Five hundred years from now, there is only going to be one thing that they remember the twentieth century for, and this is that man first left one body in the solar system and landed on another body in the solar system.
—Walt Cunningham, Apollo 7 Astronaut.
It may seem naïve or overly optimistic to think that in a century marked by two World Wars, the Cold War, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and countless other tragedies of man’s own design, that such blemishes would be eclipsed by the dusty footsteps of 12 men. It’s not entirely without precedent, however. Ask any common person what they know about the 15th century and most won’t immediately conjure up memories of the Spanish Inquisition or the fall of the Byzantine Empire; but everyone can remember “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, that other major milestone in human (well, European human) exploration.
Cunningham’s words lay it out bare, though: man left the Earth and walked on the moon. It’s such a simple statement, yet so fraught with meaning and emotion. For the first time in the history of humanity—in the history of all things—the bonds of Earth were slipped and mankind became a higher thing, a cosmic force valiantly confronting the enormity of space and taking those first small steps toward fulfilling our limitless potential. It’s a beautiful, majestic event, one that has sadly been covered by the dry, technical monotony of the modern space program.
Looking upon the “Earthrise” photo taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts, the first to ever orbit the Moon, helps to pierce this complacency, and conveys the importance and magnitude of their undertaking in ways that words could not hope to capture. Perhaps in 500 years, when people see that photograph and read the legends of the men and women who contributed to our tentative introduction to the solar system, they will forgive our trespasses and see that even in the midst of chaos and confusion, there was courage and determination.
In the Shadow of the Moon is an exploration of the people who strove to reach the Moon, the astronauts, cosmonauts, scientists, engineers, wives, and others who were there and witnessed the 20th century’s most magnificent achievement. The book coincides with the release of the documentary of the same name, and both have the same goal: to allow these people to explain the early space program in their own words, and give the world a deeper view into a project which was often shielded by government edicts and NASA public relations flacks. It follows the first installment of the University of Nebraska press’ “Outward Odyssey” series, Into That Silent Sea, which chronicled the stories of the first seven Mercury astronauts who had aimed for Earth orbit. In the Shadow of the Moon is concerned with the gargantuan task assigned to those post-Mercury adventurers by President Kennedy: figure out how to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.
First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
—John F. Kennedy, 25 May 1961
The statement is unrepentant in its boldness. It’s stunning to see such initiative, and even more stunning to imagine that his seemingly outrageous demand was fulfilled (with time to spare!). When Kennedy delivered that speech, it was only a month after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space; John Glenn wouldn’t orbit until 1962. Yet, eight years, one month, and 21 days later, it was done. Not bad for a government program.
Authors Burgess and French are even-handed and equitable, and have done an excellent job in covering a vast expanse of material, taking readers through the Gemini and early Apollo programs while thankfully finding time to also include the stories of the brave Soviet cosmonauts whose status as pioneers is often lost in outdated Cold War exclusionism. The opportunity to get the true stories from the astronauts themselves is a luxury that will sadly not be available forever, and In the Shadow of the Moon has done an excellent job in gathering and eliciting the stories of these men, not just the “official reports,” but the personal touches that render them more human.
What’s startling about these early, tentative spaceflights is how much was discovered through trial and error. Theories and scientific speculation on how humans would cope with weightlessness, maneuver outside in raw space, and fly their craft across vast distances could only tell so much; it was up to the astronauts themselves to work out the kinks. Space sickness gripped astronauts like the otherwise cool and collected Frank Borman who spent much of his six-day mission to and from the Moon throwing up. A lack of consideration for simple physics left Gene Cernan struggling to survive his Gemini 9 spacewalk, blinded by a foggy visor and without foot or handholds to guide him back inside the capsule. After two terrifying hours, pilot Tom Stafford was forced to consider reentering the atmosphere with Cernan tethered outside. When the pair did return to Earth safely, according to Stafford, technicians found a pound and a half of water in each boot. Cernan had sweated off 13 pounds in two hours.
In the Shadow of the Moon is full of thrilling or amusing anecdotes like those, but the book also spends ample time illustrating the glorious successes behind the program, engineering marvels like the Lunar Module or the Saturn V rocket and the cool-heads of astronauts who saved missions (and lives) through strict training and sheer instinct. Burgess and French are reverent, clearly in awe of their subject matter and looking to dispel many of the myths that have collected around the space program. They don’t shy away from confronting controversial matters, like the Cocoa Beach social scene that often distracted the astronauts from their wives or the office politics that infiltrated Mission Control and fostered grudges among crews.
A particularly affecting chapter relates the story of Donn Eisele, the command module pilot for Apollo 7 who was an otherwise unobtrusive and low-key member of the program until he decided to become the first American astronaut to get a divorce. Struggling with troubles at home and the demanding work schedule, Eisele dared to do something that was still somewhat taboo in the mid-‘60s, and certainly was verboten among America’s elite fliers.
Burgess and French go to great lengths to shed light on a man called “the forgotten astronaut” by his commander Wally Schirra, and the result is a generous and touching tribute. The authors have a touch for weaving revealing and captivating personal narratives amidst the nuts-and-bolts space history, and work their magic to great success with Soviet cosmonaut Boris Volynov, who ran away from home to become a pilot and ended up the first Jewish man in space.
The deeper one gets into In the Shadow of the Moon, the less naïve Cunningham’s prediction seems. This isn’t just a story, it’s an epic. It’s our Odyssey, full of naked ambition and heroic grandeur, tragic failures and hopeful endeavor. In a time of uncertainty and strife, men and women on both sides of the Iron Curtain flew to glory, and invariably what they saw changed them profoundly. They saw a fragile, simple globe in a sea of darkness and land without borders or divisions, a profound image that made the petty earthbound matters seem inconsequential. What began as a race for political clout became something nobler, something more meaningful, and something that will endure among humankind well into the future.