Failure Is Not An Option

In the library we see publishers responding quickly to events in the hope that they will capitalize on reader interest and sell more books. In some cases their rush to get a book on the shelves can result in books that meet a need but won’t find their way into your top ten list. With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing publishers, authors, illustrators, scientists and astronauts had ample time to pull together every resource to make their products top-notch and it has been an absolute thrill to see these book treasures arrive on our shelves. It seems like I have been taking home a book or two a month to read or share with my space-loving family and we have learned some wonderful new facts, sneaky behind-the-scenes tidbits or relived the details we already read.

coderWhen we look back at those blurry images on the moon it’s hard to comprehend that it was only fifty years ago that engineers and technicians (almost entirely men) huddled over the desks to wait and see if decades of work would pay off. It seems like much more than fifty years because advances in technology have reached an absolutely dizzying pace. The computers used to provide guidance for the Apollo mission were so big that they took up entire rooms but are known to have been no more powerful than a calculator used by today’s high school student. It’s astounding to realize that the code was fed into the guidance computer using punch cards. You can actually see the code listing on the Caltech archive and imagine the incredible amount of work that went into just one part of the mission. Or you don’t have to imagine it. Here is a photograph of Margaret Hamilton, an MIT computer programmer working at NASA during the Apollo missions, standing next to a stack of some of the Apollo guidance computer source code.

Landing on the moon is the anniversary being celebrated on July 20th but there could have been hundreds of thousands of individual anniversaries celebrated before that day. An estimated number of about 400,000 people worked to make it possible for three men to safely travel to the moon and two men to walk upon it. The dedication, the incredible risks, the scientific advances and the decades of research and development since the Apollo mission have culminated in a publishing surge and it’s making for some fabulous reading.

In 1961 John F. Kennedy shared his goal that the United States put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and put into motion his plan to conquer space and the world at the same time. Historian Douglas Brinkley (a professor at Rice University where Kennedy gave his famous “we choose to go to the moon speech”) has done well in tying together the story of Kennedy’s family, that of engineer Wernher von Braun, NASA’s role in American politics and the space program’s future following the president’s assassination. He successfully blends politics, history and the thrill of the space race into one compelling narrative in American Moonshot : John F. Kennedy and the great space race. It’s a must read for anyone interested in the Kennedy story or someone who wants to get a feel for all of the forces that came together to make Apollo 11 happen.

Another 2019 book that has far fewer pages but held me captivated for hours was a gorgeous picture book by Dean Robbins and Sean Rubin. The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon is not about the Apollo 11 mission but about the mission that follows and the images are so beautiful. It’s a sweet choice to take home to read aloud but a reader of any age could learn from this one. Alan Bean was the lunar module pilot for Apollo 12 and was the fourth person to walk on the moon but is also known as the only artist to have ever seen the moon up close. What a perfect chance to use your art to communicate a unique experience! This picture book is a wonderful opportunity to learn a little more about his life as a navy pilot and his work at NASA but focuses more on his work as an artist. The author was able to collaborate on this story with the astronaut before his death and the illustrations share some of Bean’s own bold use of line and shape. It’s a little more STEAM than STEM and it’s perfect. Read more about Alan Bean on his own website or through the NASA website.

Alan Bean was a part of the group known as Astronaut Group 3 which included Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins. But in the early days at NASA all of the astronauts worked closely together by backing each other up at mission control, training together, testing equipment, flying together and helping each other to learn the dense material required to make each mission a success. We have so many fantastic books on the shelves about these fascinating days – some old and some new – but Neil Armstrong’s authorized biography (the one that the Ryan Gosling biopic was based on) is one that stands out in my mind because it is so clearly written. It reads like a textbook because it is free of extra emotion but filled with incredible fly-on-the-wall detail. The chapters that cover his time as a test pilot are so explicit that I am sure I will remember the types of the planes he flew longer than I will remember the names of the people in his family or the town he was born in (Wapaknoeta, Ohio). If you read one book about the Apollo 11 mission then I suggest you set aside a few evenings and spend some time with First Man : the life of Neil A. Armstrong. It’s the closest you will ever get to feeling like you have experienced the life of an astronaut.

For another perspective on the Apollo 11 mission we have a newly reissued copy of Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire here on the shelves. As a member of the crew, he followed a similar astronaut career path to many of the other pilots with a graduation from West Point, time spent as a test pilot and a spacewalk on Gemini 10. Where his story becomes interesting is that with Apollo 11 he had the unique worry of being the man who might have to fly home and leave Buzz and Neil behind. He was concerned that they might crash on the moon, that there might be a failure to launch from the moon or any one of a number of other catastrophes. He writes about this weighty knowledge in his memoir. Mike had time to think about this as he piloted the command module and listened to his crewmates make their historic first steps onto the lunar surface. So much of the spotlight has focused on their actions in those days on the moon but his story – and his feeling of being truly alone out there – make this a fascinating memoir.

We have also been experiencing an increase in other material focusing on the Apollo 11 anniversary so if you haven’t satisfied your curiosity through shiny, new books you can view a documentary like the one that features newly discovered 65mm footage of mission control and the astronauts on the moon. It’s a truly unbelievable viewing experience. You can also check out one of the many magazines that have featured the moon landing – Make, National Geographic, Popular Mechanics and Sky & Telescope are a few of the periodicals that I’ve been reading lately – the photographs and features have been a great way to augment my reading about the anniversary.

We have some of the classic books about space flight on the shelves like NASA flight director Gene Kranz’s Failure is Not an Option and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (many contemporary astronauts say that this book was an early inspiration for their career choice) and your options for fiction about astronauts are endless. We have so many great books to suggest that you could be reading until we return to the moon. I know I’ll be on the holds list for the book about that mission.

— Penny M.

NOTE: if your children are into space, check out the Moon Lander (see below) in the Children’s Department at the Main Library. And don’t forget to register for the super-fun, space-themed Summer Reading Club. Activities, events, challenges and prizes all summer long.

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