From Chaikin, a full view of the America's quest for the moon

July 10, 1994|By Michael D. Lemonick | Michael D. Lemonick,Newsday

Sometime in the 11th century, most historians agree, a daring band of Norsemen braved the frigid, stormy waters of the North Atlantic and set up camp on the shores of what is now Newfoundland, creating the first European foothold in North America.

If they'd stayed on and prospered, the history of the New World would have been radically different. But after a few seasons, the Vikings abandoned their colony; it would be centuries before Europeans would return for good.

Future historians may well look back on the 1960s as a comparable time, an era when humans braved ridiculously long odds to visit a new world and then, after succeeding beyond all reasonable hope, pulled back. Only 58 years after the Wright brothers flew their first primitive airplane, John F. Kennedy announced that Americans would walk on the moon -- and seven years later they actually did it. This July 20 at 4:17 p.m., it will be precisely 25 years since the spacecraft Eagle touched down on the moon. No one who lived through that mind-numbing event a quarter-century ago will easily forget the excitement of seeing Neil Armstrong taking his first tentative steps, on live (though murky) TV, onto the Sea of Tranquility.

What most of us probably do forget, at least in their details, are the other crucial milestones of the Apollo missions, the triumphs and tragic setbacks that made Mr. Armstrong's step -- and those of the other men who stood on the moon after him -- possible.

Fortunately, we have Andrew Chaikin to help us remember. Based on interviews with 23 of the 24 surviving moon voyagers and on mountains of archival NASA tapes and documents, some of them never before made public, "A Man in the Moon" is nothing less than a blow-by-blow account of every mission in the moon program, from the inferno of Apollo 1 that killed three astronauts on the launch pad to Apollo 17, conceivably the last visit humans will make to another world.

In another writer's hands, "A Man in the Moon" could easily have turned out to be a tedious book only a space nut could love. But Mr. Chaikin is a fine reporter and a master storyteller with a good eye for detail. He turns the one-dimensional, superhuman astronauts we all remember into believable, quirky, sometimes flawed human beings, and the roll call of Apollo missions becomes a tightly interconnected series of adventure stories -- a steadier, information-packed, less breathless counterpoint to Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff."

While we know how the adventures will come out, the stories Mr. Chaikin tells are nonetheless gripping. Apollo 8, for example, the very first flight to the moon in December 1968, was originally supposed to be an Earth-orbital shakedown cruise. When the CIA told NASA that the Soviets might be planning a moon shot for early that same month, associate administrator Thomas Paine proposed to his boss, James Webb, that the spacecraft orbit the moon instead. Webb's reaction: "Are you out of your mind?"

Yet in the end he went along with the audacious plan, and when Apollo 7 went off without a hitch in October, the road was clear for Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders to head out of the Earth's gravitational influence for the first time in human history.

Every step of that journey carried the potential for disaster, yet miraculously (and despite Mr. Borman's cabin-fouling episode of nausea on the outbound trip) it went like clockwork. So did the next two flights, which sent the Lunar Module down from its mother ship to within a few miles of the moon's barren surface.

So, finally, did the first moon landing itself. Apollo 11 could easily have been a failure: No one watching the play-by-play television coverage at the time realized the dangerous implications of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's last-minute discovery that the landing area was littered with boulders and pocked by craters.

Mr. Armstrong had to take manual control of the spacecraft in the final moments before touchdown, and nearly ran out of fuel trying to find a parking place. But thanks to Mr. Chaikin, we realize how close Eagle came to aborting the landing, or even crashing.

"In mission control," he writes, "stomachs tightened. No one knew about the big crater, and Armstrong's efforts to avoid it. They knew only that in almost every simulation Armstrong had landed by this point. . . . Even now, it was impossible to know how it would end."

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