Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight | Jonathan Fetter-Vorm | Hill and Wang
|Aug 1||Public post|
Reviewed by Sean Johnson
In 1662, Sir Cristopher Wren presented Charles II of England with an unprecedented novelty: a textured, three-dimensional model of the moon. This lunar globe—with its verisimilar shadows, hills, and grooves—was made possible by the invention and improvement of the telescope earlier in the same century. Before that time, man gazed at a moon that was idealized and out of focus, but the innovation of Galileo and others provided the first clear, detailed view of the lunar surface. However, as King Charles quickly pointed out, something in that view was still lacking. While half of Wren’s globe was scrupulously detailed, he sheepishly observed, the other half was entirely blank.
The problem, as Wren would explain, was (and is) that our lunar satellite takes as much time to rotate on its axis as it does to complete one orbit of the earth. This keeps the moon’s “dark” side perpetually pointed away from the earth, invisible and unknowable to a mesmerized and desperately curious humanity.
In his graphic history, Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight, Jonathan Fetter-Vorm casts the episode with the globe as a paradigm for modern man’s relationship to the moon. Every time astronomers grew in their power to study or understand the moon, their discoveries would inevitably include some new mystery that continued to elude comprehension. Try as man might, our nearest celestial neighbor would remain a mystery to him as long as he remained held by his terrestrial confines. Though Moonbound is ostensibly a book about the NASA mission that landed the first men on the moon, Fetter-Vorm punctuates the story of Apollo 11 with accounts of the science that made the moon landing possible and the longings that made it inevitable.
Fetter-Vorm tackles the 1969 Apollo 11 mission episodically, and between episodes he turns his attention away from Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, to tell some part of the landmark voyage’s vast history. While these asides include the seeds of the Cold War and more immediate development of the U.S. astronaut program, they also range farther afield to Kepler’s astronomical discoveries (and his science-fiction stories about the moon), Newton’s gravitational theory, and Jules Verne’s uncannily accurate musings on sending men out of earth’s orbit. Here, too, are the obscure Russian rocket scientists that made all space flight possible, the high-ranking Nazis that went from bombing England to building America’s Saturn V rockets, and the nearly innumerable feats of engineering that culminated in what Buzz Aldrin called “that wondrous white machine that was going to propel us off into history—we hoped.” Though I make the book sound sprawling in its breadth, Fetter-Vorm uses the graphic medium deftly to weave all of these threads into a tight narrative that runs quickly and naturally.
Because human fascination—and frustration—with the moon has always had a strong visual bent, the subject is particularly well suited to a graphic treatment. The comic style allows for a broad range of scenes—technical diagrams, historical vignettes, fantastical science-fiction, or the pedestrian reality of menial boredom in a cramped space capsule—to be realized without incongruity. More remarkable is Fetter-Vorm’s ability to employ a handful of illustrated panels along with a few lines of text to demystify intricate concepts. Like a stained glass artist distilling his subject to the most comprehensible elements, he is so frequently explaining rocket science in images and plain terms that at some point his remarkable knack for it becomes unremarkable, but no less effective.
The most singular and affecting aspect of Fetter-Vorm’s graphic treatment of the Apollo story is the power of images to emphasize the humanity of a situation. He is able to give life to small, dignified moments like Buzz Aldrin taking communion after a safe descent to the moon, or Michael Collins listening from the isolation of orbit while his crewmates make history. He draws our gaze to the tightening grip of the aging Tycho Brahe upon his research notes at his first introduction to the young and ambitious Kepler. He gives us the anticipated collage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Armstrong collecting moon rocks and planting the U.S. flag, but also shows us the less glamorous images of that same flag knocked over by the force of their return to orbit alongside the smattering of discarded instruments, scraps of plastic, and bags of urine pragmatically left behind after their departure. Moonbound ends up being at once a celebration of, and a frank wrestling with, the fact that it was humans—nothing more and nothing less—who went to the moon.
Throughout Moonbound, but especially in the Epilogue, Fetter-Vorm reflects on the staggering cost of the Apollo program, and the less than certain benefits (post-Cold War) of having landed men on the moon at all. In the years after the first successful landing, the American government signaled its own ambivalence on this question by dramatically cutting NASA’s budget and failing to maintain the technology and equipment required for lunar travel.
Now that government spending is a perennial campaign issue, Fetter-Vorm looks ahead to the possibility of a second space-age spearheaded, this time around, by billionaires in the private sector. He wonders if men like Richard Branson and Elon Musk are motivated more by commercial gains or if they share in the spirit of earlier space pioneers, and whether they can feasibly expect a return that could justify the expense.
Of course, a similar question was raised in the Middle Ages about the enormous expense of cathedral building. Proponents of the cathedral enterprise could always offer the answer that any expense is justifiable when one builds for God. Fetter-Vorm has a historian’s discipline, so he ends without offering his own answer, but he cannot help raise the question: can one so easily justify the expense when they build “for all mankind”?
Sean Johnson teaches humanities at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, Florida. He is an associate editor of the Forma Journal and the FORMA Review.
If you enjoyed this review, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal. The late-summer issue will be mailing in a few weeks.