It is becoming increasingly obvious with every passing year that the Apollo program of the 1960s and early 1970s represented a unique time in the history of the United States when seemingly a group of young, idealistic, and remarkable people promised and delivered the exploration of the Moon. As Leslie Fish wrote in the remarkable filk song, “Hope Eyrie,” “From all who tried out of history’s tide, Salute for the team that won,” we must acknowledge and celebrate the success of the 400,000 plus individuals who enabled Neil Armstrong and eleven other Americans to walk on the Moon.
The Race emphasizes the duel between the Soviet Union and the United States to be the first to land humans on the Moon; but I always get worried when I see words like “complete” and “true” in any book’s title. My reason for concern is not misplaced in this instance. It is a flawed book, filled with fascinating anecdotes, but too many of them are untrue. Here are a few of the interesting items contained in this book.
Schefter notes that the use of term “astronaut” first appeared in a 1951 issue of Time magazine when a photo of Wernher von Braun, in the midst of his ebullient advocacy of an expansive space exploration agenda tagged him, “Astronaut von Braun” (p. 13). Not exactly how the term would be used after the creation of NASA, but an interesting use nonetheless.
According to Shefter Wernher von Braun also foresaw the succession of Soviet firsts that vexed the America space program for years while giving a speech in Chicago on February 17, 1958. As he said at the time, “I would recommend that we brace ourselves for other Soviet ‘firsts’ in the new field of astronautics. We are behind and we cannot catch up in a day or two, since major technological projects necessarily involve lead time. It will require years of concentrated effort to come abreast, and even longer to pull ahead” (p. 35). I especially liked Schefter’s comparison of von Braun, Manned Spacecraft Center director Robert R. Gilruth, and Soviet space chief designer Sergei Korolev: “Wernher von Braun was a star. Robert R Gilruth was a shadow. Sergei Korolev was a secret person” (p. 45).
There are also a lot of interesting, possibly true but probably not, anecdotes about the astronauts. Gus Grissom was well known as a womanizer but Schefter has an interesting story that Grissom may have fathered an illegitimate child. He writes, “Rumors surrounded Grissom, including the unproven rumor that he fathered an out of wedlock child born to a secretary at the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis” (p. 72)
One of the poignant stories told by Schefter occurred when as a reporter he learned of the death of Ted Freeman, an astronaut chosen in the third group in October 1963, in a T-38 plane crash at Ellington Air Force Base, near the NASA center in Houston on October 31, 1964. He had been on a NASA training flight. Schefter wrote that after hearing of the accident he knew he had to cover it, but he “lingered in the space center newsroom, the only reporter who knew the story, drank their coffee, then made the half mile drive from the space center to Freeman’s house. There was a silver 1964 Corvette parked at the curb. Deke Slayton drove a silver 1964 Corvette. Many of the astronauts had Corvettes, thanks to the sweetheart lease deal with Chevrolet. When Slayton failed to appear, I walked to the door and rang the bell. Faith Freeman answered and I froze, then stammered, ‘Uh, is Deke here?’ Faith Freeman knew me, and in an instant she understood. Still, she had to ask. ‘No. Why should Deke be here?’ But the look on her face said it all. She knew.” He told her of the accident and soon found that “The silver Corvette at the curb belonged to the astronauts’ physician, Dr. Charles Berry. He’d arrived, found that Deke Slayton was off somewhere procrastinating, and had gone to the neighbor next door. At that moment Slayton pulled to the curb. He’d included a stop at the crash site and a second stop at a bar for a quick jigger of courage. His Corvette and Doc Berry’s were identical” (pp. 201-202). Much of this appears to have been untrue. For one thing, the doctor did not own a Corvette.
The author is best at relating the inside stories of the heroic age of the space program. Since he covered it during the 1960s he has a lot of anecdotes that will interest spaceflight enthusiasts.
The Race is certainly not the place to start in an inquiry into the history of human spaceflight. The best overview remains Walter McDougall’s The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (1985) and an outstanding discussion of the Apollo program from the perspective of the astronauts is Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon (1994), both are readily available. But this is an interesting, if sometimes perplexing and infuriating, book.