Science » Moon Landing

The Best Apollo Books

recommended by Christopher Riley

Interview by Sophie Roell

The lesson of the Apollo programme is that anything is possible, says filmmaker and author Christopher Riley. He talks us through the best books (and one documentary) about America’s race with the Soviet Union to put the first man on the Moon.

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Christopher Riley

Christopher Riley was born seven weeks before the iconic Saturn V rocket made its first test flight in 1967. Riley is now a film producer, director and writer specialising in science, engineering and history. His work has been celebrated by BAFTA, the US Television Academy, the Royal Television Society, the Sundance Institute and the Grierson Trust.

He conceived and co-produced the multi award-winning feature documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, produced and directed the hit documentary recreation of Gagarin’s pioneering space flight First Orbit, and wrote the bestselling Haynes Owner’s Workshop Manual on Apollo. He has been a regular contributor to The Guardian newspaper and presented science documentaries for BBC Radio 4. Chris lives in Richmond, Surrey.

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You’ve just created this beautiful book with illustrator Martin Impey about the Apollo astronauts and their walks on the Moon. So that’s your latest work, but it seems like you’ve been fascinated by Apollo your whole life. For people who haven’t yet caught the bug, what’s so exciting about these adventures that took place between 1969 and 1972?

I was two years old when Neil and Buzz made those first footprints on the Moon, so I can’t pretend I was old enough for that to have made an impression, but I grew up in the middle of all this. By the time I was five, there were people routinely living on the Moon. Three of them went there twice. They had an electric car. They were driving around the mountains of the Moon and exploring deep, deep and far beyond where there they’d landed their spaceships. As a five-year-old I just couldn’t fail to be hooked on that kind of adventure on another planet.

It was only a few years after that that NASA landed the first spacecraft on Mars. They beamed back colour photographs of this other world that looks weirdly Earth-like, although the sky is a different colour. This added to my sense of wonder about there being more than just the world which we’ve evolved on, there being many worlds.

By the time I was ten, George Lucas had created Star Wars. I’m not a huge science fiction fan, but his visions of these exoplanets, as we now know them to be—planets around other stars beyond the sun—were something else. There were desert worlds and worlds with lush vegetation that he’d imagined and then realized so beautifully in his movies. This all just kept adding to my sense of awe that there were all these worlds to study and understand.

I initially went on to study the subject and my PhD was in planetary science. But I realized that I was actually more interested in the stories of people who were making amazing discoveries and sending robots to other worlds to explore them. Ultimately, I got in touch with some of the very few people—12 human beings in all of history—who had actually landed their spacecraft on another world and then gone exploring.

You meet a lot of famous people when you work in TV, as I’ve done for several decades now. People seem a bit different, in our eyes, if they’re famous. But those who’ve either left the Earth or (as is the case with this small group) been to another world and looked back at their home planet, they stand apart. They have an aura about them, when you walk into a room they’re in, that is something else.

You should constantly look to Apollo to be inspired by what seems to be impossible in your own life—and then by just a lot of hard work and ingenuity you can make happen. You can turn your dreams into a reality. That, I think for me, is the resounding, endlessly inspiring aspect of Apollo that’s kept me hooked.

What’s nice about these books you’ve chosen about Apollo is that they’re broader than just Apollo 11. Nearly everybody’s heard of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but I didn’t know ten others had walked on the Moon or that it all ended suddenly in 1972.

Yes, it’s a very brief period of human history where, from December 1968 through to December 1972, we fly a series of human beings on nine flights to the Moon. Six of those make successful landings and live for 300 hours on the lunar surface. They eat and sleep and breathe there; they work and even drive their car to work. It’s more than just that one night in July 1969 that we’re all celebrating the 50th anniversary of this year. The story is far deeper and broader.

If you want to step back even further, as you dive into some of these books, this was, in fact, a decadal story that began with President Kennedy’s challenge to America in 1961-62 to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth. Kennedy said that we’re not doing this because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.

