A bookish sort of tribute to Neil Armstrong


I was sad to hear the news today about the passing of Neil Armstrong, a true American icon and hero. I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the US space program, from childhood — watching the moon landing on our grainy black-and-white TV — through adulthood, with tragedies and triumphs viewed on television and the internet, visits to air and space museums and the Kennedy Space Center, where we gawked at the lunar capsules and launch pads, and of course, since I’m me, with fact, figures, and fictions absorbed through the pages of books.

And so, I thought I’d give an overview of my own collection of space books — some old, some new — as a tribute to a man who inspired us all to look to the stars (and to practice faux moon jumping in our backyards when no one was looking).


The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1979)

Tom Wolfe’s account of the early development of the US space program, focusing on the Mercury astronauts and what it meant to be the best, is a classic; a combination of history, social commentary, and sharply drawn wit. (I was amused to pull my copy off the shelf for the first time in years and see the hardcover price of $12.95. Ah, those were the days!)

Space by James Michener (1982)

As with all great Michener novels, Space is a heady mix of history and fiction, following the trajectory of space exploration from its post-war inception through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, climaxing with a fictional Apollo mission to the dark side of the moon. I loved this book’s combination of historical fact and fictional drama, filled with characters of both national stature as well as the supporting players on the home front. It’s been years since I’ve read this book, but I vividly recall the emotional roller coaster that it took me on.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach (2010)

Mary Roach cracks me up, plain and simple. A science writer with the phrasing and timing of a stand-up comedian, I don’t think there’s a subject out there that Mary Roach couldn’t make hilarious. In Packing for Mars, she examines the day-to-day challenges of sending human beings into space, an environment our bodies are clearly not cut out for. She answers the question on everyone’s mind (just how do astronauts go to the bathroom?), explains the best options for surviving an elevator crash, and crams in a ton of useful knowledge, all the while being incredibly entertaining.

Two more from my to-read shelf, recent additions from various used book bonanzas of the past year:

Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon by Craig Nelson (2009)

I was so happy to find a copy of this one! From the Booklist review:

Using interviews, NASA oral histories, and declassified CIA material, Nelson has produced a magnificent, very readable account of the steps that led to the success of Apollo 11. In the 40 years since the first moon landing and the 52 years since Sputnik was launched, it isn’t always remembered now what an experiment the Apollo program was, nor that the space race was as much a military as a scientific campaign. The space program was launched using the knowledge of rockets available at the end of World War II and former Third Reich scientists working in both American and Soviet programs. When it came to sending men into orbit and beyond, routines and equipment had to be invented and tested in minute increments. Nelson’s descriptions take us back, showing the assorted teams and how they worked together. We meet the astronauts and find out why they were eager to take on this mission, and we also meet the hypercareful technicians, without whom neither men nor craft would have left the ground. Nelson shows, too, how the technology and the politics of the times interrelated. Leslie Fish, songwriter, summed it up perfectly, “To all the unknown heroes, sing out to every shore / What makes one step a giant leap is all the steps before.” Nelson brightly illuminates those steps.

Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut by Mike Mullane (2006)

After reading Mary Roach’s praise for this memoir, I knew I just had to get a copy. From Amazon:

In 1978, the first group of space shuttle astronauts was introduced to the world — twenty-nine men and six women who would carry NASA through the most tumultuous years of the space shuttle program. Among them was USAF Colonel Mike Mullane, who, in his memoir Riding Rockets,strips the heroic veneer from the astronaut corps and paints them as they are — human.

Mullane’s tales of arrested development among military flyboys working with feminist pioneers and post-doc scientists are sometimes bawdy, often comical, and always entertaining. He vividly portrays every aspect of the astronaut experience, from telling a female technician which urine-collection condom size is a fit to hearing “Taps” played over a friend’s grave. He is also brutally honest in his criticism of a NASA leadership whose bungling would precipitate the Challenger disaster — killing four members of his group. A hilarious, heartfelt story of life in all its fateful uncertainty, Riding Rockets will resonate long after the call of “Wheel stop.”

I owe a great deal of my life-long fascination with the space program to my early memories of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon.

RIP, Neil Armstrong, and thank you.

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