ANDREW CHAIKIN begins ``A Man On The Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts'' with the Apollo program's lowest point: the January 1967 fire in the cockpit of Apollo 1 that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.
These men did not die heroes' deaths. They weren't killed during a space launch, but were asphyxiated by smoke during a full-scale dress-rehearsal. This story is a shocking way to start a book that is probably the best history of the Apollo space program, but it effectively demonstrates the magnitude of the project's goals:
``[N]o one had ever tried to assemble a moonship before. The Apollo command module was the most complex flying machine ever devised, an intricate package crammed full of state-of-the-art equipment. It would have been naive not to expect all kinds of things to go wrong the first time they put one together,'' Chaikin writes.
There was another, hidden blessing to the disaster, he writes, that the other astronauts came to admit: ``[T]he wreckage of Apollo 1 was there for the accident board to examine, not a silent tomb circling the earth or drifting in the translunar void. Although three men had died, three or perhaps six more lives had probably been saved.''
This is the kind of glimpse into the pragmatic, black-and-white world of the Apollo astronauts that fills ``A Man On The Moon.'' Chaikin's monumental work succeeds for one simple reason: He is the only journalist who has interviewed all of the surviving Apollo astronauts (except one who died in 1982) for a project such as this. And it wasn't easy. Many of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's astronauts were loners - independent hot-shots whose emotions were as much a secret to themselves as to those around them.
It took Chaikin eight years of research in NASA's archives - listening to the declassified command-module tapes (with words that were never broadcast back to mission control) and reading the debriefing transcripts and hundreds of other interviews - to make the moon project make sense. The last of the astronauts, Chaikin writes in his preface, agreed to be interviewed only after six years of perseverance - after he had seen the results of the research so far.
Nevertheless, this book never sinks to the laudatory pabulum of an authorized history. Instead, Chaikin, a former editor of Sky & Telescope magazine, has produced a truly authentic history with more inside stories, more details, recollections, and feelings of all the men who traveled to the moon, than any other account of the Apollo program.
And yet, Chaikin's opus does not read like a long collection of facts: It is a captivating epic story with a tragic beginning and a tragic ending. It is the story of a nation that overcame almost insurmountable odds to reach for the moon - and then lost interest.
In his prologue, Chaikin recounts President Kennedy's May 1961 challenge to Congress to ``land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth'' before the decade was out. Eight years, two months, and 225 pages later, this mission was accomplished by the crew of Apollo 11.
In the remaining two-thirds of the book, Chaikin reveals the lasting value of the Apollo program: the scientific experiments that opened up our understanding of the moon and our own planet; the explosion aboard Apollo 13, which demonstrated that severe mishaps in space need not prove fatal to the crew; and the incredible partnership between the men on the moon and the men at Mission Control. ``It was being part of a team that was dedicated to something that transcended individual aspirations. That's what Apollo was,'' astronaut Ken Mattingly told Chaikin. ``It was thousands of people who were willing to work day and night....''
That sense of teamwork faded as dollars were drained from NASA's budget. Each Apollo mission developed new space-exploration techniques, brought back more scientific data, and increased our understanding of the earth and the moon.
Even so, the last mission, Apollo 20, was canceled so that its enormous Saturn V rocket could be used to launch a space station. Two other missions were also cut because of budgetary pressure. ``Today, at the NASA space centers in Houston and Florida, the Saturn V's for Apollo 18 and 19 lie on tourist stands, like unfinished obelisks, reminders of a time that seems now as remote as the moon itself,'' Chaikin writes.
Certainly President Nixon had little interest in exploring the universe for the good of humanity. Chaikin writes about how Nixon, while more than happy to bask in the glory of the first moon landing, was unwilling to fund space exploration that would pay off after he left office. There was even pressure within the White House, Chaikin reveals, to scrap more moon missions: Why tempt fate, and the possibility of bad publicity, once Kennedy's original objective had been reached?
After reaching the moon, NASA's fortunes seemed to speed downhill. Almost exactly 10 years later, NASA's space station - Sky Lab - was left to fall out of orbit and burn up over the Pacific Ocean in 1979. Seven years after that, the nation's space shuttle, Challenger, blew up while launching on an uncharacteristically cold Florida morning. But perhaps the real tragedy is that everything was risked, yet the know-how and will to reach the moon has been lost. ``I tell all my friends: We could not go to the moon today. We can not do it,'' Mattingly told Chaikin. Today the moon is farther away than the day the Apollo project was started.
Have we learned all there is to know about our satellite? Chaikin doesn't see how. Twelve men set foot on the moon's surface, but the moon has the surface area of Africa. How could 12 men, spending less than four days apiece walking around the ground, explore all of Africa? Yes, we have been to the moon, but we still have not claimed her as ours.