“It’s more than just that one night in July 1969 that we’re all celebrating the 50th anniversary of this year. The story is far deeper and broader.”

That’s another important thing: when you challenge yourself to do hard things, you learn so much more about yourself and about the thing you’re trying to do. That’s a message for all of us in life. America set itself this goal and for a decade it applied the work of 400,000 people to solve the problems of what became those six incredible expeditions to the moon.

Today we are challenged by equally impossible-feeling problems: climate change and the decline of biodiversity that we’ve sadly presided over in the last 50 years. There’s been a 60% decline in Earth’s wild animal population since those Apollo missions, because of our activity, our ignorance, our indifference and our denial. Apollo is an example of something that was impossible that we rose to the challenge of. One nation, a melting pot of people from all over the world, came together to do this impossible thing. And that is what we have to do again, as a species, as a planet this time. Apollo has something to teach us about what we can do if the will is there.

The first book you’re recommending is from 1994 and it’s called A Man on the Moon. It’s by Andrew Chaikin and the book is generally viewed as the definitive account of the Apollo program. Could you start by explaining what exactly the Apollo program was?

The Apollo programme was designed in America in the early 60s to deliver President Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth. They went further than that and landed 12 men on the Moon and returned them safely to the Earth. The program came off the back of America’s first human spaceflight program, in the very early 1960s, which was called Mercury. This was a single-seater spacecraft that could do very simple things, like get into space and came straight back again, without even orbiting the Earth. The first flight, which Alan Shepherd took, did just that. Then, eventually, they got to orbit the Earth with John Glenn’s flight—a period covered in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff.

The Gemini program that followed was designed to work out, ‘How long could you live above the atmosphere?’ Because it’s going to take a week or ten days to get to the Moon and back. Also, how could you bring two spacecraft together and connect them—called orbital Rendezvous? Because you would need to do that. This was all part of Apollo, technically, which Andrew Chaikin writes about. The architecture of Apollo comprised these tiny spacecrafts that would undock from each other, and one would go down to the surface of the Moon and come back.

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Andrew Chaikin writes about all the difficulty of trying to invent all of this stuff at that time. He’s a brilliant writer and journalist. He took the time, back in the early 1990s, to go around and interview as many of the key players—including the astronauts themselves—who turned this dream into a reality. That, to me, is what makes A Man on the Moon the really definitive biography of Apollo, because many of those people, sadly, have died now. He has this ultimate record of what it was all about and what it meant to those that did it. That’s why I like this book.

It also reads quite dramatically, doesn’t it? In the opening pages, there’s the Apollo 1 disaster, when three of them die in a test on the ground.

The story arc of Apollo has triumph and tragedy built into it. The loss of any lives is desperately sad, and in fact many more astronauts were killed than just those three. They were all training and flying all over the country and there were plane crashes and accidents in the air. It was a hazardous and difficult job.

Chaikin begins with a tragedy and all good storytellers know the value of that—because then the odds are stacked against you succeeding and it makes the challenge of the story more powerful. He tells it very well.

So next on your list of Apollo books is Moondust by Andrew Smith. This is subtitled ‘in search of the men who fell to Earth.’ He’s really on a personal quest to talk to all the Apollo astronauts who are still alive, is that right?

That’s right, it’s a kind of road trip that Smith writes about. He’s another very charismatic writer. He writes beautifully and it’s very readable. The words in the story just leap off the page into your mind and memory. It’s a wonderful counter to Andrew Chaikin’s book because it’s written a couple of decades later. It’s about tracking down these 12 men who had this extraordinarily unique and rare experience of standing on another world, 400,000 kilometers from Earth, looking back at their home planet. Andrew Smith is interested in what that odd experience did to them and how they coped with it in the years after they came back.

