This was not a book that needed to be written. The story has been told many times, and better, but if you're an Apollo completist like me, you can't stand not knowing if there's something in there that I might not have read. So I picked it up last week and finished it in two middle of the night bedtime readings (Jamie was annoyed, but sometimes I do that).
But this was a good book. It told many things I had not read before, and two in particular. First, we read all the time about the space race being about national "prestige" and how Sputnik and the first man in space or to spacewalk damaged American prestige. I had never paid much attention to this, and Donovan – right from the beginning – explained what this really meant.
In the late 1950's, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were engaged in the Cold War – of course we knew that. But what we had forgotten was that the competition was between two competing ideologies for the hearts and minds of the other nations, who had to decide whether Communism or liberal democracy represented the best path forward after the Second World War. "Prestige" in this context was crucial because if one side appeared to be winning in a field that mattered – like science – it swayed these uncommitted third parties. So it had enormous consequences when the USSR was successfully (it appeared) putting satellites and men in space and the supposedly more technologically advanced US could not.
Whoa. I'd never thought of that.
It also meant that all the statements in all the books I'd been reading lately about how the astronauts viewed their job in patriotic terms – they were trying to beat the Russians to the moon – wasn't just an expression of trying to win a race for the sake of winning. It always read like they were trying to win at a different version of the Olympics. On the contrary, they were competing to win It to regain the lead in terms of appealing to countries to reject Communism and embrace the freedoms of the Western democracies.
Nor was this the only thing I learned. I may have known that Gus Grissom played a significant role in developing the Gemini spacecraft as a followup to Mercury. What I did not know was that Grissom worked very hard in part because of the many jibes the Mercury astronauts endured about being "spam in a can" and about being mere passengers in their capsules, no different than the monkeys that preceded them because in no significant way were they "flying" their spacecraft. He ensured that Gemini was a pilot's spacecraft. It could be flown and navigated in any way an aircraft could because Grissom insisted that it be, and the astronauts that flew it loved it. It was sometimes characterized as a sportscar, but the better analogy would be a fighter. It was designed to be flown by and for fighter pilots. The later Apollo spacecraft could do more, in the same way that a large transport aircraft can, but it wasn't the flying machine Gemini was.
The book also, as I like to be able to say, told a good story, and even though I already knew much of it, I was reading for new details and observations, and it had those as well. I wouldn't say it was the first book I'd read about Apollo, but it was a useful addition to the corpus.