Skip to main content

The Man Who Ran the Moon – Piers Bizony ***

I have to confess, on picking up this book, there was a slight feeling of “oh no, not another book about the history of manned space flight.” We had already had the definitive look at the conflict between the US and the USSR in Deborah Cadbury’s Space Race, and an interesting political history of the race to get to the moon in Gerard deGroot’s Dark Side of the Moon. In fact, at first glance there seems to be a strong overlap with de Groot’s book, and for the same reason that title only got 3 stars, we can only give 3 stars to this. It doesn’t mean it’s not a very readable book – it’s a real page turner – but there’s hardly any science in it (as, cynics would say, there was very little science but plenty of politics in the race to the moon).
I ought to stress, by the way, that there is no suggestion that this book or de Groot’s is a “me too” title. It’s very easy for two books to come out on a similar topic at the same time – I’ve had this happen to me as an author, and it’s highly frustrating! There just seem to be moments when the same ideas bubble up, either because new information is released or the topic is timely. Incidentally, Bizony’s book actually predates de Groot’s – we just got the review copy later.
However, this is no matter anyway, because there is no conflict between the two – in fact The Man Who Ran the Moon sits very well alongside de Groot’s book. Where Dark Sidewas looking at the moon project from the government viewpoint, Bizony’s book is very much seen from the NASA side of the project. It’s rather like one of those “two sides of the coin” dramas, where you experience the same scene from two different personal views. In particularly, this book concentrates on the work of James Webb, the NASA leader who took things almost, but not quite all the way to the moon landing (he resigned after the painful investigation into the Apollo 1 fire), though it does cover the moon landings, and NASA post-Apollo (the latter in a rather summary fashion).
The result is a truly fascinating view of the attempt to develop and pull together this huge, rambling organization, fragmented across the country, split into many units not from any good business or technical reasons, but in order to placate various senators who would then support NASA’s budgetary requirements. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way. Webb rarely seems to have seen eye-to-eye with all his subordinates at any one time, and his relationship with presidents Kennedy and Johnson was always lively.
Perhaps the strongest feeling the reader gets from this book is amazement that the NASA venture to the moon ever succeeded. This is partly because of the sheer challenge of managing such a complex engineering project across so many locations, and partly the point made strongly in de Groot’s book that the whole thing was a pointless exercise with no great scientific value. Yet most of all, the striking revelation from Bizony is how deeply un-American the whole idea is. After all, US culture is strongly against big central funding and control – yet NASA was asking for billions of dollars for a federal project managed from Washington that had very few quantifiable benefits.
An excellent insight into this dramatic period in NASA’s history.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …