by Francis French & Colin Burgess

University of Nebraska Press


410pp/$29.95/September 2007

In the Shadow of the Moon

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Tom Wolfe covered the formation of the astronaut corps in his book The Right Stuff, which dealt with with the Mercury Seven astronauts.  Andrew Chaikin focused on the Apollo lunar landings to the extent that the crews of Apollo 7 and Apollo 9 are not included in the index since their flights remained in Earth orbit.  In In the Shadow of the Moon, Francis French and Colin Burgess bridge that gap by looking at the United Space space program from the Gemini 3 mission through the first lunar landing.

The book is heavily based on interviews with astronauts and support personnel, including wives, and memoirs written by astronauts.  This gives the book an immediacy that other books lack.  Even the memoirs written by individual astronauts suffer because of the limited points of view they offer.  French and Burgess, on the other hand, are able to offer multiple descriptions of the same events, thereby presenting a more complete and complex view of them.

The book is mostly chronological in organization, following all the Gemini flights, their trials and tribulations, before moving on to the early Apollo flights.  The only real break in this chronology is when the authors step back in chapter six to explore the Soviet Soyuz missions and the problems the Soviets experienced which led to deaths and injuries, but also had successes.

No matter which missions astronauts found themselves on, each astronaut professes that they had the best mission.  Not going to the moon?  That's okay, Apollo 9's crew of James McDivitt, David Scott, and Rusty Schweickart focus on the difficult tasks facing them, dismissing the three astronauts on Apollo 8's first circumlunar flight as little more than passengers and sightseers. While Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan didn't get to land on the Moon with Apollo 10, they did all but and proved that Armstrong and Aldrin would be able to on the following flight if everything went well.

While there is a tendency to idolize and romanticize the astronauts, French and Burgess include incidents which don't necessarily reflect well on the astronauts, but also don't judge them.  Alan Shepard doesn't come across well when the authors are discussing the events surrounding the death of Apollo 7 astronaut Donn Eisele. Frank Borman has a tendency to come across as aloof.  A significant part of the book is dedicated to the difficulties caused by Eisele's divorce, the first actual divorce to occur within the ranks of the astronauts. Non-test-pilot astronauts like Walt Cunningham, and Bill Anders lament the prejudice against them when missions were assigned, although it comes across as a simple fact, not as complaining. This coverage serves to make the astronauts more human without detracting from their achievements. In fact, the strains it exposes and the success the men achieved in spite of those tensions serves to heighten their achievement.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of In the Shadow of the Moon is the lack of an index. Because of its chronological outline, covering both Gemini and Apollo missions, many of the astronauts and support personal appear in multiple sections of the book.  Having an index to allow the reader to find all the citations pertinent, for instance, to Gene Kranz, would have been quite useful.  

At the same time as In the Shadow of the Moon was released, Discovery Films released a documentary of the same title, which focused on the Apollo flights that followed the events described in the book.  The two works compliment each other quite well, with the book offering greater detail and the film providing the images and voices unavailable in the book.  A joint marketing package would be a wonderful step for the filmmakers and the publisher.

In the Shadow of the Moon is the second book of the Outward Odyssey series, which began with French and Burgess's Into That Silent Sea, which covered the period from 1961 through 1965. The quality of writing and the sense of presence in In the Shadow of the Moon not only makes the reader hope that the next book in the series, covering the lunar landings, arrives quickly, but also will spur the reader to seek out the earlier book in the series.

Purchase this book in hardcover from Amazon Books

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