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How High the Sky : The pure optimism of the Apollo space program seems even more extraordinary 25 years later. : A MAN ON THE MOON: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, By Andrew Chaikin (Viking: $24.95; 584 pp.) : MOON SHOT: The Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon, By Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton . With Jay Barbree and Howard Benedict (Turner Publishing: $21.95; 365 pp.) : DEKE! U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the Shuttle, By Donald K. "Deke" Slayton with Michael Cassutt (St. Martin's Press/Forge: $23.95; 368 pp.)

July 03, 1994|Terry Bisson | Terry Bisson is the author of "Bears Discover Fire" and "Voyage to the Red Planet."

Remember when man went to the moon? You may have missed it. Lots of us did. The summer of 1969 was tipped steeply toward the future, and for those of us who were certain that the U.S. empire was in its final days, who were making sandwiches for the radical underground or packing our bags for the back-country communes, and for millions of the less alienated as well, Neil Armstrong's first step onto another world seemed, already, ancient history. A couple of white guys on the moon? A flag held out with wire? It was more artifact than harbinger, and to prove it, there was the voice of the trickster himself, Richard Nixon, looping back through space, congratulating himself on behalf of all humanity.

I thought then that the Moon deserved better. I think today that Apollo deserved better.

As Andrew Chaikin points out in "A Man on the Moon," "Apollo was the last great act this country played out of optimism, if looking forward to the future." But the America that Kennedy pointed toward the moon in 1961 was not the America that arrived there in 1969. It had been shattered and transformed by youth revolt and racial conflict. The irony of Apollo was that its achievement spanned one of the century's pivotal decades and was overshadowed by another of humanity's watershed triumphs: Vietnam, the first decisive military victory of a Third World people over a neocolonial superpower.

None of this was the fault of Apollo, which was one of the great voyages in human history, and we are nothing if not a voyaging species. Together with the Russians (for the cosmonauts provided the stimulus of competition, even if they turned out to have been only shadowboxing with the Moon), Apollo yanked the world from suborbital to off-planet flight, recapitulating aviation's dizzying half-century of progress in less than a decade. And did it, let it be said, with grace and style and even a certain uncharacteristic (for America, and for science) humility.

It didn't have to turn out that way. Apollo was a compromise from the start, a hybrid of Nazi rocketry, Cold War competition, L.B.J. pork-barrel politics and Kennedy glamour (with the astronauts as runway models). Yet it succeeded so magnificently because it had unique strengths. The Russians failed organizationally, not scientifically, with competing agencies fighting behind a wall of secrecy. NASA, by contrast not only with the Russians but with our own growing secretiveness, operated in the daylight with an extraordinary clarity of purpose and willingness to experiment. Perhaps most fortunate, NASA was independent of the military. By the time NASA become a proper, calcified, hypocritical, full-blown bureaucracy, Apollo was history and the footprints were on the moon.

Mercury/Gemini/Apollo is one story, and a story that has been told many times, by journalists and historians and hacks, by astronauts such as Frank Borman, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, and by belles-lettres luminaries such as Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and even James Michener, who made of space a sort of sub-subzero South Pacific. It was to be expected that the 25th anniversary of Apollo 11 this summer would produce a fresh new spate of books. And I am pleased to note that one of them, Andrew Chaikin's "A Man on the Moon," is more than worthy of its grand subject.

Chaikin's eight years of labor and hundreds of hours of interviews have yielded what will surely be considered the authoritative history of Apollo. A second newcomer, "Deke!," ranks with Michael Collins' earlier "Carrying the Fire" as one of the most vivid personal accounts. And a third, "Moon Shot," falls back and burns in the atmosphere, so to speak.

All three books claim to tell the inside, the untold, the secret story of Apollo. But the real secret of Apollo is that there were no secrets. (Indeed, one wonders if we would have made it to the moon on Kennedy's schedule--"before this decade is out"--if the Russians had been as open, and we had known how far behind they were.) There are details, trivia, personal glimpses (such as astronaut Pete Conrad's bet with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci as to what his first words on the moon would be), but there are no shocking revelations. Perhaps that is appropriate, for unlike the poles or the upper Amazon, the Moon was an explorers' goal everyone had already seen.

Chaikin's book belongs to that new breed of personalized history perhaps best exemplified by the late Randy Shilts ("And the Band Played On") or James Gleick ("Chaos: Making a New Science") in which the scientific or political adventure is seen through the lens of personality. Chaikin lets the astronauts "take us" through the program and to the moon, but he doesn't slight the less-known characters (some with peculiarly American names such as Chuck Berry, Tom Paine and Christopher Columbus Kraft) who built and ran NASA.

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