In the Shadow of the Moon – Francis French, Colin Burgess, Gary L. Willprecht

When I was in my teens, I had a poster showing Earthrise – a photo, I know now, by Bill Anders – with the quote “Someday I would like to stand on the moon, look through a quarter of a million miles of space and say There certainly is a beautiful Earth out tonight.” I loved that poster; I don’t know what happened to it, but to my joy I found a close facsimile online, reminded by tehis book to go look for it. I loved that quote – and I meant it. I was (and am) a Trekkie. I loved the shuttle program. My heart broke on January 28, 1986, and again on February 3, 1990. One of the literally happiest moments of my life was hearing that there really, truly, honestly is water on Mars. And when I look at the moon, more often than not I’m thinking not only how beautiful but about the 47-year-old footprints up there, and why the hell aren’t we up there right now?

When this book’s narrator, Gary Willprecht, offered In the Shadow of the Moon in the Goodreads Audiobooks group free for review, I realized how shamefully little I actually know about those early days of the space program. Apart from reading and watching The Right Stuff back in the day (from which I learned the phrase I actually use now and then, “Our rockets always blow up”, and the one I have to be careful about using, “screw the pooch”), and that glorious documentary I can’t remember the name of, I’ve never stirred myself to fix that. (I have the same issues with Civil War generals: fascinated but dumb, that’s me.)

Still, I am a fan of the space program, in a big way. And I’ve always had to fight a hair–trigger reaction of outrage whenever I hear the time–worn complaint that “there are so many problems on earth, why do we need spend the money or risk people by sending them into space?” My first reaction is always confusion – how could you ask that?? But, growing up, I’ve tried to come up with a better reaction, using actual words. As I hoped, this book helped.

As they tried to launch Gemini 6, a mission set to attempt the first rendezvous in space, a certain set of variables came together on the launchpad. In the resulting situation the astronauts were supposed to, going strictly by the book, eject. “Had Schirra and Stafford ejected from the spacecraft, it would have been damaged beyond repair by the ejection–seat rockets, and the rendezvous with Gemini 7 would never have happened.” Schirra had launched before; he knew what it felt like; he would have felt the liftoff through his seat. So even though the computer sent a signal to the clock in the capsule showing they had lifted off, he never felt it, so he knew he didn’t need to eject. The quote in the book is “I had my butt working for me.” So maybe there’s my answer to the idiots uninspired folks who have asked why we need to send people into space, why not just keep sending unmanned vehicles up. Unmanned craft don’t have butts.

“Individuals and the choices they made once again made the difference”… “Because of Schirra’s risky decision, the mission was saved.” Unmanned craft also can’t make risky decisions.

And as to why the American space program has been so spotty, why it faltered in the seventies and has all but died again now … The blame is always placed on the American public. The country is fickle and easily bored, and interest wanes, so it’s hard to keep it all going. Yet another thing I found sad in this book was this quote from Dick Gordon: “We had become, as a team, very complacent about the environment in which we were operating.” My interest has never waned; my passion for getting our butts into space has never slackened; I find it impossible to believe that if, I were working on the space program, I would not bounce out of bed every morning and hasten to work with a song in my heart and an awed glee at the whole idea of it. I guess I’m the oddball, since even the astronauts became blasé.
I had to stop for a while about two thirds of the way into the book, because quite frankly the disillusionment and irritation became a bit too much. The fighter pilot mentality battled the scientist mindset every step of the way, and the fight wasn’t pretty. The back–biting and in–fighting and petty politics among the astronauts was hard to listen to. Back–biting, bitching, bitterness, and bile – oh, and bitchiness. (Oh, and vomiting, but that would be a whole other paragraph.) Were the best possible astronauts assigned to each flight? Who knows? I’m old enough that I don’t expect anything but feet of clay in my heroes – but these are our first astronauts. I projected onto them the giddy intoxication of everything about the space program to an avid Trekkie. Instead, I heard about the actual contempt from the astronauts over all the excitement among the general public about stepping onto the lunar surface, because test pilots get excited about flying, not getting out of the vehicle)… Really? Where is all that awe and glee? Was there no excitement at all in some of them about being among the first human beings to set foot on a planetary body other than Terra? It baffles me. In fact, Neil Armstrong apparently didn’t understand why there was such a fuss over going to the moon. That goes beyond bafflement to complete stupefaction. It makes no sense.

I was also dismayed about the lack of dissemination of information. I understand the rabid competitiveness of the space race, but not only did the Russians not pass on any data which might have increased safety for American astronauts (or, I daresay, vice versa), Americans didn’t pass on anything to Americans – they learned nearly nothing from earlier missions, made the same mistakes over and over.

And then there’s the emotional blackmail used by some astronauts, or NASA (or both), in personal relationships. “If you upset me it will affect my performance in the cockpit, and I could die.” There’s some truth in that, of course – that’s why it worked – but good lord, you can’t tell me the Astronauts Wives Club knew what they were getting into.

