‘Shoot for the Moon’ book review: Go for liftoff

shoot for the moon

Landing the first man on the moon was perhaps mankind’s most enormous undertaking, and in Shoot for the Moon (Little, Brown and Company, March 12) writer James Donovan does an excellent job of telling that story from its World War II rocket weapon origins through that first small step for a man on the moon (as he notes first moonwalker Neil Armstrong meant to say).

An ardent follower of NASA since my childhood in the ’60s and a resident of Houston since 1983, I’m more familiar than the average person with these things, and I can testify that readers will gain immense knowledge and details from Donovan, who seems to get everything right.

Well, almost everything.

Here in Houston, we take great pride in being the home of the Johnson Space Center, Mission Control and America’s brave astronauts, whose bold ventures fit the spirit of this diverse, future-forward, can-do city. Our police wear a “Space City” patch on their uniforms and our baseball team is named the Astros for good reason, because the astronauts are our neighbors.

Yes, we are all fellow Houstonians. But not “Houstonites.”

As anyone should know, especially if they live in Texas, Houston residents are Houstonians, just as Waco dwellers are Wacoans, San Antonio citizens are San Antonians and so on. But Donovan, who lives in Dallas among the Dallasites, seems to think we are Houstonites, as stated in his book — along with references to Houston’s “steamy” weather and “stifling summer heat” and the fact that one NASA recruit from out of state didn’t know where Houston was other than it was below Dallas. (For the record, Dallas has worse extremes of heat in summer and cold in winter, and Houston is easy to find.)

You can see why, given this book’s Dallas origins, such slants rankle me. But let’s press on.

A much bigger thing that Donovan does get right is to characterize early space flight up through 1969’s historic Apollo 11 as a harrowing but grandly rousing adventure. The recent film First Man got the harrowing part right, but it made Armstrong seem like a self-absorbed, glum, aloof, cold participant who couldn’t see past his own grief over the loss of his daughter and his comrades to appreciate the spectacular human achievement of which he was a part.

Donovan shows a more full-bodied Armstrong who, while no buddy-buddy type, did have a sense of humor and was the coolest pilot in NASA’s astronaut corps. When he and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, it wasn’t a triumph over tragedy as in First Man, but a triumph of American technology, ingenuity and spirit. That’s how I see it, and Donovan does, too.

Being a well-versed space nut himself by this point, he of course also nails designating the far side of the moon as just that, not the “dark side,” as so many people call it.

There is no such thing as a fixed dark side of the moon, any more than there is a dark side of the Earth, except at any given moment. But there is a fixed lunar far side. That’s because the moon’s rotation on its axis is precisely equal to the time it takes to orbit the Earth, causing only one side of the moon always to be in our view. Thanks for nothing, Pink Floyd and others who mistakenly consider the far side to be the “dark” side.

I also greatly appreciated that Donovan rightly championed the workers at Mission Control and, in agreement with Flight Director Gene Kranz, considers the rescue of Apollo 13’s crew, managed by those on the ground, to be “NASA’s finest hour.”

Indeed, I still get chills thinking about it, and not just because I loved Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 film, or because as a journalist I got to interview Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, one of the greatest honors of my life.

In addition, it’s because I am awed by the bravery and boldness of space exploration. It’s because I embrace the majesty and mysteries of the universe. And it’s because of who I am.

A Houstonian.

— Bruce Westbrook






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2 Responses to “‘Shoot for the Moon’ book review: Go for liftoff”

  1. James Donovan Says:

    Hi Bruce,

    Jim Donovan here–the author of SHOOT FOR THE MOON. I’m so embarrassed–“Houstonites”? What was I thinking? And my copy editor didn’t even catch it . . . please accept my apologies, and feel free to refer to us up here as “Dallasians” for as long as you want.

    But I’m glad you liked the book. It was a labor of love, as I think is obvious.

    Ad Astra,

    Jim Donovan

    • farsider Says:

      Thanks so much, Jim. I did enjoy the book and, as you could see by my review, held much of it in high regard. Yes, I can see it was a labor of love. It’s hard not to love space exploration, right?

      Thanks again, and all the best. — Bruce

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