Men from Earth
© 1989 Buzz Aldrin and Malcom McConnell
Forty-seven years ago, men from Earth first stepped foot on the moon. There, they left medals commemorating the men of Apollo and Soyuz who perished in this quest for fire in the sky, and a plaque that declared their intentions: “We came in peace for all mankind.” Buzz Aldrin was one of the first men to step foot upon the grey dust of the lunar surface, and in this account — published in 1989, twenty years after the triumph of Apollo — he provides a history of the early space race, a memoir of his own time in the Gemini and Apollo programs, and a final thought about the future.
While there is no shortage of astronaut memoirs, Aldrin’s intrigued me at the start because I knew from other books that he helped create the orbital rendezvous procedures that were practiced in Gemini and essential to pulling Apollo off. The astronauts weren’t just fighter jocks: advanced degrees were required of any astronaut candidate. While the account of the first-ever lunar landing is interesting in its own right, Aldrin attempts to record the whole of the space race. Not only does he devote early chapters to the beginning of German, American, and Russian rocketry, but throughout the book he follows developments on the Soviet side as well. He draws from other books here, then-recent scholarship. While sometimes the supporting authors are forced to speculate, given Soviet secrecy, the look across the iron curtain is most welcome. Both programs were beset with similar problems — not only technical, but political, as program coordinators were being pushed for results by their respective governments for moral and propaganda purposes.
Aldrin’s writing is detailed, but shouldn’t scare off readers who are wary of too much technical detail. The descriptive writing is sound — not poetic, but it’s hard to compete with A Man on the Moon on that note. One sight is especially well conveyed, the eerie and abrupt transition of light when Armstrong and Aldrin left the shadow cast by their lander. According to Aldrin, the effect was total: if he stepped out of the shadow and cast his arm behind him back into it, it almost seem to disappear into another realm. There was no transition between dark and light; when they left the shadow, the blinding drama was though they’d transported from the depths of Carlsbad Caverns into the middle of the Sahara. Also of note here is a final chapter, covering ‘1969-2009’. Writing in the eighties, when the shuttle fleet was active and routine, with the International Space Station still in the future, Aldrin seemed disappointed but optimistic. He is wary of the Soviets, who continue to support manned spaceflight. While they would collapse within a year or so of this book being published, these days NASA astronauts still hitch rides with Soyuz up to the ISS, so Aldrin’s concern is not that far off. Aldrin remains a space booster, recently writing a book encouraging a manned mission to Mars.
Men from Earth is a shorter history of the space race than A Man on the Moon, but if you’re looking for a history of Apollo as whole it might not satisfy,. He ends with Apollo 11, and some of the most interesting lunar missions — scientific endeavors with go-karts! — were thus not mentioned. Still, for a recap of Mercury and Gemini it’s quite good, and especially so when the coverage of the Russians is taken into account.