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Apollo in sharper focus

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin erects a solar wind experiment on the moon after Apollo 11's historic landing on July 20, 1969. Click on the image for a high-resolution view.

That's one small step for a man ... and one giant stack of books for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

The pile of new publications about NASA's moon effort, timed to anticipate the anniversary on July 20, has been rising so high that Robert Pearlman, editor of the CollectSpace Web site, had to clear out his bookshelves this week. "I now have stacks of older books sitting around my office," he told me today.

It's Pearlman's job to keep track of the memories and the memorabilia surrounding space missions, and even he is impressed by the breadth of offerings being released this year. "Each of them is slightly different - they're not just telling the same story over and over again," he said.

That sentiment is echoed by Andrew Chaikin, author of "A Man on the Moon," the classic chronicle of the Apollo missions. "Apollo was such an enormous undertaking that I'm continually reminded that you can never truly know everything about that program. There were so many people, and so much, and all of them have their stories to tell," he said.

'Amazing conversations' ... and amazing pictures
Few writers have been better placed to tell those stories than Chaikin. In preparation for his 1994 book (which has since been updated), he conducted in-depth interviews with 23 of the 24 Apollo lunar astronauts. Much of that material just couldn't be used in "A Man on the Moon."

"I had these amazing conversations with the astronauts, but I didn't let the astronauts speak directly to the reader except in the epilogue," Chaikin explained. "It wasn't that kind of book."

This year, Chaikin wrote that kind of book - in league with his wife, Victoria Kohl. "Voices From the Moon" sets the choicest sound bites from the interviews alongside crisp images that illustrate the Apollo saga's main themes.

Over the past couple of years, NASA has released fresh, high-resolution scans of the voluminous Apollo mission imagery, and Chaikin makes liberal use of those pictures to put the Apollo experience into sharper focus.

"I did actually find some pictures that I had not seen before," he said. "One example is the picture that shows the moon in Earthlight with a bit of solar corona around it, that the Apollo 11 crew took. This is the moment at which Neil Armstrong tells Mission Control, 'It's a view worth the price of the trip.'"

Some of the images revealed a little-seen side of Armstrong on the moon. In the course of researching "A Man on the Moon," Chaikin came across some 16mm film footage that was shot from the lunar lander as the astronauts worked on the surface. In some frames, Armstrong's face could be made out through his helmet visor.

"That was something that always stayed with me - something that was very cool," Chaikin recalled in a CollectSpace video.

When the pictures for "Voices From the Moon" were being selected, Chaikin knew that one of those frames just had to be included. He obtained digitized imagery from the film, and picked out the best screen grab for further enhancement. "I think it's fair to say that that is the best photograph of Neil Armstrong standing on the surface of the moon," he said.

The astronauts' 'other' mission
For decades, the lunar astronauts have been stereotyped as jet jocks who became tongue-tied when trying to describe what being on the moon was like. "They had no preparation whatsoever for the mission they never trained for - the mission that was handed to them by us when they came back from the moon, the mission that has been with them for the rest of their lives," Chaikin said.

But Chaikin hopes that reading the astronauts' actual words will put that stereotype to rest. "What I conclude after talking with them at great length is that they did a superb job, an absolutely wonderful job," he said. "I would say 'Mission Accomplished,' to coin a phrase."

"Voices From the Moon" serves as the perfect complement to "A Man on the Moon" - and I wouldn't be surprised if they end up being packaged as a two-book set. But there are plenty of other potential additions to your bookshelf. Whether you're a space fan or a comic fan, a youngster or an armchair historian, there's an Apollo book to suit your fancy.

Here's a list of the latest and greatest hits, compiled with Pearlman's assistance:

"Apollo: Through the Eyes of the Astronauts": NASA's Robert Jacobs, Michael Cabbage, Constance Moore and Bertram Ulrich edited this coffee-table book of classic Apollo photos, accompanied by synopses of each mission and quotes from the astronauts. While "Voices" is organized thematically (training through post-landing reflection), "Apollo" is organized chronologically (Apollo 7 through 17), which may make it easier for a space newbie to keep track of what happened when. There's also a foreword by physicist Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy Hawking.

"Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon": Craig Nelson gives Apollo and the space effort the full nonfiction treatment in this 416-page history, due for release later this month. He draws upon interviews, NASA oral histories, declassified CIA documents and detail-rich reminiscences about the social milieu surrounding the moonshots. I love this single sentence describing what it was like around Cape Canaveral just before Apollo 11 was launched:

"It was the middle of summer in the middle of Florida, meaning a heat that melted asphalt onto the soles of barefoot children and a humidity that made women sweat like Teamsters, especially that remarkable gaggle of lithe and adventurous females that made their way to Cocoa for every shot, pretty young things on the hunt for astronauts, or their best buddies, or somebody who worked at NASA, or somebody, girls who could be counted on to have a swinging time at the Satellite, Vanguard, Polaris, Rocket!, or Space Girls taverns, drinking liftoff martinis or moonlanders (vodka, soda, lime juice, creme de menthe, and creme de cacao)."

