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Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Voyage of Apollo 11 by James Donovan

Headlines like this one blared from every newspaper in the U.S. (Author's collection, Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Voyage of Apollo 11, Amberley Publishing)

My last two books—A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn—the Last Great Battle of the American West, and The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo—and the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation—were set in the American West of the 19th century.  But I didn’t want to be tagged as just a historian of the Old West, so I decided my next book would involve a 20th century subject. When an editor friend suggested Apollo 11, which of course was the first lunar landing, I didn’t embrace the idea. As a boy I had read a great deal of science fiction, and like many boys followed the U.S. manned space programme and the Space Race with the Soviets, but I wasn’t sure space was the right subject for me, since it involved a lot of science and that subject wasn’t one of my favorites in school. So I lodged the idea in the back of my head and continued to look for my next book subject. But the idea kept sneaking its way into the front of my mind, and at a certain point I realized it might work.

So I took a look at what had already been published about Apollo 11. There were quite a few books on the entire space program, or parts of it, and several on the entire Apollo programme, but not many on just Apollo 11. Reading science fiction supplied a sense of wonder that I didn’t find in any other kind of reading, and I wanted a book that did that for the “real” SF of the space program. After all, it involved space, and spaceships, and voyaging to another world in our solar system, and it involved great danger—and of course it was tremendously exciting.

Apollo 11 launches at 9:32 a.m. EDT on July 16, 1969, from pad A, launch complex 39. (c. NASA, Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Voyage of Apollo 11, Amberley Publishing)

I didn’t find a book on Apollo 11 that gave me that sense of wonder. Most I read either weren’t well-written, or they didn’t cover the full story, or they let the science and technology—and there’s a LOT of that—overwhelm the story and make it hard to read if you don’t have a degree in astronautics. Many were written by science writers who were familiar with the science involved but didn’t seem to realize that most readers weren’t.

So I decided to take the subject on. But there were a few other reasons I wanted to write this book.

Most people living today weren’t alive, or old enough to remember, the first moon landing in July 1969. And this is a thing: if one has lived through a significant historical event, when it permeates your experience through various media, you know it happened. You were there, so to speak. But if it happened before one could remember the event, you’re not absolutely sure it really happened—yes, it’s in history books, but so is medieval history, and who’s sure of what happened back then? Even worse, there are some people who steadfastly refuse to believe that it actually happened. Some of those people just prefer to believe in conspiracies, and are not open to evidence and facts. But for open-minded people, I thought a lively and accurate account of one of the most significant events of the 20th century was needed, and might counter that disturbing anti-science (and anti-fact) strain that is far too prevalent in today’s world.



Armstrong during the lunar surface EVA, staning near the LM. (c. NASA, Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Voyage of Apollo 11, Amberley Publishing)

As I began researching the book, a few more reasons emerged. A simple yet obvious reason is that this is just a great story, and one which works on several levels. It’s one of the great tales of adventure and exploration. It’s also a chronicle of the Space Race, which of course was just the most visible element of the Cold War—and most people today don’t realize how serious that was back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the Free World was combatting the intended worldwide domination of totalitarian communism. It also involves some fascinating characters—not only the extraordinarily courageous astronauts and cosmonauts, but others behind the scenes: engineers, flight controllers, designers and planners, and yes, even some rocket scientists, who helped make it happen. Few people knew the stories of these “hidden figures.”

There’s one more reason, and it’s personal, and it goes back to what I mentioned earlier: the love of a young person—me, specifically, but also, I think, millions of others—for that sense of wonder that we got, or get, from SF, or the “real” SF of manned spaceflight. I tried to transmit that feeling in Shoot for the Moon, especially in the first few paragraphs of Chapter One, which begins, “One Saturday morning in October 1957, a fourteen-year-old boy in the small farming town of Fremont, Iowa, woke up to find the world a different place. . . . .” If that sentence intrigues you, then you might be one of the people I wrote this book for. I hope so.

James Donovan's new book Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Voyage of Apollo 11 is available for purchase now.