Thinking About the Indispensable Books on the Apollo Program


The major contours of the American sprint to the Moon during the 1960s have been told and retold, and Project Apollo looms large in our collective memory. Now, nearly forty years after the conclusion of the last of the six landings by the astronauts in December 1972, the literature on the history of Apollo is diverse enough to permit assessment.

The Heavens and the Earth

There are two classic works on the politics of Apollo. The first of these is John M. Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1970), which describes in detail the political process by which the Kennedy administration decided to go to the Moon in 1961, which is now out of print but should be reissued. Walter A. McDougall’s …The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York: Basic Books, 1985, reprinted Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) received the Pulitzer Prize in history with his erudite analysis of the race to the Moon in the 1960s.

Charles A. Murray and Catherine Bly Cox’s Apollo, the Race to the Moon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989, Reprint edition, Burkittsville, MD: South Mountain Books, 2004) is perhaps the best general account of the lunar program, this history uses interviews and documents to reconstruct the stories of the people who participated in Apollo. A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (New York: Viking, 1994), by Andrew Chaikin is one of the best books on the role of the Apollo astronauts in the effort. Along with these, readers will want to read the illustrated history by David West Reynolds, Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 2002).

Stages to Saturn as reprinted by University Press of Florida

NASA has published several outstanding technical histories of Apollo. These include: Charles D. Benson and William Barnaby Faherty, Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations (Washington, DC: NASA SP-4204, 1978); Roger E. Bilstein, Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles Washington, DC: NASA SP-4206, 1980, reprinted Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003); Courtney G. Brooks, James M. Grimwood, and Loyd S. Swenson Jr., Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft (Washington: NASA SP-4205, 1979); W. David Compton, Where No Man Has Gone Before: A History of Apollo Lunar Exploration Missions (Washington, DC: NASA SP-4214, 1989); Sylvia D. Fries, NASA Engineers and the Age of Apollo (Washington, DC: NASA SP‑4104, 1992); Arnold S. Levine, Managing NASA in the Apollo Era (Washington, DC: NASA SP‑4102, 1982); and Glen E. Swanson, ed., “Before this Decade is Out…”: Personal Reflections on the Apollo Program (Washington, DC: NASA SP-4223, 1999).

What did we learn by going to the Moon? Lunar geologist Don E. Wilhelms’ To a Rocky Moon: A Geologist’s History of Lunar Exploration (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993), offers a detailed account of lunar exploration and science strikes a balance between personal memoir and history. Donald A. Beattie’s Taking Science to the Moon: Lunar Experiments and the Apollo Program (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001) is a first-hand account of efforts by NASA scientists to do more to include science payloads on Apollo missions despite opposition from mission engineers, who envisioned a direct round-trip shot with as much margin for error as possible. David M. Harland’s Exploring the Moon: The Apollo Expeditions (Chicester, England: Wiley-Praxis, 1999), also focuses on the science mission on the lunar surface.

Reprint of Carrying the Fire

Several important memoirs about Apollo have appeared in the last few years. One of the best is Michael Collins, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974), by far the most thoughtful of all of the astronaut autobiographies. Two other excellent astronaut autobiographies are Eugene Cernan, The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), and Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1994). Thomas J. Kelly, Moon Lander: How We Developed the Lunar Module (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001, is an outstanding account of the Grumman effort to build the Lunar Module. Christopher C. Kraft and James L. Schefter, Flight: My Life in Mission Control (New York: E.P. Dutton, 2001), and Gene Kranz, Failure is not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), provides perspectives from Houston’s Mission Control. The Unbroken Chain (Burlington, Canada: Apogee Books, 2001), by Guenter Wendt and Russell Still provides details on life at the launch site.

Exploring the Unknown, Vol. 1

For those who want to read primary documents, Apogee books has published a series of Apollo mission reports, many of them multi-volume, that offer accounts of the individual missions. Additionally, John M. Logsdon is the general editor for a broad series of key documents in space history, published as Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program, 6 Vols. (Washington, DC: NASA SP-4407, 1995-2004). Finally, Edgar M. Cortright’s edited work, Apollo Expeditions to the Moon (Washington, DC: NASA SP-350, 1975), remains a valuable resource. This large-format illustrated book contains essays by numerous luminaries ranging from NASA administrator James E. Webb to astronauts Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, with Robert Gilruth, Wernher von Braun, George Low, Sam Phillips, and George Mueller contributing for good measure.

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8 Responses to Thinking About the Indispensable Books on the Apollo Program

  1. Spacegary says:

    A terrific list – thank you. One other excellent book is How Apollo Flew to the Moon by David Woods. This book explains much of the science behind the Apollo missions in an easy to understand format. Highly recommended.

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  2. Bill Barry says:

    If you have read this far and are wondering “how do I get my hands on those books published by NASA?” – go to http://history.nasa.gov/series95.html#SP They are all there for free in PDF or HTML format. Happy reading!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. daveclow says:

    Thanks for this!
    I’d be interested to see similar capsule reviews of astronaut memoirs.

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    • launiusr says:

      Perhaps I’ll do that one of these days. My favorite one of these, BTW, is Mike Collins’s “Carrying the Fire.”

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  4. Doug says:

    Many people hate the book for its arch third-person narrator (“Aquarius”) and tone (holier than thou?), but I don’t recall a better description of the power of a Saturn V liftoff than the one in Norman Mailer’s “Of A Fire on the Moon.”

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  5. Jonathan says:

    Andy Chaikin’s “A Man on the Moon” needs to be included in this list – the quintessential story of the missions told in a very personable manner, and the basis for the HBO Series “From the Earth to the Moon.”

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  6. Digital Apollo from Mindell (MIT Press). I consider a good one to be in the list.

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