Chapter after chapter I dreaded the story of the Apollo 1 fire. I specifically did not look up the date, because in a way it would have been harder knowing exactly when to expect it. (It was January 27, 1967… Challenger was January 28, 1986. I don’t like the end of January.) Well… I don’t know if it really could have been harder. It was horrible. Gus Grissom went to Grumman, the company which manufactured most if not all of the tech for the program, and went department by department throughout the company to shake each employee’s hand. He wanted to meet the people involved in working on this materiel which was meant to protect and preserve his life, and he wanted them to have a face to remember as they worked, to perhaps sharpen their attention in their work. It didn’t help.

Apollo 1 crew during simulator-training. Left to right: Chaffee, White, Grissom

While I was flailing in grief and pain of the accident, there came this line, a quote from engineer Sam Beddingfield: “Moments later an ambulance tore past, heading for the gantry area. I could hear sirens going off near the pad, and assumed there’d been an accident somewhere. My major concern was that it might further delay my evacuation systems check with the crew”. I already felt sick … as counter-irritants go, that was a powerful one.

The narration was very good, though at times a little awkward – especially the Russian–concentrated bits; new or longer Russian names sound like they were spliced in, with different sound level and timbre. And the voice in which astronaut (and other) quotes are read was a little uncomfortable.

Commemorative plaque left on moon at Hadley-Apennine landing site. A close-up view of a commemorative plaque left on the Moon at the Hadley-Apennine landing site in memory of 14 NASA astronauts and USSR cosmonauts, now deceased. Their names are inscribed in alphabetical order on the plaque. The plaque was stuck in the lunar soil by Astronauts David R. Scott and James B. Irwin during their Apollo 15 lunar surface extravehicular activity. The tiny, man-like object represents the figure of a fallen astronaut/cosmonaut.

There was a truly massive amounts of time spent on Donn Eisele’s divorce – without a paper copy it’s hard to judge how many pages (and listening at work means constant interruption, so it’s hard to accurately clock it). But it just went on and on. It was important – it was a test flight in a whole different way, as the first divorce among a group of men who were being portrayed as the squeakiest of the squeaky clean (and really it’s no wonder the disillusionment hit so hard, given the snow job perpetrated by NASA). But the level of detail was immense.


And to be honest, though I knew virtually nothing about the history of the Russian quest for the moon landing … I was fine with that. It’s part of the theme of the book – the voyage to the moon – but I wasn’t expecting the Russian side, and I simply was just not interested. Maybe if it had alternated a bit more regularly with the American program it would have held my interest a bit better, but as it was there was a long chunk of the Russian program dropped in about midway, and – like Eisele’s divorce – it just went on and on. And yet though it brings in the death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, but I had to look him up to find out what happened. One of those interruptions might have made me miss a mention, but I didn’t hear it.

Overall, it’s kind of hard to separate my reaction to the content of the book (like the fact that equipment for lunar landings after Apollo 17 was already built – – and apparently either went straight into storage or was scrapped) from my reaction to the writing and narration. There were a couple of sections – while astronauts were vomiting right and left, and when the disillusionment set in – when I would have been content slapping the whole thing with two stars, whatever else happened. And there were times when the narrator’s way of using slight variations on the same voice for all of the quotes in the book got on my last nerve. And I found the end of the book quite abrupt – there, done, that’s – literally – all they wrote.

But the book also relayed the story of those early years quite effectively, those primitive early flights. How terrifying a loss of telemetry was. How even the most prepared astronaut or engineer could be caught off guard by the simplest thing in this brand new environment. It was fascinating to learn that Michael Collins was a bit claustrophobic; that sextants were still being used in 1968; and for the meaning of “dark-adapted eye” (also the title of a Ruth Rendell novel) to finally click in my mind. On the whole, it was quite worthwhile. Who needs illusion and idealism, anyway? Being jaded makes life much less painful. Right?


Apollo 11

I received a copy of this audiobook from the narrator via the Goodreads Audiobooks group – thank you.

A few more quotes:

…Humans have not returned to the moon since. …
Several things stopped it: economics, desire, and leadership. The reward to risk ration went down. Put them all together … There’s always this controversy, too, over ‘why spend all this money in space?’ and all that kind of thing. Not a damn nickel has been spent in space – it’s spent right here, right here on earth. I think of our advances in technology, and I think the space program has given them all to us. Our standard of living and the advances in technology have been accelerated because of our space program. The only other event that accelerates technology is war. You know which one I would choose? I think you would too. You always hear about so many social ills that this country has to take care of. I propose to you that if our social ills had been a priority back in the 1700’s and 1800’s, the western boundary of the United States would be Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains.
– astronaut Richard F. Gordon, Jr.

Neil Armstrong

I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer –– born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free–body diagrams, transformed by Laplace, and propelled by compressible flow.”
–– Neil Armstrong, February 2000 (he was from Wapokoneta, Ohio – which is where Kent Boyd of So You Think You Can Dance lived. Which has nothing to do with anything.)

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? – Kennedy

To the surprise of some, Stafford argued that [Apollo 10] shouldn’t land. The commander was ruling himself out of becoming the first person to walk on the moon. The reasons he did so are sound, practical ones, and show that this crew’s dedication to test piloting excellence was more important to them than personal glory.


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