Further Reading on the Apollo Program

Apollo 11

We marked the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 last week, which means that the next step is to put all our moon-landing related nostalgia away until the next milestone anniversary, or until another of the remaining Apollo astronauts dies.1

If, on the other hand, all this attention has piqued your interest in the moon landings, the Apollo program, and the history of crewed spaceflight generally speaking, I have some suggestions as to what you should watch and read next. There are, of course, plenty of books and documentaries on this subject, but these will give you a general overview, with increasing levels of detail.

Level One: From the Earth to the Moon

There are plenty of movies and documentaries about the Apollo program, but for my money a good starting point is the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, which in twelve episodes covers the entire Apollo lunar program from conception to Apollo 17.

It fills in the cracks between The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, implicity assuming that you’ve seen those other two movies. It picks up more or less where The Right Stuff left off, and takes a “home front” look at the Apollo 13 mission, neatly avoiding replaying the events of movie. (Apollo 13 star Tom Hanks executive produced, narrated and starred in one of the episodes.)

Each episode covers one of the Apollo missions, with some exceptions: the first episode looks at the Gemini program, and the tasks it needed to accomplish before the Apollo program could get under way; and Apollo 10, which tested the lunar module in lunar orbit but did not land, is mentioned only in passing. And each episode approaches the mission from a particular angle: “Spider,” which covers Apollo 9, looks at the development of the lunar module; “For Miles and Miles” tells the story of Alan Shepard’s return to flight status; “Galileo Was Right” shows how astronauts were trained to be field geologists. We’re very fond of this series: Jennifer inflicts it on her students all the time.

After a long absence it’s finally back on HBO: HBO Canada ran a day-long marathon Saturday and it’s now in the on-demand catalogue, and I can only assume the same is true in the U.S. If you don’t have HBO, a spanking-new Blu-Ray set is now available.2

Level Two: A Man on the Moon

So you’ve watched From the Earth to the Moon and now your appetite is whetted even more. Now you want to read something about the Apollo program. From the Earth to the Moon was largely based on a single book: A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin (1994). This is almost certainly the best single-volume history of the Apollo program: it’s detailed, readable and compelling. Most other books on Apollo tend to be more singular in focus: astronauts’ memoirs or biographies, histories of specific aspects of the program, strongly narrated new-journalism accounts, even art books. Many of them are worth reading. But if you want a single book that gives you both the big picture and the whole picture, this is the one you should get.

Level Three: Outward Odyssey

Including the bibliography, endnotes and index, A Man on the Moon is nearly 700 pages long. If that still isn’t enough to slake your curiosity, have I got something for you.

Outward Odyssey: A People’s History of Spaceflight is a popular history project published by the University of Nebraska Press. It focuses on interviews and conversations with the people involved in the space program, which affords a significantly different perspective than other space histories. It also gives equal weight to the Soviet and American space programs, which allows for a perspective that contemporaries simply didn’t have. NASA had no idea how much the Soviet program relied on twine and baling wire to get the job done; the contrast between the Soviets’ threadbare program and the massive industrial resources thrown at NASA during the same period could not be more stark.

The detail in these books is sufficient that you ought not to come at them cold: a basic understanding of the history of spaceflight is required. Read Chaikin first. But if you have, and you want more, I would point you to the following three volumes, which cover the period of the Apollo program:

Featured image: Neil Armstrong on the Moon.


  1. Four of the twelve astronauts who walked on the Moon—Buzz Aldrin, David Scott, Charles Duke and Harrison Schmitt—are still with us, as are eight of the twelve who orbited the Moon but did not land. The youngest of the lot is 83 years old, the oldest 91.
  2. Note that there are complaints about the remastering on this Blu-Ray set, and on the 16:9 crop of what was originally broadcast in 4:3 (though, to be fair, it was cropped at 16:9 for the earlier DVD release). Keep in mind that this was an HBO miniseries before the onset of Game of Thrones budgets.