‘Shoot for the Moon’ Charts Space Race from Sputnik to Apollo 11

Lee Polevoi


Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11

By James Donovan

Little, Brown

464 pages


Seen from 50 years later, it’s difficult—even for those who witnessed the event on grainy black-and-white TV—to fully credit the technological wonder of one man’s first steps on the moon. Since July 20, 1969, adventures in space have become either too predictable and bland (in the eyes of some) or insufficiently daring—except for quixotic hopes of a manned flight to Mars in the 2030s.


James Donovan’s Shoot for the Moon, along with a plethora of other moon-landing-related books during this anniversary year, carries readers back to that more or less distant era. In brisk, workmanlike prose, Donovan details the space race from the USSR’s electrifying launch of the Sputnik satellite and the early days of the Mercury and Gemini space programs, culminating with Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind.


Some of the most affecting passages center around the sheer unknowability of what might happen to a human being thrust into space and transported hundreds of thousands of miles to the moon:


“A fragile human in the vacuum of space would die almost instantly …  Even if his lungs didn’t rupture, the deoxygenation of the blood would result in a loss of consciousness in fifteen seconds or less. As the water in his body vaporized and his oxygen disappeared, the moisture on his tongue, in his eyes, and elsewhere would begin to boil and bubble; his skin and the tissue beneath it would start to swell and turn bluish purple; and the gases in—and possibly the contents of—his stomach, bowels, sinuses, and other body cavities would release rapidly.”


What comes across in Shoot for the Moon is the unadorned heroism of ex-test pilots and other scientific whizkids who understood these dangers and still persisted in becoming astronauts. In fact, there was intense competition among the fledgling spacemen, each vying to be the first to set foot on the lunar surface.


Training was equally intense, since there was no telling precisely what would happen when astronauts were subjected to conditions of space travel. That’s why training could include “blinding the subject, sticking a hose in an ear, and pumping cold water into his ear canal until he was dizzy, or submerging a man’s feet in a bucket of ice-filled water until they went numb or he couldn’t take it anymore.”



In attempting to anticipate all conceivable hazards, the astronauts-in-training underwent what could easily pass as “torture” in another setting.


Donovan excels at taking readers through the mind-boggling logistics of preparing for Apollo 11’s flight, as well as the internecine struggle to be chosen for the once-in-a-lifetime honor of the first lunar landing. His account is extensively researched and draws upon firsthand interviews with many of the key players of the time.


And when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins make the final approach to the moon, and two of the three men on board descend to the moon’s surface in the Lunar Module, “Eagle,” the whole world is watching:


“In New York’s Central Park, ten thousand watched on giant screens; bars and restaurants throughout the United States and in much of the free world showed the broadcast. In Warsaw, several hundred Poles crammed into the lobby of the U.S. embassy to see it. Even the pope, in his summer villa, sat mesmerized in front of the TV. Despite the turmoil of the time, for one day, the billions of inhabitants of Earth shared the same sense of yearning and wonder as a human walked on the satellite above them, so far away.”


For readers unfamiliar with this historic event, or who want to fill out their knowledge of the space race of the 1950s and 1960s, Shoot for the Moon is an excellent place to start.


Author Bio:


Lee Polevoi, author of The Moon in Deep Winter, is Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:


Little, Brown

Cover Photo: "Apollo 11," U.S. State Department (Creative Commons)




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