Sometime in the 11th century, most historians agree, a daring band of Norsemen braved the frigid, stormy waters of the North Atlantic and set up camp on the shores of what is now Newfoundland, creating the first European foothold in North America.
If they'd stayed on and prospered, the history of the New World would have been radically different. But after a few seasons, the Vikings abandoned their colony; it would be centuries before Europeans would return for good.
Future historians may well look back on the 1960s as a comparable time, an era when humans braved ridiculously long odds to visit a new world and then, after succeeding beyond all reasonable hope, pulled back. Only 58 years after the Wright brothers flew their first primitive airplane, John F. Kennedy announced that Americans would walk on the moon -- and seven years later they actually did it. This July 20 at 4:17 p.m., it will be precisely 25 years since the spacecraft Eagle touched down on the moon. No one who lived through that mind-numbing event a quarter-century ago will easily forget the excitement of seeing Neil Armstrong taking his first tentative steps, on live (though murky) TV, onto the Sea of Tranquility.
What most of us probably do forget, at least in their details, are the other crucial milestones of the Apollo missions, the triumphs and tragic setbacks that made Mr. Armstrong's step -- and those of the other men who stood on the moon after him -- possible.
Fortunately, we have Andrew Chaikin to help us remember. Based on interviews with 23 of the 24 surviving moon voyagers and on mountains of archival NASA tapes and documents, some of them never before made public, "A Man in the Moon" is nothing less than a blow-by-blow account of every mission in the moon program, from the inferno of Apollo 1 that killed three astronauts on the launch pad to Apollo 17, conceivably the last visit humans will make to another world.
In another writer's hands, "A Man in the Moon" could easily have turned out to be a tedious book only a space nut could love. But Mr. Chaikin is a fine reporter and a master storyteller with a good eye for detail. He turns the one-dimensional, superhuman astronauts we all remember into believable, quirky, sometimes flawed human beings, and the roll call of Apollo missions becomes a tightly interconnected series of adventure stories -- a steadier, information-packed, less breathless counterpoint to Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff."
While we know how the adventures will come out, the stories Mr. Chaikin tells are nonetheless gripping. Apollo 8, for example, the very first flight to the moon in December 1968, was originally supposed to be an Earth-orbital shakedown cruise. When the CIA told NASA that the Soviets might be planning a moon shot for early that same month, associate administrator Thomas Paine proposed to his boss, James Webb, that the spacecraft orbit the moon instead. Webb's reaction: "Are you out of your mind?"
Yet in the end he went along with the audacious plan, and when Apollo 7 went off without a hitch in October, the road was clear for Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders to head out of the Earth's gravitational influence for the first time in human history.
Every step of that journey carried the potential for disaster, yet miraculously (and despite Mr. Borman's cabin-fouling episode of nausea on the outbound trip) it went like clockwork. So did the next two flights, which sent the Lunar Module down from its mother ship to within a few miles of the moon's barren surface.
So, finally, did the first moon landing itself. Apollo 11 could easily have been a failure: No one watching the play-by-play television coverage at the time realized the dangerous implications of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's last-minute discovery that the landing area was littered with boulders and pocked by craters.
Mr. Armstrong had to take manual control of the spacecraft in the final moments before touchdown, and nearly ran out of fuel trying to find a parking place. But thanks to Mr. Chaikin, we realize how close Eagle came to aborting the landing, or even crashing.
"In mission control," he writes, "stomachs tightened. No one knew about the big crater, and Armstrong's efforts to avoid it. They knew only that in almost every simulation Armstrong had landed by this point. . . . Even now, it was impossible to know how it would end."
Although the rest of the moon missions might have seemed anticlimactic to some (the exception is Apollo 13, when an exploding oxygen tank on the first leg of the trip threatened to kill the astronauts outright or strand them in deep space), Mr. Chaikin makes it clear why they were anything but: Each one added exponentially to scientists' understanding of the moon and its history, and each had small but memorable bits of drama -- Pete Conrad handing the Lunar Module controls over to a startled and unauthorized Alan Bean on the way back to orbit on Apollo 12, to give his buddy a taste of flying the ship (they did it on the far side of the moon, so NASA controllers wouldn't know); or Alan Shepard, the first American in space, grounded for most of the 1960s by an inner-ear problem but finally walking across the lunar surface in 1971.
By the end, Mr. Chaikin also makes it clear why the Apollo program, national treasure of the late 1960s, became little more than a historical footnote by the early '70s: once we'd beaten the Soviets, there was no political reason to keep spending billions of dollars on an ambitious, intensive manned space program -- especially when the nation was still fighting an expensive, hugely unpopular war in Vietnam. The terrific scientific payoffs that would undoubtedly have kept flowing from the moon were hardly enough to justify the program to most Americans.
We may never return to the moon; the right combination of national will, wealth and ambition may never come again. Whether or not they do, "A Man in the Moon" will stand as a definitive chronicle of humanity's first attempt to leave the cradle of our home planet.
Title: "A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts"
Author: Andrew Chaikin
Length, price: 670 pages, $27.95