It is hardly surprising that the Apollo programme, which was lauded as one of humanity's greatest achievements, should have spawned a vibrant niche in publishing. In the wake of the missions, innumerable books commemorated the flights of the Apollo crews as publishers took advantage of the public's interest. But then, within ten years, the story was held to be less fascinating and new books on Apollo became increasingly rare.
Things began to change, however, beginning with the twentieth anniversary of the first manned landing on the Moon in 1969. A generation who had watched Apollo on their parents' television screens with wide-eyed wonder had grown up and taken the reins of society. To them and those who were born after the landings, the programme became the product of the previous generation and, at this point, retrospectives began to appear. Apollo is now written as history rather than as current events. However, much that has become available concentrates on the programme's conception and on those who transformed it from engineers' dreams into a superpower's goals. A particularly popular sub-niche is the astronaut biography, a somewhat variable collection of tomes that do much to relate the story of humanity's only foray away from the grip of planet Earth. Other volumes relate, in varying levels of detail, what the intrepid explorers actually did during their far too brief spells on the surface of another world.
Remarkably few books discuss the practical aspects of how the voyage from the Earth to the Moon was achieved. The genre seldom describes the equipment that was used; nor does it relate the procedures and techniques that allowed the Apollo crews to accomplish their audacious task: in general, historians are not concerned with how a feat was achieved technically. Instead, the dominant form of written history on Apollo studies the experiences and interrelationships of the people involved, the political and social milieu in which they operated or it is the polemic and ranting of those who are doing the commentating. This is all well and good - to a point. The same applies to the modern media. The details of how something was achieved are considered to be the realm of the 'geek' or 'nerd', and should not be presented to the general public.
One particularly thoughtful television programme of the late twentieth century looked at the conflict between reporting as the dissemination of facts, and reporting as the telling of human interest stories. Produced by actor Tom Hanks, the drama series From the Earth to the Moon included an episode about the flight of Apollo 13, a flight that has become a byword for human doggedness and ingenuity in the face of overwhelming challenges. Rather than remake a story that had been well told in an earlier cinema release, the writers concocted a battle of wills between two characters - an older journalist who read up on the technicalities and complexities of the mission and did his level best to explain them to the public, and a young, upstart reporter whose mantra was human interest. Not for him the reading of the spacecraft's checklist or of NASA's official press kit. A line from the upstart makes the case for the modern view. "You think America wants to know about PC burns and passive thermal rolls? That's not news, man. That is 'Sominex' '' - the latter being a brand of sleeping pill. He perceived an America that neither understood nor cared about science and had little interest in engineering niceties. What they wanted to read about was the emotional state of the families of the stricken astronauts.
But in the age of the internet, this uninformed public is swimming in an ocean of information, much of which is of dubious accuracy. Among this deluge of ideas is one that tests their understanding of historical truth. In recent years, whether for financial gain or just as a pseudo-intellectual prank, people have taken to questioning the veracity of Apollo's greatest achievement. Websites abound that mock the very idea of America having achieved moonlandings in the 1960s and 1970s. They pick spurious holes in the historical record, relying on the ignorance of the public at large, and they feed on a distrust of big government in order to sell books and TV to a section of society that savours and favours mammoth conspiracy theories.
The fact that one of the best documented events of history could be considered to be a hoax thrives partly because so few people actually know how the feat was achieved, or how the most basic laws of physics express themselves beyond the surface of our planet. I once spoke with a head teacher - an educated man in charge of over a thousand teenage pupils - who could quote Shakespeare as knowledgeably as he could discuss football. I asked him why the crews on board the Space Shuttle were seen to float about the cabin. ''Because there's no gravity in space, of course,'' was the reply. At the time, I didn't have the heart to enquire of him what kept the Moon in its orbit around Earth. I wasn't trying to mock him but I wanted to understand the extent to which concepts derived from basic science were understood by the public. I soon learned that ignorance in science and engineering is the norm.
