#BookReview – Footprints in the Dust: The Epic Voyages of Apollo, 1969-1975

#BookReview – Footprints in the Dust:  The Epic Voyages of Apollo, 1969-1975

By Dr Brian Laslie

Colin Burgess (ed.), Footprints in the Dust: The Epic Voyages of Apollo, 1969-1975. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010. Illustrations. Appendix. References. Index. Hbk. 480 pp.

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This review follows on the heels of my review of In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969 and is about a book which itself is a follow-on to that work. Whether the press intended it, one might consider Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965, In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969, and Footprints in the Dust: The Epic Voyages of Apollo, 1969-1975 a three-volume set within the overarching series. You could also add in Bison Books’ great work Homesteading Space about the three Skylab missions, which always seem to be separated from their Apollo brethren.

Footprints in the Dust begins with a forward from the astronaut and Gemini 11/Apollo 12 member Richard Gordon. In it, he states that the Apollo Program was ‘a true epoch of the Space Age, a golden era of scientific endeavour, advancement, and incredible discovery’ (p. xxi). Interest in the past Apollo Program and the future of human-crewed spaceflight is undoubtedly on the rise in 2019 with the anniversaries of Apollos 9, 10, 11, and 12 all occurring this year and with NASA vowing a return to the moon in the (hopefully) not too distant future. Past is prologue as we look to the future and Footprints in the Dust is an excellent work to pick up this #Apollo50.

If Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon is the primus inter pares, in the Apollo history catalogue, then there must be a reason why Footprints in the Dust stands out, and indeed, this work goes beyond Chaikin’s 1967-1972 focus. It brings into more explicit context the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) and it also (rightly) places these under the rubric of the Apollo program. The contributors are a diverse group of space enthusiasts and aficionados.

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 A drawing of a Soviet LK lander illustrating its components: 1) passive plate of the docking system, 2) attitude control nozzles, 3) orbital rendezvous window, 4) landing window (in a concave recess), 5) high-gain antennas, 6) solid-fuel “nesting” engines, 7) footpads, 8) omnidirectional antenna, 9) rendezvous radar, A) pressurized compartment, B) equipment compartment, C) hatch, D) batteries, E) engine and fuel tanks, G) ladder. (Source: Wikimedia)

There are some excellent highlights. The ability to put the Soviet space program in context with its American counterparts is something this book (and the entire Outward Odyssey series in general) does uniquely well. These ‘Soviet chapters’ demonstrate how the Soviet Union’s manned program continued to keep moving forward despite the dawning realisation they would never reach the lunar surface. Dominic Phelan’s ‘The Eagle and the Bear’ about exactly how the Soviets planned to pull off a lunar landing is especially illuminating. As is Colin Burgess’ ‘A Whole New Focus’ which presents the tragedy of the Soyuz II mission

On the American side, the Apollo 12 seems eternally wedged – and not just numerically – between Apollo 11 and 13. This chapter written by John Youskauskas is simply terrific. Philip Bakers’ ‘Science and a Little Golf’ about Alan Shepard’s triumphant return to space, Edgar Mitchell’s ESP attempts, and Stu Roosa’s struggles with his Hycon camera are all highlights. All members of Apollo 14 have departed this planet for the final time, and this chapter does each of them a great service. Although those familiar with Apollo 14’s moon EVAs will know this bit of information, will still find themselves hoping Mitchell and Shepard reach cone crater at last. Finally, Collin Burgess’ chapter ‘Beyond the Moon’ about Skylab and the cancelled Apollo 18-20 missions demonstrate what was gained through Skylab but lost on the lunar service, not just for science but for the crews who were never afforded their opportunity to put their footprints in the dust.

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Two Apollo 17 crewmen ready a Lunar Roving Vehicle trainer following its deployment from a Lunar Module trainer in the Flight Crew Training Building at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, c. September 1972. Taking part in the Apollo 17 training exercise were astronauts Eugene A. Cernan (right), commander; and Harrison H. ‘Jack’ Schmitt, lunar module pilot. (Source: NASA)

All that being said, some of the chapters suffer, not from anything the authors did wrong, but simply from coverage in other books and media, namely the Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 missions. In the books already written, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the stories of Apollo 11,13, and to a lesser extent the later well-documented moon missions 15-17 into something genuinely new, but the authors in this book put in the effort to do so.

Readers of From Balloons to Drones will by now be familiar with the fabulous work of both the University Press of Florida and, in this case, the University Press of Nebraska’s great works on space exploration. In this, the 50th anniversary of the first moon landings, it is a fitting time to reflect on what was gained, and perhaps just as important, what was lost in the race to the moon and Footprints in the Dust: The Epic Voyages of Apollo, 1969-1975 does both exceedingly well. This is a superb work and well worth your time.

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. 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: Sitting in the life raft, during the Apollo 12 Pacific recovery, are the three mission astronauts; Alan L. Bean, pilot of the Lunar Module (LM), Intrepid; Richard Gordon, pilot of the Command Module (CM), Yankee Clipper; and Spacecraft Commander Charles Conrad. The second manned lunar landing mission, Apollo 12 launched from launch pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on 14 November 1969 via a Saturn V launch vehicle. The LM, Intrepid, landed astronauts Conrad and Bean on the lunar surface in what’s known as the Ocean of Storms, while astronaut Richard Gordon piloted the CM, Yankee Clipper, in a parking orbit around the Moon. Lunar soil activities included the deployment of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package, finding the unmanned Surveyor 3 that landed on the Moon on 19 April 19, 1967, and collecting 75 pounds (34 kilograms) of rock samples. Apollo 12 safely returned to Earth on November 24, 1969. (Source: NASA)

#BookReview – In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969

#BookReview – In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969

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.

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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.

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This photograph of the Lunar Module at Tranquility Base was taken by Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 mission, from the rim of Little West Crater on the lunar surface. Armstrong’s shadow and the shadow of the camera are visible in the foreground. This is the furthest distance from the lunar module traveled by either astronaut while on the moon. (Source: NASA)

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)