Friday, 22 June 2007

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.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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