Reginald Turnill has had a lucky life. A decades-long stint as aerospace correspondent for the BBC meant that he covered the first and so far only human journeys to another world, events that he recalls here in fresh detail. But more important, recent turns of history have allowed him to see the era in question, from the 1940s to the 1970s, with a clarity that is usually possible only much later. The space race and the cold war that drove it have passed into history, and for younger readers must seem remote, but many of the key actors are still alive.
Turnill's view of this period is a valuable one that deserves wide attention, though his account may seem a little self-congratulatory.
It starts with a fulsome foreword by Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and a reproduction of Turnill's Nasa Chronicler's Award. He is the only non-American to have received this trophy for people writing about the US space programme. But his apparently soft-focus writing has hard edges. This is a fine account of the working life of a high-profile journalist who, along with space, also covered stories such as the launch of Concorde and the Boeing 747. He is bitter about the offhand treatment he received at the BBC, which he thinks would have been very different if he had been a graduate instead of a working-class newshound who entered Fleet Street at 15. Some things about the BBC never change, including its reluctance to accept that the world's top news organisation might sometimes need to pay for a few air tickets. One advantage of the near-disaster of Apollo 13, Turnill says, was to stop the management's questioning the need for him to be on the scene for later missions.
But most readers will come to this book for its account of Neil Armstrong, Aldrin, John Glenn, Yuri Gagarin and the rest, not of Turnill's office politics. He decided to engross himself in the space programme in 1960, upon reading "the most exciting book I ever encountered", which turns out to be the proceedings of a Nasa planning conference. It set out the agenda for the coming decade in space, including the lunar missions and unmanned trips deep into the solar system. But he read the book in a US Air Force plane over the Arctic Circle, on a press trip designed to build support for new British and US missile projects. Turnill is open about the fact that even at the height of the Apollo project that put people on the Moon, the US military was outspending the civilian space effort, and about his failure to acknowledge this in his reporting at the time. He reflects on the Nazi origins of modern rocketry and the role of Wernher von Braun, rocketeer in chief to the Third Reich and later to the US. He met and shook hands with von Braun despite much unease. After all, one of his rockets on London landed near enough to the young Turnill to cause his brother's premature birth.
Turnill tells some intriguing tales of his times in the old Soviet Union, including the press conference after Gagarin became the first man in space.
For once, the barriers that normally made working in Moscow impossible were lifted.
But the focus is on the winners of the moon race, the US. Nasa's awareness of the importance of the BBC both around the world and within the US gave him high-level access that meant that he was ahead of the game during crises such as Apollo 13 and the first Moon landing of Apollo 11. His closeness to the astronauts allows him to write a fascinating chapter on the qualities they require. The Soviet cosmonauts were kept so secret that on one occasion, Turnill discovered the details of a daring space walk from a postage stamp whose design had evaded the censors. But it seems that the Soviets were less concerned than Nasa about the physical perfection of their cosmonauts. One had been wounded fighting the Nazis, and another, Vladimir Komarov, had a heart irregularity similar to the one that ended the space career of US astronaut Deke Slayton.
Turnill is frank about the risks of space flight, now the focus of attention again because of the destruction of the Columbia space shuttle in January with the death of its seven astronauts. Spaceflight is dangerous but in the Apollo era the dangers were less familiar. Columbia 's last flight was the 113th shuttle mission, one in a production line run largely by the private sector, with deadlines and objectives like any other routine operation. Apollo, by contrast, was a political spectacular. The shuttle is now grounded indefinitely, but when three astronauts were killed in a fire in the Apollo 1 capsule in 1967, there was barely a pause in the programme.
Today it is the sheer pace of Apollo that remains surprising. Its first flight was in October 1968 and Armstrong walked on the Moon in July 1969 in only the fifth Apollo mission. This timetable would normally be impossible for a product such as an airliner, much less a space mission where every step is into the unknown.
Turnill's accounts of the Apollo missions are the core of the book. The story of the survival of the three Apollo 13 astronauts after an explosion 204,000 miles from home has often been told, but Turnill's account reads with the freshness and drama only a top reporter could give it. Turnill's powers are at their height in describing the Apollo 11 landing, when Armstrong put the landing module on the surface of the Moon with less than 30 seconds of fuel left after a hunt for flat ground. Landing on a site with a tilt of more than a few degrees would have meant no return to Earth.
Such epics remind us that the heroic era of space exploration has been replaced by one in which machines make the big discoveries while humans - as in the International Space Station - mean big bills and big trouble. But the Columbia disaster has shown that progress is possible in human affairs.
With the shuttle out of action, the Russians are being brought in to keep the space station running, which would not have happened in the 1960s. The loss of Columbia and its crew means that the resumption of human exploration of the solar system, such as a trip to Mars or to an asteroid, must now be many years in the future. Certainly today's space journalists will never write memoirs to compete with Turnill's epic tale.
Martin Ince is contributing editor, The THES.
The Moonlandings: An Eyewitness Account
Author - Reginald Turnill
ISBN - 0 521 81595 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 456
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