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Andy Ihnatko on the Moon

From Andy Ihnatko, Boston, MA:

I've been so totally looking forward to “In the Shadow of the Moon,” that new Apollo documentary [now in theaters--Ed.] , since I first saw the trailer. The ticket money's figuratively in an envelope taped to the underside of my desk. Was interested by a line in your review from Toronto (based on something in the documentary) suggesting that Gus Grissom didn't bellyache about the problems of the Block I command module as much as he might have, for fear of being bounced from the program.

It was interesting because this is a different take from the one I'm used to reading. Grissom seemed to be legendary for speaking his mind about the hardware's many defects. He's the guy who hung a lemon on the crew hatch, after all. It also seemed like he would have had to go pretty far before his place in the crew rotation was in jeopardy.

The stuff I've read paints the Astronaut Office as largely a fiefdom of director Deke Slayton, who as a (sidelined) Mercury astronaut tended to side with the astronauts against the rest of NASA and whose word on crew selection was considered law (with one big exception, Apollo 14). Some of the astronauts who've written about the experience say that Slayton's unspoken policy was that the astronauts with the greatest seniority and investment were first in line for the high-profile missions. So Grissom got to command the first Gemini flight (Al Shepard was the only senior astronaut and he was sidelined with an inner-ear problem) and got the first command of Apollo.

The new guys in the second class were pretty worried. Whenever you hear about astronaut marriages, you hear about the couple staying together not for the sake of the kids but for the sake the astronaut's career; there were many people fighting for few available seats (the leftovers after the Mercury vets got theirs) and nobody knew if a divorce would be just enough to keep someone grounded.

I enjoy the stories that come out of Apollo. Wally Schirra was someone who was actively counted on to ride the engineers and scientists pretty roughly, some going so far as to say that he was selected (or at the very least, appreciated) for missions where there needed to be an absolute minimum. You read about his Mercury flight (which came after the biggest near-disaster in Mercury history) and it's nothing but stories of Schirra vetoing request after request to put more scientific tasks and apparatus on the spacecraft, and when he took Apollo out for its first flight, more than one person described it as NASA's first crew mutiny.

Anyway. Too many people read lots of books and the (absolutely fascinating) NASA Mission Reports published by Apogee and figure they know what they're talking about. Me, all I say is that I've read lots of books and the (absolutely fascinating) NASA Mission Reports published by Apogee. So if there's a documentary that shows me that something I thought I knew is wrong, then that makes me that much more interested in seeing the doc!

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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