This Folio Life: Andrew Chaikin on picturing the Apollo moon missions

Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon


When I look back on the eight years I spent writing A Man on the Moon, two challenges stand out. One was getting the twenty-three surviving lunar astronauts of Project Apollo to sit down with me and talk, at length, about their experiences – something I was able to accomplish with spectacular results. The other was becoming the writer I needed to be to do justice to the incredible material they gave me – stories of the first journeys by humans away from the Earth to visit another world. In part, it required me to paint pictures with words, as I wrote about what it was like for these men to see their home planet shrink to the size of an outstretched thumb, to gaze down at the far side of the moon, never before seen by human eyes, and to actually stand on the lunar surface, an ancient and pristine wilderness brilliantly illuminated by unfiltered sunlight and framed by the blackness of space. I'm a visual thinker, and I used the astronauts’ mission photographs in my writing process. When I could see what the astronauts saw, it was much easier to put myself in their heads, to convey the missions through their eyes.

Working with Folio on this new illustrated edition, which comes more than a quarter-century after the book’s original release, gave me a chance to re-immerse myself in the moon voyages, this time with a combination of verbal and visual storytelling. Together with my wife (writer and editor Victoria Kohl) who shares my passion for all things space, I selected images that would enhance the power of the storytelling in each particular mission. We chose several images from my own collection, and obtained a few more from independent space photography archivists. But the majority were culled from vast online archives of mission photographs: thousands upon thousands of high-resolution digital scans of NASA’s original flight films that have become available over the last couple of decades. To me, these new scans became wondrous portals. I could zoom in to reveal details that would normally go unnoticed of the space-suited astronauts, their lunar lander, or the moon itself. I could stitch images together into panoramic views showing the astronauts going about their work amid an incredible, alien landscape. And I could choose a particular image or sequence of images to visualize any particular point in the narrative of that mission. The images enhance the power of the written words, taking the storytelling to a new level.

One of my favorite examples of such a sequence of images is in the chapter on Apollo 15, the first mission to visit the mountains of the moon. On the second of the flight’s three moonwalks, Dave Scott and Jim Irwin drove their battery-powered lunar rover hundreds of feet up the side of a lunar mountain called Hadley Delta, where they discovered a piece of the moon’s primordial crust that came to be known as the Genesis Rock. As a human experience, the episode was utterly extraordinary: to reach Hadley Delta’s slopes the astronauts had ventured some 3 ½ miles away from the relative safety of their lander. But their thoughts were not on the risk of their situation, but on the chance to discover the moon’s geologic treasures.

On pages 502–3, I used a combination of normal-angle and telephoto images to convey how far out on a limb the astronauts had gone: Their lander, which stood more than twenty feet tall, is all but invisible in the normal-angle view, but is revealed in the inset telephoto image.

On pages 504–5, I’ve presented a panoramic view of Dave Scott at work on Hadley Delta’s flank. You can see the things that made the mountainside a difficult workplace. The steep slope, covered with a thick layer of dust, required tremendous exertion just to walk a short distance. But you can also see the magnificence of the scene, with the moon’s Apennine mountains arrayed on the horizon, under the black dome of space.

Meanwhile, on Earth, scientist-astronaut Joe Allen was in mission control serving as the Capcom (short for 'capsule communicator’), the only person who talked directly to the astronauts. As he listened to Scott and Irwin’s transmissions he could hear the physical strains of their adventure, along with their frustration at the difficulty of finding a fruitful place to collect samples. The image on page 506 shows Allen at his console, photomap in hand, as he follows the astronauts’ progress.

The most alarming moment of the moonwalk came when, during one stop on the mountainside, the rover began to slide downhill. As Allen listened, he heard Scott tell Irwin to hold onto it. On page 508 I used Scott’s photo of a boulder he was about to sample; in the background, Irwin can be seen gripping the back of the rover. Scott’s picture, taken as part of his work as a lunar field geologist, has inadvertently documented the moment that had Joe Allen on the edge of his seat.

Finally, along the rim of a giant crater called Spur, Scott and Irwin found what they had been searching for: A 'gold mine’, in Scott’s words, of samples dating back to the moon’s earliest history. On page 510 I’ve zoomed into an image of the so-called Genesis Rock, perched on a pedestal of grey dust as if to offer itself, before Scott and Irwin collected it.

If you look closely you can see the white crystals of the moon’s primordial crust, some 4 ½ billion years old, peeking through a veneer of lunar grime. The rock would become one of the most famous of Apollo’s many discoveries. And as I write about in the text, it was a high point for these two lunar explorers at the very edge of human experience.

A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin, The Folio Society 2021