rendezvous and docking, and EVAs are masterfully told. All the necessary building blocks needed to be able to conduct the Apollo missions were accomplished during this program, and French and Burgess tell the story well. As the authors’ note (p. 169) ‘the entire Gemini program of ten flights would be conducted before any Russian cosmonauts once again soared into the skies.’
Thus, it was something of a jolt when the focus moves from the American space program to the activities of the Soviet cosmonauts, but this is keeping in line with the overall purpose of the series, it reminds the reader of the two competing programs – and their ideologies – as they both progressed towards ‘winning’ the space race. This work, much like David Scott’s and Alexy Leonov’s Two Sides of the Moon brings into contrast and comparison the Soviet space program and the human side and losses that took place behind the iron curtain; it would be later that the astronauts and cosmonauts came to realize how similar they were and how much they shared in common.
Finally, the book turns towards the Apollo program and in-depth attention is given to Apollos 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11, essentially the ‘first half’ of the Apollo missions. While the moon landings probably have a more enduring place in American memory, none of that would be possible without the early Apollo flights. Especially appreciated here is the deeper dives into the virtually ignored Apollos 7 and 9. While other books are dealing with these missions (Cunningham and Eisele both have biographies or memoirs, and Cunningham’s routinely tops the list in this regard), In the Shadow of the Moon contextually links these missions together while at the same time allowing each to stand on its accomplishments. While even the Apollo 9 astronauts themselves recognise theirs (p. 329) was a ‘historically lesser known mission,’ this work does a magnificent job of being deeply personal while conveying just how vital these lesser-known Apollos were at putting the footprints in the dust on the moon, but that is a different review.
French and Burgess’s frequent use of long quotes derived from their interviews astronauts is really a high point of this work, and it is clear the astronauts know the authors are true professionals. If there is a (relatively) minor drawback to the book is its lack of source notes. While it reads smoothly, among the best of the books on NASA and space exploration, it does not provide an avenue from where any particular quote comes from. As a historian who routinely flips to the back of the book looking for source documentation, this was a bit of a distraction, but as a popular history, this really should not be held against French and Burgess. In the end, this is an extremely fine addition to the histories of manned exploration of space. Highly enjoyable, immensely readable, this work, while never eschewing the technological side of the Gemini and Apollo programs, is an extraordinarily intimate and personal history of the astronauts, cosmonauts and their families and it belongs on the shelves of anyone looking for the very finest scholarship on the first age of space exploration.
Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the United States Northern Command. 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. His recently published 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: On 4 December 1965, NASA launched Gemini VII. With this mission, NASA successfully completed its first rendezvous of two spacecraft. This photograph, taken by Gemini VII crewmembers Jim Lovell and Frank Borman, shows Gemini VI in orbit 160 miles (257 km) above Earth. (Source: NASA)