29 March 2018 reviews

Northern Arizona Space Training

Another space-related volume in the ‘Images of Modern America’ series, this book is arguably about as ‘niche’ as they get, being dedicated to the geology training of Apollo astronauts in Northern Arizona in the 1960s. The unusual cover picture aptly summarises the contents: it shows a spacesuited geologist testing a prototype Apollo geological camera on an undulating grassy plane; his ‘helmet’ appears to be made from Bako foil and duct tape; a ‘mock-up’ of the lunar module ascent stage mounted on a flatbed truck is visible in the background.

In essence, the book is a tribute to astrogeologist Gene Shoemaker, who is widely regarded as the driving force behind astronaut geological training for the Apollo missions. The short introduction to this book of images recalls how Brainerd Holmes, then head of NASA’s Office of Manned Spaceflight, “strongly opposed” Shoemaker’s lobbying for lunar science. Holmes’ attitude towards scientists, reveals the text, was “essentially, ‘buzz off’. The president had directed us to get Americans to the Moon…in this decade, but nowhere did he mention picking up stones or taking pictures”. Shoemaker may not have been able to follow his dream of becoming an astronaut, but he did get geology on the agency’s radar, and even a professional geologist on the final mission.

Most of the book’s pages contain two black-and-white photos with extended captions grouped into seven chapters that cover the programme from training in Meteor Crater to exploring the Moon itself; in between, we find astronauts hiking through Grand Canyon, explosives engineers creating mock crater fields and astronomers mapping the Moon. We even discover that the LM mock-up shown on the cover was not the cheapest available: that accolade is surely deserved by the canvas tent on a spindly aluminium platform! Sometimes, collections of space-related photos have an all-too-familiar feel, often because of uninspired curation and lazy editing, but the majority in this book are not widely known. And astronaut Gene Cernan’s seriously uncool plaid trousers have to be seen to be believed!

Apart from its main theme of astrogeology, the book’s introduction highlights a staggering truth about the Apollo era. By 2020, the time that has passed since the Apollo 11 mission will equal the period separating that mission from the end of World War I. Now is that an indictment of mankind’s commitment to exploring space or what?

Mark Williamson, Space Technology Consultant

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