Summer 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 2
My favorite photo in this boldly styled book is a sweeping panorama of the Moon’s Taurus-Littrow Valley, taken by Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan. Jagged, starkly lit boulders litter the foreground, while surrounding massifs shoulder their way into a black sky. Mid frame right, the tiny figure of astronaut and geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, sampling scoop in hand, lopes purposefully into the unknown. Man is at work on the Moon; the alien scene captures the wonder of the Apollo landings and tantalizes us with the potential discoveries yet to be made on the Moon, the asteroids, and Mars. Apollo: Through the Eyes of the Astronauts (Abrams, 132 pages, $24 .95) is especially welcome now, because this summer marks the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, which landed the first humans on the Moon. The editors of this slim but photopacked volume asked 21 men, the survivors of the 29 who flew on Apollo’s 11 missions, to pick a favorite image from their expeditions and share their impressions. Each of the 11 chapters begins with a brief mission summary, then presents a series of images that pull us into the lunar journey. The astronauts bring stark moonscapes and gleaming spacecraft into sharp focus for the millions who yearned to go with them and for those discovering their adventures for the first time.
NASA lent the talents of its best public affairs specialists, photo experts, and consultants to select and reproduce the images: Dick Underwood helped train the Apollo astronauts in photography, and no one can match Mike Gentry’s ability to find that one perfect image among the hundreds of thousands in NASA’s archives. I found only one mistake: a caption describes a lovely shot of Apollo 14’s LM-8 Antares as showing the lunar module abandoned and adrift, its work on theMoon complete. But Antares still has her descent stage and spidery Mitchell are actually about to descend in Antares to the hills of Fra Mauro.
Many of the images are familiar standouts from NASA’s collections, but here the numerous 10-inch-square reproductions are especially satisfying. I was happy to see not just space-based images but many photos of Apollo crews before and after their missions. Those portraits reflect the astronauts’ nervous confidence, intense focus in flight, emotional release when bound for Earth, and buoyant exhilaration upon their successful, safe return. Particularly appropriate was the choice to include photos and essays from the early Apollo test flights, not just from those that reached the Moon. All took on significant risks tomeet President Kennedy’s lunar landing deadline. Apollo 7’s Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walt Cunningham flew the first manned Apollo command module, extensively redesigned after the 1967 fire that killed three comrades. Apollo 8 swept Americans into the lunar orbit for the first time, and Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders captured that iconic image of their achingly beautiful home world rising above the Moon’s blasted horizon. Jim McDivitt and Rusty Schweickart of Apollo 9 trusted their lives to their fragile lunar module; it would have to work perfectly for them to survive, let alone enable later crews to pull off a landing. And Apollo 10’s crew, nearly forgotten today, took their module down to within 50,000 feet of the Moon, pioneering the trail Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would follow two months later.
The resoundingly successful landing missions—six in all—are well documented here, elevated by comments from the crew members who orbited and walked the Moon. Borman remembers his first glimpse of Earth from lunar orbit: “It was beautiful—blue with white clouds—serene, and majestic. It was home.” Schweickart marvels at “the amazing combination of human and machine . . . enabling us to emerge into the universe . . . out of the womb of Earth.” Armstrong, ever the engineer and test pilot, sees in an image of his LM-5 Eagle, backdropped by Earth and Moon, “two celestial bodies connected by a human transportation system.” Says Cernan, the last man to have walked on the Moon: “The legacy of Apollo is not the technology you now hold in the palm of your hand, but rather the dedication and commitment of those millions of Americans who, in troubled times, made it all possible.”
The astronauts’ stunning photographs still evoke awe at how far our skills and determination once took us. How long until future explorers match the emotions and splendid images captured in this satisfying book?