Few stories have come to encapsulate American identity more powerfully than the Apollo moon landing of 1969. It had everything: a young president leading the nation to a new frontier, a shadowy Soviet rival hell-bent on beating him to the punch, the swashbuckling explorers themselves prepared to die in the dark for their nation (a fire two years earlier had killed the three men supposed to go instead), Neil Armstrong's heroic piloting, the most famous sentence ever spoken by a man and
It was the perfect feel-good end to a lousy decade. JFK had been slain, and so had Martin Luther King - slowing an accelerating civil rights movement. There were race riots, urban decline, and of course, Vietnam. But for a single moment, on 20 July 1969, the world gazed upwards to focus on three men in a little rocket, and suddenly none of that seemed to matter.
Exactly half a century later, we're still talking about it, not least because – despite iPhones containing a million times more computing power than the NASA machines that launched Apollo 11 – only 10 humans in total have returned and no one has been at all since 1972.
But what's left to know about the most famous mission in the history of humankind? As it turns out, plenty. Below is a selection of books that shed new light on man's small step, including the remarkable story of Armstrong himself to the persistent tin hat conspiracies that it was all faked somewhere in a California studio.
A Fire On The Moon by Norman Mailer (1971)
While the rest of the world rejoiced, the landing ruined the moon for Norman Mailer. Before 20 July 1969, it was to him just a beautiful, ethereal metaphor: great tidal magnet, purveyor of magic, the mistress of madness. The moon was there for poets to write about, not for astronauts to land on. And sticking a giant flying computer on it killed its poetry.
Still, it was a Big Story. So when
Life magazine offered him Big Money to cover the event, the writer jumped at the chance to tell the world exactly how he felt about it. The result is a first-hand account of events from almost 50 years ago evoked with such brio and breathless urgency that they somehow seem to unfold again before our eyes.
It's not just a meditation on the philosophical meaning of the event, but a fascinating and detailed narrative of the biggest news story of the decade – probably of the century, conceivably of all time – by arguably America's most famous writer (who also happened to have an aeronautical degree from Harvard). Mailer covers every aspect, from the motivations of astronauts to the culture of NASA, and even what he calls ‘the psychology of machines’ with typical lyricism and verve.
A Fire On The Moon is as good as anything in the Mailer-verse: a giant leap for New Journalism.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1979)
Tom Wolfe's electrifying account of America's earliest space trials tells the story of the charismatic fighter-jocks who took the first steps towards the moon.
These swashbuckling superheroes entered the Mercury program armed only with a college education, plenty of flying experience and no small amount of ‘The Right Stuff’. Test pilots, after all, lived fast and died even faster – one in four died in flames back then – and so
The Right Stuff became a story of, as Wolfe explains, ‘why men were willing – willing? – delighted! – to take on such odds in this, an era literary people had long since characterised as the age of the anti-hero.’
He got to know these men, their lives, and their families to record the terrifying experiences of those first orbits. Certainly,
The Right Stuff fell to Earth from the mind of a genius – as suave, satirical and vivid a book as you could hope to read on America's manned space program.
The Extraordinary Life Of Neil Armstrong by Martin Howard (2019)
In an age where more children now dream of becoming a YouTube star than an astronaut, this book could go some distance in redressing the balance. Its title is no exaggeration: his life was truly extraordinary.
A little boy with big dreams, it recounts his first experiences of making modern planes for fun to flying real ones during the Korean War to … well, we all know how the story ends! But this sweet book also explains what happened in between in inspiring detail.
Beautifully-illustrated (by Freda Chui) and stuffed with fun factoids and timelines, it is the perfect introduction to America's second most-famous moonwalker. Unlike the first, there was no showbiz swagger about Armstrong. He was a quiet man, with a loud conscience, who once refused to shoot at a group of unarmed enemy soldiers as he flew over their training ground in Korea.
The Penguin Book of Outer Space Exploration, edited by John Logsdon (2018)
Don't let its cover fool you: this is no coffee-table book. There are more moons around Jupiter than images between its pages, but for what it lacks in visual stimuli, it makes up for in declassified space-documents tenfold.
To even the most learned of NASA nerds, this Aladdin's Cave of speeches, memos, policy statements, meeting minutes and more is the definitive paper trail of NASA's six-decade adventure deeper into space, from its founding and the first American astronauts in space to the moon landings, the Challenger disaster and the daring Hubble Telescope repairs and more.
Editor John Logsdon, arguably the most prolific space policy historian in the world, provides an expert commentary that puts the documents into context and examines their significance. Why, exactly, did America decide to tackle space? Why did NASA shoot down a 1959 proposal from the original Mercury Seven astronauts to meet their Soviet counterparts and share information? This is essential reading for anyone who wishes to venture deep into unknown space policy.
Too Far From Home: A Story of Life and Death in Space by Chris Jones (2007)
On 1 February 2003, NASA’s space shuttle Columbia blew apart over Texas as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board. But while the world grieved in the days following the disaster, three lonely men in space had a rather more complicated reaction.
After three months in the International Space Station (ISS), US astronauts Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit, and Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin had been preparing to come home. But then NASA suspended all space travel indefinitely in the aftermath to the tragedy. This is the story of their wait to return to Earth.
It may have occurred a quarter of a century after Armstrong and Aldrin kicked up dust on the moon, but it provides a timeless portrait of loneliness, claustrophobia and the day-to-day humdrum of life in space (no spitting allowed – they have to swallow their toothpaste, and moisture from their sweat eventually winds up in their tea). A fascinating account of what happens in space, when nothing much happens at all.
Moonshot: The Inside Story of Mankind's Greatest Adventure by Dan Parry (2009)
Flatulence is a big problem in space. Something to do with hydrogen bubbles in zero-gravity water. Such a problem, in fact, that Aldrin joked that, if the ship's rockets had failed, the crew could have self-propelled themselves back to Earth quite unmentionably.
Parry's telling of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins' trip to the moon is certainly one of the most detailed in the canon. But it's about far more than just space wind. Covering every step of the epic mission with an intense, thriller-ish style, he is great on the personalities of the three men – passionate Aldrin, coolheaded Collins and enigmatic Armstrong.
You may be surprised to learn that the average age of staff at mission control was 26, and that Aldrin had to fix the Lunar Landing Module, mid-mission, with a felt-tip pen. That's the main thrust of Moon Shot: how nerve-shatteringly risky it all was, and how much could've gone wrong, nearly went wrong and actually went wrong... and yet, they survived.
Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped Modern History by David Aaronovitch (2010)
Yes: but no stars are visible in the pictures. Where's the blast crater under the landing module? And those shadows fall in a weird way. Wake up! Mankind never had the technology to reach the moon. Stanley Kubrick staged it all in a film studio. Or so conspiracy theorists would have you believe.
The moon landings have been dogged by weird-beard conspiracy theories pretty much ever since they definitely happened (incidentally the aforementioned are to do with camera-exposure times, the way thrust works in a vacuum and the reflective qualities of moondust, respectively), making a thorough debunking essential.
Chapter five of
Voodoo Histories demolishes the suggestion they were faked with withering and entertaining sobriety. Other chapters do the same for other high-profile theories (Princess Diana's death, 9/11 etc.), but we're here to talk about the moon landings, and chapter five is a must-read for anyone who's been bored rigid at a dinner party by a foil-headed moon-denier and wished they could shut them up for good.