Jim Lovell
& Jeffrey Kluger,
Lost Moon: The Perilous
Voyage of Apollo 13

(Houghton Mifflin, 1994)

Rewatching the Tom Hanks/Ron Howard film Apollo 13 for the umpteenth-thousandth time after reading , I was more impressed than ever at the filmmakers' lavish and faithful adaptation of Jim Lovell's book. However, Apollo 13 is only a small fraction of the whole story, and anyone who passes on the book because they've already seen the movie is only cheating themselves. Lost Moon is an engrossing, smoothly written work that ranks up there with Michael Collins' Carrying the Fire as one of the all-time great books written on the space program.

For the uninitiated, Apollo 13 was launched from Cape Canavaral in April 1970 with the goal of accomplishing the third manned landing on the moon. Less than a day away from their goal (and more than three days from Earth) an electrical short causes the oxygen tanks to explode aboard the Odyssey service module, robbing them of air, fuel and power. With their primary spacecraft dead, the three famous astronauts -- Lovell, Jack Sweigert and Fred Haise -- were forced to abandon their ship and transfer to the lunar module Aquarius, which was pressed into lifeboat duty. Yes, they eventually made it home alive, but the trio came perilously close to not making it home at all. Sure, you knew that already. Wrong. I mean they really, really came close to losing everything more than once. More than twice. Every mile traveled seemed to hold yet another obstacle, many of which were omitted from the movie for time and credibility reasons. Credibility? Absolutely. On the way home, one of their batteries exploded on the lunar module Aquarius. Gave them a nasty shake and vented gas into space, robbing them of some scarce electrical power. Then shortly thereafter the Aquarius' helium tank ruptured, spewing that gas into space and robbing the craft of its rocket engine as well (since the helium was used to force the fuel oxygen into the engine's combustion chamber). And those are just a few of the blitz of the "if it can go wrong, it will" gremlins that hit them. Yet the astronauts, as well as the ground crews, overcame every obstacle thrown in their path.

Jim Lovell's input gives this story an easy-going air, like he's sitting back in the study, sharing a drink with you while chatting about old war stories. It's a very intimate feeling, like he's giving you a clandestine peek at the behind-the-scenes goings-on that civillians aren't normally allowed to see. Yet even when Lovell isn't relating the events from his first-person vantage point, that "I was there" immediacy still comes through, odd as that may sound. In fact, probably my favorite passage in the book dealt with an obscure event Lovell most probably didn't hear about until years later. Coincidentally, it's also one of the funniest stories in the annals of the U.S. space program, equal to the "jalapeľo wrapped with a bow" scene from Tom Wolfe's space-age masterpiece The Right Stuff (and if you don't instantly know what I'm referring to, go read that book too. It's not something I can -- or should -- explain to proper effect).

It's a little-known fact that the Apollo command and service module manufacturing contract was hotly contested among U.S. aerospace companies, with the lunar module contract being considered something of a poor consolation prize. The reason was simple -- while the lunar modules would have the glory job of actually landing astronauts on the moon, their long-term uses were very limited, whereas the Apollo command and service module configuration was expected to be the workhorse of the U.S. space program for years to come, and thus a more valuable prize, since production would continue long after lunar module production shut down. That North American Rockwell had won the command module contract, leaving Grumman with the less-desirable lunar module, had not gone unacknowledged among the two sets of engineers, and something of a silent rivalry had formed between them. Towards the end of the Apollo 13 mission, once it became clear that the Aquarius had saved the day and the astronauts would survive, a curious invoice began circulating among the Grumman engineers at NASA: "Towing, $4.00 first mile, $1,00 each additional mile. Total charge, $400,001.00. Battery charge, road call. Customer's jumper cables. Total $4.50. Oxygen at $10.00/lb. Total, $500.00. Sleeping accommodations for 2, no TV, air conditioned with radio (additional guest in room at $8.00/night)." And so on it went, covering everything from luggage handling to gratuities. The joke invoice, of course, was eventually delivered to Rockwell, and while Lovell doesn't address the matter, it's a virtual certainty that those folks failed to see the brilliance of the humor.

That's the sort of immediacy this book holds from cover to cover; be it Lovell's near-disastrous night flight off the coast of Japan during his tour on an aircraft carrier, his nerve-wracking test pilot days, designing rockets as a boy, flying the two-man Gemini spacecraft or orbiting the moon over Christmas in 1968 during the unforgettable Apollo 8 mission, Lovell and Kluger deliver. There are many books out there on the Apollo program, but none can touch the unique nature of Apollo 13 -- America's most successful failure.

[ by Jayme Lynn Blaschke ]

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