Review: Moonshot by Dan Parry

A bonus Monday morning review for you, with the inside story on the first moon landing – and in particular how Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins came to depend upon each other during mankind’s most pioneering endeavour.

Whilst Parry focuses on the Apollo 11 landing, he weaves in the myriad other stories that give the reader a flavour of how difficult, exciting, and dangerous it was (Armstrong estimated that he and Buzz only had a 50/50 chance of making it back).

As with most books on the Race for Space, it’s the astronauts themselves that really shine – each one of them capable of making complex decisions under the most intense pressure. Their attitude in the face of almost certain death is hard to describe. Take Armstrong’s matter-of-fact response to this close call:

“After Neil’s ejection at Ellington Air Force Base the previous year, the vehicle had plummeted to the ground before bursting into flames beneath him as he dangled from his parachute…

“Word quickly spread to the Manned Spacecraft Centre, where an hour later Alan Bean overheard a group of fellow astronauts discussing the accident. “That’s bullshit”, Bean exclaimed, “I just came out of the office and Neil’s there at his desk… shuffling some papers”.

Running back to the office, Bean checked the story with Armstrong who confirmed it was true, saying, “I mean what are you going to do? It’s one of those days when you lose a machine”.

What a guy. Every last one of the astronaut has a whole bunch of amazing stories like this one, and they make for fantastic reading.

Moonshot is incredibly well researched – the amount detail Parry wades through can be overwhelming at times. That said, he still keeps things moving swiftly, ratcheting up the tension, highlighting the dangers, and bringing it to life once more – albeit without any of the flare that Tom Wolfe used in the Right Stuff (Moonshot reads like a newspaper by comparison).

Whilst the astronauts and the moon landings are examined in forensic detail, this book falls woefully short on its coverage of the dark secret of the origins of the space race.

The Apollo missions were based on rockets pioneered by a team of Nazi scientists led by SS officer Wernher von Braun, in Peenemunde and Mittelwerk in Germany during WWII. The Nazis were able to build their rockets thanks to nearby death camps, where 20,000 people were killed (von Braun almost certainly knew about this – he was no innocent among this horror). Following the war, von Braun and most of his scientists were captured by the US, and put to work on the space programme as part of Operation Paperclip (the Allies were after all of the top scientific minds to give them the edge in any future war).

This is an awful secret, and one that should not be glossed over, yet Parry covers this entire story off in only two sentences. Whilst you could argue that death camps at Peenemunde and Mittelwerk don’t need to be covered by a book that aims to cover only the first moon landing, it makes it hard to take Moonshot seriously – especially as Moonshot is supposed to “tell the compelling true story of an event that captured the imagination of generations”.

Two sentences? Come on Parry, you can do better than that. I guess it’s like Michael Chabon wrote in Moonglow“Nobody wanted to hear that America’s ascent to the Moon had been made with a ladder of bones.”

I’d recommend this one if you’re only after a cursory look at the Space Race. Otherwise, you’re best off looking elsewhere.

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