This book was
mentioned by Tyler Cowen. So I got it, thanks to the ILL staff at
the University Near Here, from Brandeis U.
And I am immediately saying: Professor Cowen, did we read the same
Because I found it simplistic, meandering, and wrong-headed.
And I usually start out with a positive bias toward the books I take
the trouble to get from the library, because I want to believe that I
haven't wasted my time.
The author, Neil M. Maher, is a professor of history in the Federated History Department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University, Newark.
The book purports to examine the odd coincidence during the 1960s and
early 1970s: we had the Apollo Project, a—literally—unprecedented technological
feat that (as
put it at the time) people would "look back upon a million years from
tonight". But we also had hippies, the dawn of modern feminism, the dawn
of modern environmentalism, civil rights struggles, Vietnam, Commies,…
I lived through that. I know. It was a weird time to be alive. So I kind
of assumed that Professor Maher would have some insights that
might make things a little less jumbled in my mind. But no.
It starts off with a promising anecdote: two Apollo 13 astronauts, Jim
Lovell and Jack Swigert, attending, post-mission, a Broadway performance of Hair.
How appropriate! Apollo 13's Lunar Module—the one that saved the
lives—had the callsign "Aquarius", and the most memorable song from
Hair was… yes, "Aquarius". But Lovell and Swigert walked out
after the first act, due to the production's disrespectful treatment of the American
Good conflict-of-cultures story, but then things get tedious. Maher tries to show the
interaction between NASA, Apollo, and all that other stuff: the
military, environmentalism, feminism, politics. But he never gets
beyond making tendentious conclusions and dubious interpretations of
Part of the problem is that Maher seems weak on the technology, probably
due to lack of interest. Warning sign: on page 14 he says the
Saturn V "transported astronauts through space at 17,400 miles per
hour". Wince. That's near-earth-orbital velocity, Neil. The whole point
of Saturn V was to get Apollo into a
trajectory, requiring somewhere around 23,000 earth-relative mph.
Neither does Maher do a good job of portraying NASA's political history.
Give them a slight break: they were tasked with performing a mission
that was as much a cold-war gimmick with an arbitrary deadline as it was
a technological marvel. Once the post-Apollo been-there-done-that attitude set in,
it found itself in a desperate bureaucratic struggle for Maintained
Funding, which manifested itself in all sorts of strained efforts to
Not helping was the common fill-in-the-blank saying "if we can put a man on the moon, we
can surely ________". Where the blank was filled, as appropriate, with
whatever the speaker wanted taxpayer dollars spent on. Maher takes all
these claims with zero skepticism.
Another irritation was in the chapter on feminism. Much is made of the
first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, on Vostok 6 in 1963, and the fact that NASA's
crew of astronauts at the time was all-dude. Maher avoids noting how
much of a propaganda gimmick Tereshkova's flight was; the USSR didn't
bother to fly another woman until 1982. (Sally Ride was the third woman
in space in 1983.) The history of women in space is interesting, but
Maher only seems interested enough to indict NASA's (and America's) disgusting sexism.