"One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 Remembered": Space historian Piers Bizony's coffee-table book frames the Apollo 11 moon trip in the wider context of what came before (reaching back to Sputnik and earlier) and what came after (reaching ahead to Orion and NASA's future space vision).

"Mission Control, This Is Apollo: The Story of the First Voyages to the Moon": Chaikin teams up with Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean to produce a book written for the 9- to 12-year-old set (or for older readers seeking a simple, straightforward account of the Apollo era). The photos, easy-to-understand graphics and Bean's space-themed paintings add to the book's appeal.

"Painting Apollo: First Artist on Another World": Alan Bean's paintings take center stage in this coffee-table compilation of his artwork, accompanied by inspirational quotes. Essays from art experts and reminiscences from Apollo flight director Gene Kranz shed light on both sides of Bean's career - as a left-brain astronaut and a right-brain artist. The book, due for release next month, complements an upcoming exhibit of Bean's works at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

"Moon 3-D: The Lunar Surface Comes to Life": Cornell astronomer Jim Bell follows up on his book of 3-D stereo images from the Red Planet, "Mars 3-D," with this collection of lunar views. Most of the pictures were shot by Apollo astronauts carrying stereo cameras. A cleverly designed set of red-blue glasses is built right into the book cover, but I found it easier to use the cardboard 3-D glasses I always carry around in my pocket. (Doesn't everybody do that?) In the book's non-3-D section, Bell explains what the moon missions did for humanity and why we should push on with space exploration.

"Missions to the Moon: The Complete Story of Man's Greatest Adventure": Writer/producer/director Rod Pyle's latest volume is a cross between a visual encyclopedia and a scrapbook. Each two-page chapter serves up a slice of space history, seasoned heavily with pictures. Most of the pages have pocket inserts that contain facsimiles of historical documents - for example, a page from the FBI's file on Wernher von Braun, or a copy of the Apollo 11 mission report, or a memo about the crew's flight insurance. Little kids would probably love to get their hands on this book, but parents may not let them.

"Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home From the Moon": Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin's memoir, written with Ken Abraham and due for release this month, doesn't stop with splashdown: Aldrin recounts the steps leading up to the historic mission, the stumbles that came afterward due to depression and alcoholism, his path to redemption and the road ahead. Aldrin has also come out with his second children's book, "Look to the Stars" (illustrated by Wendell Minor).

"Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11": Illustrator/author Brian Floca presents a beautiful children's book about humanity's first moon landing, suitable for ages 4 and older.

"Hornet Plus Three: The Story of the Apollo 11 Recovery": Bob Fish, a retired Marine who is now a trustee for the USS Hornet Museum in California, tells the Apollo 11 saga from the viewpoint of the people who picked up the space crew in the Pacific.

"Spacesuits": This coffee-table book doesn't focus so much on the men who flew to the moon, but rather on the clothes that kept them alive. Photographs document how the astronauts' spacesuits were made and how they look now in the Smithsonian's collection. There are even X-ray views that reveal what's inside. The text is by Amanda Young and the photos are by Mark Avino, both of whom are on the staff of the National Air and Space Museum.

"T-Minus: The Race to the Moon": If you're a comic-book ... er, graphic-novel aficionado, you'll love this tale of the space race. The story, written by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon, touches upon the challenges that engineers and mission managers faced as well as the better-known exploits of the astronauts. Come to think of it, even readers who are not into graphic novels just might get into this one.

With each passing year, more books about the Apollo adventure are being published, but we shouldn't forget about the books that have come before - including "Apollo: The Race to the Moon," by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox; and "Live From Cape Canaveral," by longtime NBC correspondent Jay Barbree.

Virtually every Apollo astronaut has had a book written about him, if he hasn't written one himself. My guess is that "First Man" is the best-known biography (and the weightiest). For still more summer reading, check out Ken's Lunar Library at the "Out of the Cradle" Web site, plus CollectSpace's Publications & Multimedia forum.

Over the decades, the memories of the Apollo generation have faded somewhat, Chaikin acknowledged. "It's the nature of human recollection," he said. "But the emotional content is among the most precious aspects of their testimony."

Pearlman said the passage of time may be one reason why the 40th anniversary has become such a big deal.

"We're losing some of the tangible histories of people who were involved in the program," he told me. "There's a consciousness that this might be the last hurrah. Hopefully not. Hopefully, we'll have a bigger celebration for the 50th. Hopefully, we'll be on the moon.

"But hopefully, there won't be a lot more books," Pearlman added. "For a reviewer like me, that's just a lot more reading."

More fun stuff for the Summer of Apollo:

Update for 3:45 p.m. ET June 9: I've added information about the 16mm film imagery of moonwalker Neil Armstrong. For further details, check out CollectSpace's report..

Stay tuned for future roundups of video and online resources for the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about my upcoming book, "The Case for Pluto."