Tools & Technology

Book Club: Let’s Go to the Moon!

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, the Science History Institute Book Club reads two histories of the space race: T-Minus by Jim Ottaviani and Shoot for the Moon by James Donovan.

By Sarah Reisert | July 16, 2019
Grainy image of a craggy lunar landscape.

Lunar landscape, from Triumph and Wonders of Modern Chemistry, 1913. 

Science History Institute

The Science History Institute Book Club now has a Facebook group. If you read along with us at home, you can interact with Institute staff and other fans of books about science and the history of science. Join up and let’s talk! 

Greetings from the Science History Institute Book Club! We chose our most recent books (yes, books, plural!) in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing. Readers picked up Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11 by James Donovan and T-Minus: The Race to the Moon by Jim Ottaviani (a graphic novel), two very different approaches to the history of this extraordinary achievement.

On July 20, 1969, people all over the world watched as a man stepped off a ladder and into history. What they didn’t see in that moment, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, was the thousands of people who made his journey possible. In Shoot for the Moon, Donovan brings some of those people to life as he chronicles the space race from the launch of Sputnik to the successful voyage of Apollo 11, all in 396 jam-packed pages.

In T-Minus, Ottaviani (joined by illustrators Zander and Kevin Cannon) tells the same story in just 124 pages. T-Minus bounces back and forth between the Soviet and American space programs as each launched rockets and sent humans into space.

Some book club members chose to read just one book, while others read both. For a few of them, T-Minus was their first graphic novel! I read both books and found it helpful to have read Shoot for the Moon before tackling the abridged story in T-Minus. One book club member was at camp in the Maine woods when the 1969 lunar landing happened, and he and the other campers were bussed into town to watch the event on a very grainy TV.  

Switching from the past to the future, we imagined what it might feel like to see a human land on Mars, and we pondered NASA’s mission to return to the Moon in 2024. That’s only five years from now, but the original lunar landing took the better part of a decade to plan and execute. Though technology is more sophisticated today, NASA is sure to face many challenges: parts of the spacecraft haven’t yet been tested or even designed, and funding isn’t secured. We also talked about the costs involved in complicated, resource-heavy projects such as a Moon landing, and the objections that the money could be better spent fixing problems on Earth. As Donovan puts it, at the time of the original lunar landing, “There were pressing problems on Earth to deal with, such as poverty, crime, disease, pollution, unemployment, and more.” We speculated that since there is generally little inclination on the part of the government to spend adequate money on those problems, we may as well do something exciting such as go to the Moon.

Here are a couple of discussion questions for those of you who read Shoot for the Moon:

  1. “The astronauts appeared to be a remarkably homogenous bunch,” writes Donovan on page 45. “Each was from the Midwest and had an IQ over 130. . . . Each was a ‘superb physical specimen.’ . . . All were from small towns, all were middleclass, all were Protestant, all were white . . . and each was an only or an eldest son.” Why do you think the inaugural class of astronauts ended up this way? What are the positives and negatives of such homogeneity?

  2. Put yourself in the shoes of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, or Michael Collins. What do you think you would have been feeling during the Apollo 11 voyage?

And here are questions for those of you who read T-Minus:

  1. What do you think were the strengths and weaknesses of the graphic novel format in telling the story of the lunar landing? 

  2. The author and illustrators spend many pages telling the story of the Soviet space program as well as the American space program. Do you think this made for a better book, or should it have been devoted entirely to the American story?

Can’t get enough of the Moon landing? Neither can we! So we’re throwing a party and you’re invited. Join your fellow book club members at the Science History Institute on July 20 to talk about Shoot for the Moon and T-Minus, try on a space glove from the Institute collection, watch footage of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, enjoy thematic snacks, and nerd out with us. More details can be found on our Facebook group page.

Our next book is Rare: The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy Our Need for the Scarcest Metals on Earth by Keith Veronese. Read it over the summer, and we’ll pick up in September!