REVIEW: Across the Airless Wilds by Earl Swift
8:36 P.M. EST, December 12, 1972: Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt braked to a stop alongside Nansen Crater, keenly aware that they were far, far from home. They had flown nearly a quarter-million miles to the man in the moon’s left eye, landed at its edge, and then driven five miles in to this desolate, boulder-strewn landscape. As they gathered samples, they strode at the outermost edge of mankind’s travels. This place, this moment, marked the extreme of exploration for a species born to wander.
A few feet away sat the machine that made the achievement possible: an electric go-cart that folded like a business letter, weighed less than eighty pounds in the moon’s reduced gravity, and muscled its way up mountains, around craters, and over undulating plains on America’s last three ventures to the lunar surface.
In the decades since, the exploits of the astronauts on those final expeditions have dimmed in the shadow cast by the first moon landing. But Apollo 11 was but a prelude to what came later: while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin trod a sliver of flat lunar desert smaller than a football field, Apollos 15, 16, and 17 each commanded a mountainous area the size of Manhattan. All told, their crews traveled fifty-six miles, and brought deep science and a far more swashbuckling style of exploration to the moon. And they triumphed for one very American reason: they drove.
In this fast-moving history of the rover and the adventures it ignited, Earl Swift puts the reader alongside the men who dreamed of driving on the moon and designed and built the vehicle, troubleshot its flaws, and drove it on the moon’s surface. Finally shining a deserved spotlight on these overlooked characters and the missions they created, Across the Airless Wilds is a celebration of human genius, perseverance, and daring.
Dear Mr. Swift,
Show me a book about moon exploration and I’m going to want to at least read the blurb. What caught my attention about this one was that it was going to focus on the last three Apollo missions. When most of us think of the Apollo program, it’s 11 and 13 (the first and the worst) that people recall. With this book, I hoped I’d learn a bit more about the ones that have slipped our minds.
Let me be honest and say that this book is packed with details – sometimes too many, for my taste. The opening section recounts the events of the 1950s that lead to the beginning of NASA. There are some nuggets of interest here but I think most people who would be interested in the book would know most of this. What did make me smile was to learn about three immigrants to the US who had such a large hand in the space program as well as how many sons of immigrants played a role in developing the rover.
Then came some chapters that will make engineers sit up and wallow in the specialties of these immigrants, especially if vehicle-soil mechanics (how we travel over it) is of interest. I can easily see why this was so important to developing the rover which had to cross lurrain that no one had ever driven on but it’s stuff I had to work to keep myself reading. The following chapters were filled with more information about bidding for NASA contracts, spec requirements, and management of companies doing the bidding than I ever wanted to know. TBH, some of this was skimmed.
But the last third was the icing on the cake plus the cherry, too. The rover reignited public interest in the moon landings because it was going to have a car! I flew through the chapters detailing the explorations and science that the astronauts of Apollo 15, 16, and 17 were able to accomplish all due to their trusty rovers. The limitations of Apollo 14 – where the astronauts had to slog to and from their targets – highlighted the need for the mobility that the rover provided. Now instead of spending so much precious moon time getting to the areas to be explored, the astronauts were freer to spend their time collecting samples, taking pictures, and filming the awesomeness they were seeing. Reading their conversations between themselves and Mission Control were a hoot, too.
Was the expense of and the frenetic pace to develop the rovers worth it? Based on the rock and regolith samples brought back (including what is thought to be, at 4 billions years of age, the oldest moon rock retrieved) as well as the experiments that could be left in distant locations from the LMs that have, among other things, proved that the moon once had an active magnetic field, the rovers were a bargain. Plus the original design developed by one of the men involved in the project, though not used for the moon rovers, became the starting point for the rovers now crisscrossing Mars. B
With Apollo 15 came exploration measured in miles, not minutes.