Posted on Sun 04 January 2015

Rocket Science

I grew up with a fascination for the Apollo space programme and remember as a child staring at the moon with wonder and thinking that a man had walked about up there. Despite this early interest, I have never read that much about the history of the race to the moon. Of course I watched the movie Apollo 13 and I also collected the ‘Observers‘ books of manned spaceflight, written by Reginald Turnill, when I was young. My interest was rekindled just over a year ago by an Apollo 11 ‘Haynes’ manual I received as a Christmas gift and this led to a desire to explore the history of this programme in more detail.

While there are plenty of books full of great photographs, I found it harder to find the more descriptive book I was looking for. In the end I decided that (despite the awful cover art) the book How Apollo Flew to the Moon by W. David Woods appeared to suit my needs. This is quite a technical book and the diagrams and photographs — although they get the job done — are not great. On the other hand the text is well-written and well researched. This is clearly an author who knows his subject well enough to present it quite simply while omitting little of the essential detail.

The book starts conventionally enough with a short history of the space race and each of the Apollo missions. I found it really interesting to learn that, while the later Apollo missions were viewed with public apathy and the budget was cut, NASA was actually quite ambitious with a series of ‘J’ missions that utilised upgraded hardware and software to support extended visits to the moon that could carry far more scientific hardware.

What made this book outstanding for me is the step-by-step description of a moon flight given in the section from chapter 3 onwards. The content is rather complex (but still readable), covering principles of inertial navigation, celestial mechanics and the communication systems used. If I have one criticism, it is that the author often re-explains something covered in an earlier chapter as if this were a book for dipping in to. I think this description of a space flight is best read as a single narrative from launch to touch-down.

The great achievement of this book is that the insights gained do not diminish any of the sense of awe and wonder at what was the apogee of the manned space exploration programme.

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