Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight
By Jonathan Fetter-Vorm
Hill and Wang, 2019
Jonathan Fetter-Vorm opens his new book Moonbound with a rare apropos quote from professional windbag Norman Mailer:
Yes, studying the moon was enough to encourage curious thought, for the moon was a phenomenon, the moon was a voice which did not speak. A history whose record all revealed could still reveal no answers: every property of the moon proved to confuse a previous assumption about its property. Yes, the moon was a centrifuge of the dream, accelerating every new idea to incandescent states. One takes a breath when one looks at the moon.
Fetter-Vorm, whose terrific Trinity told the story of mankind’s quest for the atom bomb, here tells the far longer and more uplifting saga of mankind’s quest first to understand other worlds in the night sky and then, someday, to travel to them. The timing is of course pointed: 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission successfully landing three men on the moon and bringing them back to Earth. The publishing world has filled the market with every kind of book to commemorate the occasion, from splendid picture books to children’s accounts to in-depth histories. There’s even a brief meditation from the point of view of the moon.
Even in such a crowded field, Moonbound stands out. In full color, Fetter-Vorm tells the story of Apollo 11’s mission, and he breaks up this sequence with offset-colored historical segments taking the story back to Kepler, Brahe, and Newton, bringing it forward to far lesser-known figures like Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who published important findings about potential lunar rocket fuel as early as 1903, or Sergei Korolev, a Soviet rocket scientist whose tortured life is told in moving detail. Unfortunately, the besetting sin of 2019’s crop of rocket books afflicts Moonbound too: it soft-pedals the monstrous wartime guilt of the “father” of the American space program, the Nazi Wernher Von Braun, even giving him a heroic tableau gazing up at the stars, but at least Fetter-Vorm uses a bit more nuance in suggesting the deal with the devil that was Operation Paperclip.
And he certainly compensates for the presence of murderous creatures like Von Braun by stressing, with wonderfully humanizing art, the heroic dreaming of all the other people involved in humanity’s quest for the stars, the scientists, the specialists, the seamstresses, the number-crunchers, and the casualties along the way. The stories of these people have been told before, but this is a perhaps rare instance where the graphic novel format actually enhances the historical record, lends it flesh and empathy in much the same way Ari Folman and David Polonsky’s 2018 adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary.
“It rises and sets,” Moonbound’s narrative says of the moon, “cutting a broad, constant arc across the sky, sometimes in daylight, sometimes at dark, and it has made this journey for 4.5 billion years, almost as long as the earth itself has existed.” The pervading grace note of Fetter-Vorm’s book, this reminder of the magic of Earth’s companion, is its most charming and memorable quality; it’s a beautiful reminder of obsession.
--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.