Sunday, 1 March 2009

Moon Shot, Alan Shepard & Deke Slayton

I admit I had high hopes of this book. Someone had told me it was their favourite book on the Apollo programme, and the identities of the two authors promised much. Perhaps my expectations were too high...

Moon Shot covers the entire Space Race, from Sputnik to the Apollo Soyuz Test Project. It is an accessible read, written by two astronauts, Alan B Shepard and Donald K Slayton, who were important to the American effort. With the help of journalists Jay Barbree and Howard Benedict.

But. This is non-fiction, it is documented history... so I fail to understand how the authors can know what the Soviet Ambassador to the US was actually thinking when he heard of the Apollo 1 fire. Throughout the book, the authors imagine themselves in the heads of various people. Such "fictionalisation" of real people and events may make Moon Shot easier to read, but it also undermines its authority. How can it be an accurate depiction of events if it makes things up?

But then the prose-style itself also undermines the book's authority. It reads like a bad Kevin J Anderson novel:

Flying backwards with their faces parallel to the silent and airless surface below, they glanced at the glowing numbers of their timers. They were minutes from the moment they would ignite the engine beneath their feet and descend to the moon's surface. Time seemed to stretch endlessly.

They are about to land on the Moon - we know it is "airless". And if it is airless, it must by definition be "silent" - sound, after all, cannot travel in a vacuum. And, "Time seemed to stretch endlessly"...? What does that mean? Moon Shot is rife with these meaningless sentences, which attempt to evoke mood but actually add nothing of verifiable substance to the story being told. It is possible to write readable gripping non-fiction without resorting to such cheap tricks.

This penny-dreadful style spoils what could have been an interesting history of Apollo and its precursors. Sadly, Moon Shot also offers very little to the documented history of the Space Race. There is very little technical detail, and remarkably few anecdotes which have not been used in other works on the same subject. It is not wholly devoid of insight, however, and some good points are made regarding various aspects of the US space programme. Of course, given its authors, it's no surprise that Moon Shot privileges the astronauts and the role they played.

If anything, in fact, the book also has a tendency to whitewash its subjects. When Gordo Cooper's Mercury flight is almost given to Alan Shepard, there is no mention of Shepard's behind-the-scenes politicking to make this happen. Some of the astronauts come out of Moon Shot considerably better than others - it's easy to spot who Shepard and Slayton liked and admired, and who they had very little time for. Their own role in almost every aspect of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes is also inflated somewhat. As are the personal qualities of the astronauts. True enough, they were clever men. But they weren't geniuses. If they had been they would have been Nobel Prize-winning scientists, not fighter pilots.

Throughout Moon Shot, Shepard and Slayton refer to themselves in the third person - unlike Stafford in his We Have Capture - which makes you wonder how much they contributed to the book. From the prose-style alone, I suspect Moon Shot was actually written by Barbree and Benedict. Shepard and Slayton likely added a participant's dimension to what would have been a history written by observers. They may well also have provided much of the information - although both journalists have reported on space matters for decades - as well as approving the final text. And, of course, their names on the cover allowed the book to be subtitled "The Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon".

A disappointing read. There are better-written and more informative books available on the subject. Tom Stafford's We Have Capture is a much better "inside story", and Neal Thompson's Light This Candle provides an excellent study of Alan Shepard and his career.

Moon Shot, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton (1994, Turner Publishing, ISBN 1-878685-54-6, 365pp + index)


Cliff Burns said...

It's the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing coming up, Ian, and there's still time to pick up that Saturn V plastic model kit you've always been pining for:

Finally got some free time to check yer space blog out and have enjoyed the tour. You're a geek but a well-adjusted one. And this site is a delight.

Jonathan said...

Ian, I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. I sure couldn't find Alan Shepard's or Deke Slayton's voices in this book. There were a few pages that were worth reading, but for the most part I wish I had given this book a miss.