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Shoot for the moon : the space race and the extraordinary voyage of Apollo 11

James Donovan’s Shoot For The Moon is the first book about America’s triumphant moon landing in 1969 that puts the feat in its proper context. Donovan balances a technical analysis of space flight with gripping biographical details about the major players involved in the three NASA programs of the 1960s: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy gave a speech before Congress exhorting America to send a man to the moon by end of the decade. The date was less than three weeks after Alan B. Shepard became the first American to go into space. Shoot For The Moon extensively documents both the achievements and failures of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo prior to the moon landing.

America’s journey into space had its origins in the surrender of German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun to US forces in 1945. At first, the expertise of von Braun and other German rocket scientists was utilized for purely military purposes. After the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in 1957, the US made a serious commitment to space travel with the formation of NASA. In fact in the next decade, the Soviet Union would achieve every space milestone before the United States, with NASA struggling to keep up in the Cold War's “space race.” That America finally surpassed the Soviet Union to reach the moon, is first due to a combination of scientific rigor, political willpower, single mindedness and luck.

Perhaps the greatest asset America had in the early years of the space race was the quality of its astronauts. Men who had been military test pilots could avert disaster with their calm command of the spacecraft. None of the 1960s astronauts died in space (though three perished in a training mission for Apollo 1), despite numerous technical failures involving the space flying equipment. Some mechanical issues could be fixed through routine simulations, but others relied on experiential learning, or the development of new technology to resolve problems.

As the Apollo program made progress in its ultimate goal of landing men on the moon in 1969, Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton picked Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, two former test pilots and a former fighter pilot, who had strong scientific backgrounds, to be the personnel for its fateful mission. After some wrangling over who would be the first man to set foot on the moon, Armstrong got the nod over Aldrin on the basis of seniority. There were some significant challenges during Apollo 11-- the Lunar Module barely had enough fuel for the descent onto the lunar surface, and the Module’s alarm system malfunctioned—but the mission went smoothly considering the extraordinary difficulty of the task at hand. The astronauts returned to Earth to a hero’s welcome after a three-week quarantine period. For once, the United States had overtaken the Soviet Union, which later abandoned its lunar ambitions in the space race.

This book is available on e-media.