The 50th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing triggered a slew of books on the subject and it is hard to imagine what another one could add to the genre. However, this book is by NASA’s chief historian so we should cut him some slack.
The main surprise is the relative brevity of the volume, which runs to about 200 pages of text and another 40-odd pages of chapter notes, bibliography and index. It’s also a bit sparse on illustration, with only a few black and-white photos to break up the text. But there are plenty of glorious picture books on Apollo, so who needs another one?
The author takes advantage of the time that has passed since Apollo 11’s historic mission to provide some perspectives. The main remembrances, he says, have been dominated by a “celebratory perspective” that might be called “triumphalism”, but he cites three other “counter-stories” that emphasise Apollo’s less positive aspects. These perspectives can be summarised as ‘a waste of money’ (from the political left), ‘a liberal tax-and-spend policy’ (from the political right) and ‘conspiracy theories’ (from the fringes).
That a book covering this sort of material can be written by a serious space historian shows that the Apollo story has truly come of age. While there will always be a place for books that celebrate the technology, the bravery and the political will that made Apollo possible, it is time to realise that it is increasingly ‘just part of history’ (ask anyone under 30!). Indeed, we are now more than twice as far along the timeline from Apollo 11 than the mission was from the end of the Second World War.
As Launius opines in his well-written account, “Apollo increasingly seems to be something Americans did once upon a time for reasons that have receded far into the background” that in 100 years may be remembered as “glorious and revered but viewed increasingly as an undertaking without lasting significance”. I don’t agree with his depressing final analysis, but neither of us will get to say ‘I told you so’; it will be for future generations to decide upon the true legacy of Apollo.