Chariots for Apollo, Charles R. Pellegrino & Joshua Stoff

Avon, 1985 (1998 reprint), 320 pages, C$19.50 tpb, ISBN 0-380-80261-9

Looking back over a span of thirty years, humankind’s effort to land a few of its own on the Moon seems nothing short of incredible. To think that “these people” in “that time” could do such miracles with “their technology” borders on the miraculous. Whereas today’s space program is moribund, dogged by budget cuts, drastically reduced ambitions and a surplus of overcautiousness, the effort to go to the moon shines on as a pinnacle of human ingenuity and doggedness.

A good way to re-live this whole era is to grab a copy of Charles Pellegrino and Joshua Stoff’s Chariots for Apollo. This book, originally published in 1985 (“immediately going out of print with the Challenger explosion” [P.xiv] reminisce the authors) has recently been re-edited in trade paperback format by Avon books, and readers will find that the book has lost none of its interest. Indeed, given that fifteen more years have passed since the oft-overlooked first edition, most will appreciate this “new” book that has the advantage of hindsight and a “what-happened-to-them” afterword. Part time-capsule (several of the people interviewed for the book have died since 1985) and part historical work, Chariots of Apollo does an exceptional job at representing the low and high dramas of the Apollo era.

Most histories of the space program will spend time in explaining the basics, or will focus on a historical heroic-figure approach. Pellegrino and Stoff are writing for a different audience: One that pretty much already knows, in general terms, what happened during that time. Furthermore, the authors admit in the prologue in focusing their attention on the overlooked heroes of the space program: The engineers and low-level technicians who actually designed and built the machines that carried Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon. Chariots for Apollo is a homage to the thousands of ordinary people doing an ordinary job in order to fulfill an extraordinary goal; put humankind on the moon.

More specifically, it focuses on the people who designed, built and tested the Lunar Expedition Module (LEM), the tiny, brittle, crucial piece of machinery that covered the last few miles between Earth and the Moon. It has become an iconic piece of machinery, with its spider-like shape that is immediately recognizable even today. Chariots for Apollo, as the title indicates, spends a lot of time behind the scenes at Grumman, describing the laborious process which lead to the construction of the LEMs.

There are anecdotes aplenty. From the ultra-meticulous security/safety procedures (despite which a twenty-four-foot extension cord was lost in the LEM clean room…) (despite which a squirrel found its way in the clean room and had to be shot-gunned) (despite which LEMs were physically turned upside-down to allow loose part to fall out) to oodles of near-dangerous incidents that were solved in the nick of time. (Only on Apollo 11: the glycenol lubricant crystallized in orange slush, soldering repairs had to be made on LM fuel lines days before the launch, the LEM nearly blew up from unanticipated fuel pressure seconds after landing, Armstrong accidentally broke the ignition arming switch…) The book is filled with details that even moderate space buffs like your reviewer have never seen anywhere else.

The result is a beautifully written book, filled with fascinating details and honest human-interest stories (like the various mementoes put on the ship by construction personnel) that warmly illustrate the magnitude of humanity’s achievement in going on the moon. Maybe a bit short, and not comprehensive enough. (it is rather too focused on the LEM given the richness of related content and the misleading cover) A bit melodramatic too, but that makes for vivid reading. Like most of Charles Pellegrino’s books, this one is worth grabbing on sight.

Solid reading about the moon program which will leave you with plenty of questions to learn more, and one overriding concern: When are we going back there?

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