Shooting for the Moon: The Strange History of Human Spaceflight
The Lyons Press, 2007, $24.95
You’ve probably heard Bob Berman discussing astronomy on WAMC in his distinctive voice, with its measured cadence, deliberate pace, and erudite tone. It’s a bit jarring, then, to read Berman in print and to hear that mellow intonation in your head even as his overstuffed chapters in Shooting for the Moon pin you to the chair with considerable g-force.
Berman knows his science, and it’s refreshing to read a credentialed author who’s not afraid to gore NASA’s sacred cows while so clearly relishing his role as debunker. But he may know too much for the reader’s good. The overall effect of this encyclopedic volume by the multitasking Woodstock astronomer—who has a weekly radio show, writes a monthly column for Astronomy magazine and a weekly one for the Woodstock Times, is astronomy editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, and teaches astronomy at Marymount College—is the literary equivalent of Wikipedia on speed.
Berman skims across the highlights of the better part of a century of space exploration, breathlessly races through a dozen miniprofiles of the astronauts who walked on the lunar surface, rockets through a list of the top 15 discoveries of the moon missions, and, for good measure, dashes off speculation about reaching Mars. He treats each chapter of the space race, including the epic US versus Soviet Union showdown, with the same pace and emphasis, leaving little opportunity for a narrative arc. Shooting for the Moon is history viewed from 382,500 kilometers, the average distance from the Earth to the moon.
Happily, Berman slows down during the Apollo 11 mission and allows himself to spool out the compelling yarn of how Neil Armstrong was tapped to become the first person on the moon; how his famous “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” speech was botched despite rehearsals and later massaged by NASA; and how the golf ball that Alan Shepard hit on the lunar surface never flew “miles and miles” but probably something closer to 400 yards in the moon’s low gravity.
Leave it to the author of Strange Universe to dredge up some wonderfully weird footnotes of the moon shots. For instance, when Buzz Aldrin hopped from the Apollo 11 lunar module’s ladder and dropped a few feet to the moon’s surface, “he felt the urine bag in his left foot break open, and felt warm urine flowing around his foot.” Never one to pass up a pun, Berman notes that Aldrin then joined Armstrong in “one small squish” for mankind.
This is a strange and quirky book that tries to do everything under the sun and, in the end, succeeds only partially. While Berman expends a lot of energy on explaining how the astronauts relieve themselves, one has to admit that he delivers the kind of stuff you always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask. One could do worse than an author who’s willing to shoot from the hip while shooting for the moon.