It’s a common misconception that everyone who stood on the Moon went mad when they when they came back to Earth. That’s just not true. There were multiple personality types that went to the Moon. There were incredible alpha male commanders who were very driven, in the years after they came back, to become captains of industry and follow very particular careers. Then there were those far more unconventional figures that he met as well. All the Lunar Module pilots had very little to do on the way back, because they’d left their spaceships on the Moon. Their job was done, and they were able to reflect more profoundly on the meaning of what they had just achieved.

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As a result, when they came back, they thought more deeply about what it meant to be them, and what they wanted to do with the years ahead. Rather than pursue more conventional careers, they all went into these rather alternative lifestyles and life plans that took them in very interesting directions. For example, Buzz Aldrin has campaigned tirelessly for a return of human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit—back to the Moon and on to Mars. Alan Bean, who followed him, became a painter. Edgar Mitchell founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences to study consciousness—decades before consciousness was a respectable field of study. Charlie Duke and Jim Irwin found God more vociferously than they had before. They founded their own ministries and in the case of Charlie Duke, still preach the message of God and Jesus to this day. Both of them were religious already, but Apollo freed them up to be more themselves. As it did with everybody. The last Lunar Module Pilot, Harrison Schmitt, went into politics and became a US Senator, which is another pretty odd career.

Smith goes around America, mostly, tracking down these people and writing very perceptively—from a psychiatrist’s perspective almost—about how the Moon changed these people. He draws some really lovely conclusions that are universal truths about all of us, about what makes us us, and what holds us back. So I love Moondust for that reason.

Tell me about one of those conclusions. Was there one that has particularly stuck with you that we could all learn from?

What comes out of his book—and others have written about this as well—is that once you’ve set yourself some incredible career goal and you’ve achieved it in this amazing way, what do you do as an encore? What’s next? Many of them didn’t realize this for years afterwards, because it wasn’t obvious, but it freed them up to be who they really were. We all wear masks in our lives, whether it’s in a relationship or at work. We are someone else when we are in these environments, because we are playing a role that we think we have to play to get on or to do what we have to do. But once we are freed up from that, only then can our wings properly unfurl and we can properly fly. That, I think, is what comes out of Andrew Smith’s book.

As we’re already talking about tracking down the individual Apollo astronauts, I think it makes sense to talk about the film next, which is the documentary that you worked on, In the Shadow of the Moon.

I was making In the Shadow of the Moon while Andrew Smith was researching his book and so together we were chasing these astronauts around the planet. Our vision with In the Shadow of the Moon was to capture the astronauts’ first-hand memories on film. Interestingly, that hadn’t been done for all the Moon walkers at that point in history. There was a film called For All Mankind that Al Reinert had made a few years earlier, where he used audio interviews he’d collected on dictaphone tapes over the years, but you never saw any of their faces.

What we found making In the Shadow of the Moon—we started filming it in 2005—was that these men were all in their 70s. They were very reflective and had these wonderfully character-filled faces of a life well lived, and yet they still had these little tics and traits of their youth. I’d wallowed in the NASA film archives at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston over the years, looking at 10,000 rolls of 16 millimeter film shot during that period, to find clips of them. When you juxtaposed our contemporary interviews with them in their 70s with the clips from their training archive in their 30s, you notice that, in fact, they were still the same men as they were, 40 years before. There was something really delicious, visually, about intercutting those flashes of time travel in their faces.

Our job was to try and extract deep recollections and memories from them about things they hadn’t thought about for decades. In the case of a Buzz Aldrin, that’s very hard because he’s been interviewed thousands of times. And the rest of them dozens and dozens of times. So they tend to go into autopilot and play the record again. We had to jolt them out of that and push them into a space they hadn’t really thought about before. So what we did was compile huge, 100-page dossiers on each of them by doing meticulous amounts of research. We then memorized those and sat down with them the next day to interview them without notes. We just engaged them in conversation, taking them to places and to reflections that they’ve hopefully not had for a long time or ever in fact. That’s what In the Shadow of the Moon was.

