In an informative companion book to the PBS miniseries of the same name, documentary filmmaker Stone, the program’s writer, producer, and director, and Andres, a consulting producer and researcher on the series, chronicle the quest for space travel that culminated in Neil Armstrong’s first step on the lunar surface.
As the authors reveal, the journey to the moon did not begin with John F. Kennedy’s commitment to a moon landing by the end of the 1960s but more than half a century earlier, in “agrarian czarist Russia,” where “a popular spiritual philosophy called cosmism” posited space travel as “the ultimate liberation” from “the shackles of Earth’s gravity” and into a realm where “all humanity would partake in cosmic immortality.” In the decades that followed, space travel piqued the public’s imagination: Science fiction magazines, novels, and movies found an eager audience, and interplanetary societies began in America and the U.K. By 1950, Arthur C. Clarke became a popular spokesman for, and writer about, interplanetary flight, so well-known that in 1964, when director Stanley Kubrick planned “an ambitious, optimistic epic about humanity’s destiny in space,” he called on Clarke as a collaborator; 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, to great acclaim, a few years later. The authors profile other major figures who influenced America’s space program throughout the 1950s and ’60s: charismatic German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun and his mentor Willy Ley, who became part of “America’s new German brain trust”; NASA head James Webb, who advocated for government support even in the face of skeptical congressmen; newscaster Edward R. Murrow, who repeatedly pressed for integrating the astronaut corps; Poppy Northcutt, the first female flight controller; and the teams of astronauts who manned the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo crews. The authors re-create in breathtaking detail the launch of Apollo 11 and Armstrong’s calm announcement four days later: “The Eagle has landed.”
A brisk narrative, deft anecdotes, and abundant illustrations enliven a well-researched history.