PBS is airing a three-night, six-hour documentary, starting July 9, as part of its American Experience series called Chasing the Moon that examines the events that led up to Apollo 11.

Chasing the Moon: The People, the Politics, and the Promise That Launched America into the Space Age
by Robert Stone and Alan Andres
Ballatine, 2019
hardcover, 384 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-5247-9812-3

As the 50th anniversary celebrations of Apollo 11 reach their crescendo this month, television is getting into the act. A number of documentaries and other special programming is scheduled for the coming weeks, such as a version of the Apollo 11 film that appeared in theaters earlier this year (see “Review: Apollo 11”, The Space Review, March 4, 2019) that will be on CNN July 20. PBS, meanwhile, is airing a three-night, six-hour documentary, starting July 9, as part of its American Experience series called Chasing the Moon that examines the events that led up to Apollo 11.

Accompanying that series is a book, also called Chasing the Moon, by filmmaker Robert Stone and Alan Andres, who served as a consulting producer and researcher for the series. That book treads familiar ground in its overview of Apollo, but does so in a way that should be interesting to those who know much of that history already.

The book’s subtitle notes its emphasis on “the people, the politics, and the promise” of going to the Moon. That is an accurate assessment of the book’s contents, which focus on personalities and policy versus science and technology. If you’re looking for a detailed technical analysis of the development of the Saturn V or the Lunar Module, or the science that the lunar landings and the samples they returned enabled, this is not the book for you.

If, though, you’re curious about the people who made Apollo possible, this is an engaging book. Chasing the Moon focuses some attention, as you would expect, on key individuals in the program, from Wernher von Braun and NASA administrator James Webb to the Apollo 11 astronauts. However, the book also devotes attention to some of the lesser known, more tangential figures who were either involved in Apollo or influenced it in some way: science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, NASA public affairs head Julian Scheer, and Poppy Northcutt, the first woman to work in Mission Control during Apollo.

The book doesn’t offer much in the way of revelations about the program or the people involved, at least for those people who have read their fair share of Apollo histories. However, the book does help establish the human dimension of what has largely been described as a political and technical achievement. Clarke, for example, had his interest in spaceflight started by a book he got as a teen titled The Conquest of Space by David Lasser, whose career was primarily spent in organized labor and had a bid to get a government job derailed in the 1940s when a congressman described him as a “crackpot with mental delusions that we can travel to the Moon!” Scheer, who joined NASA after working as a newspaper reporter who covered the civil rights movement, helped administrator Thomas Paine defuse a demonstration by civil rights activists outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center the day before Apollo 11’s liftoff; he also has a second career as a children’s book author.

The book, of course, touches upon the bigger, better known issues and controversies as well, such as von Braun’s Nazi ties and the political debates about the race to the Moon, including those that came after the Apollo 1 disaster in 1967. The emphasis there, as with other aspects of the book, is not the rockets and spacecraft, or the missions they flew, but rather the people who made it possible. That makes this book — and, presumably, the documentary that it supports — a useful counterpart to the other histories, including those published this year, that focused primarily on the big names and the big rockets.

This review originally appeared on The Space Review. 

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...