I enjoyed watching it. They’re all such characters, aren’t they?

Yes, and all very different. Another misconception with Apollo is that they were all cookie-cutter fighter pilots, throttle jockeys that had had their emotions trained out of them—that they were just automatons. They absolutely aren’t, and weren’t, and never were. That’s not right, and that comes across in the film, as you noticed.

At the beginning you said that these men who have walked on the Moon are different from other people. Can you explain a bit more what you meant by that?

It’s simply the fact that of the almost seven billion of us on Earth when we made the film, only 12 of us, in all human history, were in this exclusive club of people that had left the Earth behind and gone and stood on another world. And if that doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, nothing will, because it’s an amazing sentence. Even 50 years on, it’s amazing. 50 years ago, Apollo was utterly incredible. We did this before computing power had really taken off, and navigation was still done using the stars and sextants—as we had done for centuries for shipping. We went to the Moon before we were supposed to, technologically. As one person put it, the president plucked a decade out of the 21st century and inserted it into the 60s and 70s. That’s what Apollo was.

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And then you meet the people who not only stood on the Moon, but also rode this leviathan; this 3,000-ton 365-foot-tall rocket which harnessed more power and forced it out at the back than anything in human history and took off to another world. That’s what gives them an aura and allows them to walk taller.

So next on your list of Apollo books we’ve got First Man, by James Hansen. This is the authorized biography of Neil Armstrong. By all accounts, Neil Armstrong was perhaps the most enigmatic of the 12.

Neil Armstrong stands apart from others in an even greater way. You’ve got a little pyramid of 12 people, some of them more famous than others, and some superstars, like Buzz. Then, even above them, you have the very first human being who landed his spacecraft on the Moon, put on his suit and climbed down onto the surface, laying the first footprint on another world. That has only happened once in the 4.6 billion years of the history of Earth and the 3.8 billion years of history of life on Earth. Neil Armstrong is as significant as the first semi-amphibious fish that slithered out from the ocean and onto dry land and took a gulp of air. That moment in evolution and the first man on the Moon are dots that you can join up in a vision which leads, eventually (hopefully), to a space-faring civilization that carries us back to the Moon and on to Mars and makes us bi-planetary. That all begins with Neil.

“Neil Armstrong is as significant as the first semi-amphibious fish that slithered out from the ocean and onto dry land”

First Man by James Hansen is this wonderfully detailed portrait of Neil. It’s a very, very thorough insight into who this man was. It’s not for the faint-hearted—there is a lot of detail—but I have a soft spot for this book. I made a biopic of Neil for the BBC in 2012, after he died, with all his friends and family. It was a wonderful privilege to be able to do that and I used James’s book for a lot of the research.

Neil was a reserved, quiet man. He didn’t like publicity, he didn’t like celebrity, he certainly didn’t like having the spotlight of Apollo on him and his shoulders. He was always the first to acknowledge all the work that other people had done and the last to ever admit that he’d done anything significant. That made him an extraordinarily humble and worthy human being to be that that ‘first man,’ as James calls his book.

Basically, he wasn’t interested in being a celebrity.

No, he didn’t put any value on celebrity. For him, it was a vacuous, hollow and worthless word. All he was interested in was how he was going to get to the Moon—the engineering, the mechanics, the test piloting element of landing there for the first time. In one of the press conferences just before he went, he was asked what he wanted to take with him, because they were all taking personal items of some sentimental value.

But all he wanted to take was more fuel. That says everything about Neil. He was a devoted, highly accomplished and supreme aviator, which is why he got to where he did. More fuel was absolutely the right answer, and that comes across—it oozes out of the pages of James’s book.

Like many of the other astronauts, he was a test pilot and had fought in the Korean War. What did he go on to do after Apollo?

Neil remained in the field that he loved, which was aerospace engineering. He left NASA and took up an academic position, which gave him the freedom to think and write and teach.