The provocative suggestion that the Moon landings were faked is what evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins would call a successful meme. Like the gene, it is self-replicating; an idea that has the requisite characteristics that allow it to sustain and be passed from one credulous mind to the next - carried forward because it can easily replicate through a population who are largely scientifically illiterate. Distorting facts to support a false theory is a straightforward exercise, including a sprinkling of pseudo-scientific jargon, when the audience lacks the tools, and often the inclination, to examine them critically. To refute these false tales requires intellectual rigour and a well-grounded knowledge of the physical world, the possession of which would likely inoculate a person from taking such claims seriously in the first place. One of my motives for writing this book was to provide a little of the knowledge that might help to refute the absurd assertion that Apollo was faked.
Another reason behind the book was a desire to share something of my own personal journey in reaching an understanding of how this wonderfully audacious adventure was achieved. Like so many of my age, Apollo happened at an impressionable time in my life. I was only just old enough to realise that a flight to the Moon would be an incredible, fantastic thing to attempt; at which point, I watched America promptly realise that dream before my eyes. The deep, almost primeval sense of wonder that this adventure left with me transcends its grubby, political roots, and has never really departed with childhood. Then the arrival of the internet in our household, soon after the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, blew pure oxygen over the embers of this fascination. It lit a vigorous fire because, for the first time, I could find material that explained in great detail just how this difficult endeavour was executed. Equally important was being able to connect with others who had been similarly touched by Apollo, eventually having the honour to link up with some of those who were lucky enough to have taken part.
This book and my personal journey through Apollo, discovering how it all functioned and what happened on another world, owe an endless debt of gratitude more to one man than to any others I have encountered along the way. Geographical distance has so far prohibited me from having the opportunity to shake his hand and thank him personally, as he lives on the other side of the world. Yet the internet allows me to count him as one of my closest friends. Eric Jones took on the monumental task of compiling a journal of the first era of lunar exploration after becoming frustrated at how his country had shelved the lessons learned when they spent billions of dollars in going to the Moon. Inspired by J. C. Beaglehole's journals of Captain James Cook's exploration 200 years earlier, he recounted and explained every moment the Apollo crews spent on the lunar surface. By making his efforts freely available on the internet, I and people from around the world came on board, adding our time and talents to make the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal website one of the most remarkable historic documents from the twentieth century.
My chosen role was to extend the journal to include the portions of the flights to and from the Moon. Taking Eric's work as my model, I set out to explain what was occurring moment by moment, and while doing so, I learned more than I could have imagined about how, at a broad level, the Apollo jigsaw fitted together. This book is my attempt to pass on this knowledge to a wider audience.
Most of the book will take the reader through the various stages of the Apollo flights, from before their spectacular launches at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the decks of the aircraft carriers that recovered the crews from the Pacific Ocean a week or two later. For newcomers to the subject, I have devoted the first two chapters to outlining Apollo's genesis and achievements; and a bibliography at the end of the book will provide years of excellent reading for those who wish to delve further.
This is the tale of how Apollo flew to the Moon and how the United States of America brought together the finest of its people and skills to achieve a dream as old as the human race, turning the ancient light in the sky into a new world to be explored. It describes the efforts involved not only in successfully flying to the Moon, but in returning safely, providing new knowledge and a new perspective on the human position within the cosmos.
It may be appropriate to mention a few points on general terminology, as American engineers, scientists and technologists have a habit of constructing long descriptive names for their ideas and systems, which they promptly shorten to an acronym. Their use of the resulting words and phrases then settles into a form that is often chaotic and contradictory. In this book, I have been unable to avoid filling the text with some of the same arcane acronyms that clog up so much discussion of technical matters. However, those that I have used are so ubiquitous in the Apollo story that they will soon be seen as old friends, and readers will be well served by making them a familiar part of their vocabulary. Notes have been included in the glossary to try to deal with the various and inconsistent ways in which acronyms were pronounced.
Through my own science and engineering education, I have a bias towards the use of SI units and, as a result, those units have been used throughout the book. This is a controversial path to tread as it is often pointed out to me that those who carried out the achievement used 'English' or 'Imperial' units, and that it would only be proper for books on the topic to do likewise. This argument holds no more weight for me than the suggestion that books on Egyptology should exclusively be written in cubits. SI is the dominant system of scientific and engineering expression in the world. NASA also began to use it for its science publications in 1970. It therefore seems appropriate to explain Apollo in units that will have the widest possible understanding. Where English units are used in dialogue, a suitable SI equivalent will be near at hand.
So here's my book, and I hope you like it.
Bearsden, Scotland September 2007
W. David Woods
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