Book World: The dreams and dedication behind our leap to the moon

|     Mark Whitaker, The Washington Post     |

One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon By Charles Fishman

WHEN astronaut Neil Armstrong emerged from the spindly lunar module Eagle onto the craggy surface of the moon, he united a bitterly divided nation in a brief moment of national pride and wonder.

After years of Vietnam protests, political assassinations and urban race riots, an astonishing 94 per cent of all American households stayed up into the late night of July 20, 1969, to watch the miracle of Apollo 11 unfold on live TV.

“That’s one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong radioed once his boots touched the ground.

Then he and Buzz Aldrin gathered rock samples, hopped in lunar gravity and erected a camera that captured the iconic image of Aldrin saluting an American flag they fumblingly planted into the gray moonscape.

Yet soon enough, moon and space station missions became routine, and public indifference and second-guessing set in. So 50 years later, what are we to make of those hazy hours of glory?

– PHOTO: WP-BLOOM

In his meticulously researched and absorbingly written book, journalist Charles Fishman provides both a celebration of the Apollo 11 mission and a corrective to some of the myths that have crystallised around it.

The first involves the role of President John F Kennedy. True, Fishman documents, it was Kennedy who in 1961 announced the goal of putting a man on the moon “before this decade is out”, and who served as “our poet of space, and also our philosopher of space” in public.

“We choose to go to the moon, in this decade, and do other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard,” Kennedy famously declared in a speech at Rice University, after visiting the construction site of a new NASA centre in Houston in September 1962.

But Fishman argues that it was all about macho Cold War politics for Kennedy, after the Soviets took the lead in sending rockets, men and dogs into space.

Privately, Kennedy cooled on the project after superpower tensions eased in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis that October, and he might have dialled it back, Fishman suggests, had he lived. (“I’m not that interested in space,” an exasperated Kennedy blurted out to NASA Chief James Webb in a budget meeting when Webb wouldn’t guarantee that USD400 million could ensure a victory in the race to the moon.)

Only after Kennedy’s assassination did Lyndon Johnson double down on the Apollo programme, and Jackie Kennedy tie her husband’s name to space travel for posterity by lobbying to have the space centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida, named after him. – WP-BLOOM