APOLLO: THE RACE TO THE MOON: by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox. New York: Simon & Schuster. 464 pp. $24.95. THIS book could have carried the subtitle, ``The Right Stuff - the Techies.''
Tom Wolfe's ``The Right Stuff'' told the story of the Mercury program through the experiences of the men with the crew cuts and flight suits. ``Apollo'' tells the story of the Apollo program through the experiences of the men with the close-cropped hair, white shirts, and pencil-lined pockets - the engineers, technicians, flight directors, and ground-support crews.
The authors argue, correctly, that in their own way these less-sung heros displayed as much courage and stamina as the astronauts - whether pursuing a design that others belittled, or deciding on instinct and a gnat's eyelash worth of data that Apollo 12 could proceed despite the two lightning hits the booster took after liftoff. For many mission controllers, the program's high point was not Neil Armstrong's first footsteps on the moon, but the successful effort to bring the crew of the badly crippled Apollo 13 safely to Earth.
Where ``The Right Stuff'' was written in a breathless fashion (with untold numbers of exclamation marks!), ``Apollo'' is written in a straightforward style. The story slows when describing bureaucratic organizations or outlining the duties of those who man the consoles in Mission Control. Mercifully, Murray and Cox keep these passages to a minimum.
They have succeeded, however, on two levels. The first is the technical story, told with color and humor. Early vignettes include a description of a visit to Hangar S at Cape Canaveral in 1959. A test Mercury capsule sits on a concrete floor, where it is worked on by technicians in overalls. The capsule is trucked to the Atlas booster on the back of a pickup; it rests on a mattress, sandwiched between two sheets of plywood. When the capsule doesn't mate with the booster, one engineer drives to Sears in Orlando, returns with a router, and shaves the heat-shield rim until it fits. (Try getting that one by NASA today!) From such humble beginnings grew the complexities of building, transporting, launching, and controlling a 363-foot ``stack'' with its crew of three.
The second level involves the broader issues of the space program's purpose and NASA's structure, attitudes, and spirit. From the individual stories emerge all-too-familiar themes. President Kennedy's science adviser, Jerome Weisner, pushed for unmanned flights as the most cost-effective way to explore space. Kennedy, lukewarm on the space program, might have heeded his advice were it not for Vice-President Johnson's tenacious support for the manned space program, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's historic flight, and Kennedy's political embarrassment over the Bay of Pigs. But Kennedy's announced goal in 1961 of putting an American on the moon by the end of the decade begged the question: Then what? The goal lacked any long-term vision of the United States role in space.
The Apollo 1 fire, which killed three astronauts training in the command module, was preceded by a warning from the general manager of General Electric's Missile and Space Division about the dangers of using pure oxygen in the spacecraft cabin. Ensuing investigations focused in part on NASA's close relationship with its contractors, the very same issue raised in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster.
The authors have not written the definitive history of the Apollo program. ``Writing definitive history is a solemn undertaking, and Apollo was not,'' they conclude. ``Our objective has been to tell stories - true stories, but stories rather than analysis - about how an epic triumph was achieved.''