Barely three years passed between the first and last Moon landings. Humanity spent the next fifty years writing books about the Apollo program. Many are popular science drivel: rehashed tales of the size of the rockets, the bravery of the astronauts, and the intelligence of the scientists. They don’t tell us anything that even a casual observer of the moon landings wouldn’t already know.
Beneath the weight of these forgettable books, gems exist. I dug through the bookstore mines to find them. These are my favorites: they’re well-researched, authoritative, and detailed. If you’re looking for something substantial to bite into—perhaps the pending anniversary of the landings has inspired you—these are all great picks.
General Technological Overview
W. David Woods
Explores the Saturn/Apollo launch vehicle from an operational and engineering perspective. In roughly chronological order from launch to splashdown, the author guides the reader through the Moon landings. Procedures, orbital mechanics/rendezvous, environmental control systems, and the CSM/LEM are all explored in length. The missions themselves are lightly touched: amusing anecdotes are used to illustrate whatever system is currently being explained.
A great introduction to the engineering effort of the Apollo program. An extensive bibliography can help guide you to the next book on a particular component that catches your interest.
Astronauts and their Journey
Ever wonder what it was really like to be an Apollo crew member? Interviewing all surviving Apollo astronauts, as well as many support personnel, Chaikin has a deeply interesting look at what the Apollo astronauts were experiencing during their moon missions. Light on biography, and heavy on personalities and missions, this is a great look at the differences between the flight crews and the unexpected realities of traveling outside of low Earth orbit. Spoiler alert: the Apollo capsules really smelled.
Published in the 1990s, Chaikin’s book is the source for HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon (highly recommended all in itself)
David M. Harland
Rife with pictures, this is a near step-by-step journey through every lunar excursion. Harland shows us the locations of where many of the most important samples were found, and explains how they were discovered. The bulk of the book is the J-type “scientific” missions that turned test pilots into field geologists, and is especially interesting from the moon science perspective. This is a great companion book to A Man On The Moon.
The astronauts were test pilots, not writers. Unfortunately they all decided to write memoirs about their experiences. Michael Collins—the command module pilot of Apollo 11—is the most poetic of the bunch. This is his autobiography. If A Man on the Moon only increased your thirst to know about the astronauts, this is the one to grab.
David A. Mindell
The Apollo Guidance Computer, and the corresponding Lunar Module Guidance computer, were revolutionary devices. Mindell delves deeply into the interaction between the MIT engineers designing the computers and the astronauts who would have to use them. It’s a revealing look at the new design paradigms required in order to make Apollo work, and many user interface examples are first created by these people.
If you’re interested in how the astronauts interacted with the computer—and the role it played on missions—this is a great text, and it flows naturally into The Apollo Guidance Computer: Architecture and Operation if you’re looking for even more substance.
An outstanding work. This book covers the hardware and software of the AGC. It provides detail—oh so much detail—about the unique design of the computer. Not to be stopped, it then describes the operation of the software , including the unique noun/verb method of entering commands. After spending the first two thirds of the book covering the technical aspects of the book, your reward is an exploration of how these actually worked in various operational situations of the Apollo program. A heavy book, and in many ways foreign to even people familiar with modern computers.
The Saturn V Flight Manual is the 1968-issued manual provided to astronauts and other flight operations personnel about the performance, construction, and details of the launch vehicle for the Apollo program. It’s in the dry writing style of a technical manual, but that’s what you signed up for, right? If you ever wondered about the internal structure, design, and operation of the S-IC, S-II, and S-IVB stages that make up a full Saturn V, this is as close as you’ll get to the engineers designing them.
There’s precious little text here. It’s not even Apollo-era. However, this beautiful republishing of the NASA “worm” graphics standards is a joy to explore.
From the Earth to the Moon
Much as Band of Brothers was a miniseries expansion of Saving Private Ryan, From the Earth to the Moon was the expansion of the storytelling in the movie Apollo 13.
Created by HBO and largely forgotten today, each episode focuses on a different aspect of the Apollo Program. The unique—and ultimately fulfilling—part of the series is that the episodes are all very different in style. “Spider” tells the story of the LEM. The journey to the Moon in Apollo 8 mixes imagery of the chaotic year 1968. Apollo 13’s episode is told from the ground point of view entirely.
It’s not an easy series to find at the moment: I can’t find it on streaming services. A used copy of the DVD is your best chance. Although difficult to find, it’s worth your time and effort.
I hope this inspired you to grab some of these works and give them a spin. Have you read anything that you think would fit into this list? Let me know in the comments!