This book was positively 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 book? 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 Ray Bradbury 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 astronauts' 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 flag.
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 conveniently-selected facts.
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 trans-lunar injection 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 show relevance.
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.