He continued to fly gliders up until his death in 2012. So flights remained in his blood. He just adored that sensation of being airborne. He famously had a pilot’s license before he had a driver’s license. He thought in three dimensions. That’s what made him the great aviator that he ended up being.

“Neil Armstrong famously had a pilot’s license before he had a driver’s license”

Of course, being who he was, he would endlessly get asked to come here and open that and give talks and appear on TV and in films. He would accept quite a few of those requests, but because he got so many, it appeared that he was rejecting most of them. He had to, because there weren’t enough hours in the day. But that’s where this perception, that he became reclusive and very private and withdrawn, comes from. The truth was he was out there every week, talking about something and trying to inspire someone. That’s a fact.

The last Apollo book on your list is the Apollo 11 Owners’ Workshop Manual, subtitled ‘An insight into the hardware from the first manned mission to land on the Moon,’ which you co-wrote with Philip Dolling. Why did you want to put this book your list?

The reason I put this down is that all of the other books and the film that I’ve chosen are largely about the astronauts, and you’ve got to remember that honouring Kennedy’s challenge of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth required an enormous effort. It was the work of 400,000 people for a decade, so four million human years of work went into solving the elaborate daisy-chain of engineering challenges that allowed you to do this journey to the surface of the Moon, collect some rocks, explore, and come back.

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Our Apollo 11 Owners’ Workshop Manual—which it’s jokingly called—is really an attempt to shine a spotlight on those 400,000 people and the effort that they went to. I picked out a handful of engineers—many of whom I’ve interviewed over the years for other projects—to try and communicate something of a) the immensity of the challenge, b) the ingenuity that goes into solving some of those problems, and c) the tenacity to never ever to give up. That is, for me, what Apollo really is. It’s this lesson in setting yourself impossible challenges and then managing to achieve them. That’s something that we all need to bear in mind as we embark on the environmental challenges we face today.

As well as lots of photos, there’s quite a few diagrams of parts of the Apollo spacecraft—the control panel, the propulsion system, even the suits the astronauts wore.

It’s a very accessible story of the engineering. Although the title might suggest otherwise, it’s not an owners’ workshop manual: I’m not trying to teach you how to take your Saturn V apart and fix the F1 engine. It’s purely the engineering stories. It’s a very readable account and an inspiring one, I think, of what humans can do when they put their minds to it.

People always say that the landings on the Moon were achieved with the same computing power we now have on an iPhone. Is that true? Or is it like saying that you can see the Great Wall from space, one of those things which turns out not to be true?

You can see the Great Wall from Earth’s orbit—though not from the Moon, of course.

The thing about Apollo’s computing power is this was the 1960s. It was just the birth of digital computing. In those days, computers filled entire rooms or even buildings, and part of Apollo’s great challenge was shrinking the computer from something that large and power-hungry down to something the size of a couple of shoe boxes that you could run off a battery and put in a spacecraft to help you navigate somewhere beyond Earth, where you couldn’t use a compass anymore. This computer was crude by today’s standards, but totally awesome in terms of its time and the ingenuity that had gone into it.

We’re all spoiled today by the computing power that we thrive on. We barely consider it, because we’re so used to it. It’s invisible. It’s buried in the phones in our pocket. But yes, it’s way more powerful than anything that they had at their disposal back then.

Interview by Sophie Roell

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Christopher Riley

Christopher Riley was born seven weeks before the iconic Saturn V rocket made its first test flight in 1967. Riley is now a film producer, director and writer specialising in science, engineering and history. His work has been celebrated by BAFTA, the US Television Academy, the Royal Television Society, the Sundance Institute and the Grierson Trust.

He conceived and co-produced the multi award-winning feature documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, produced and directed the hit documentary recreation of Gagarin’s pioneering space flight First Orbit, and wrote the bestselling Haynes Owner’s Workshop Manual on Apollo. He has been a regular contributor to The Guardian newspaper and presented science documentaries for BBC Radio 4. Chris lives in Richmond, Surrey.