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A half-century of summers ago, the United States put the first men on the moon. Journalist Charles Fishman tells the story of that accomplishment — its downs as well as its ups — in “One Great Leap,” subtitled, “The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon.”

Fishman says in his introduction that “when President John Kennedy declared in 1961 that the United States would go to the Moon, he was committing the nation to do something we couldn’t do. We didn’t have the tools, the equipment — we didn’t have the rockets or the launchpads, the space suits or the computers or the zero-gravity food — to go to the Moon.”

But go we did, culminating in Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” on July 20, 1969. Fishman writes, “The eight years from Kennedy’s speech to Armstrong’s first step were as transformativeas any eight-year period in post-World War II American history: three presidents; a devastating and divisive war, a draft, and a nationwide protest movement; the revolution of civil rights across the county; the Beatles and the Rolling Stones; The Flintstones, Batman, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Like so many authors, Fishman covers the technological challenges facing NASA. He goes into exquisite detail on such seemingly trivial matters as the ladder that Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin used to climb down to the lunar surface. Indeed, Fishman gives readers an entire chapter on the American flag that the two planted in the lunar soil.

But Fishman also covers the bureaucratic sniping, the turf-war tussling and the Cold War contests involving the White House, Congress, NASA — and the Soviet Union, which began the space race in the late ‘50s with Sputnik.

Fishman’s snappiest salute may go the technological marvels that the space mission rushed along — and that today reside in our pockets and purses inside our cellphones. As Fishman puts it, “Spaceflight was thrilling, and the thrill was in part powered by and was reliant on smart people sitting at computers. It was the dawn of the Digital Age, and it was also the dawn of the age of the nerd. ‘The computer,’ said Time in the opening of that 1965 story, ‘is, in fact, the largely unsung hero of the thrust into space.’”

In a larger sense, Fishman finds a philosophical payoff. “The American flag” planted in the lunar dust, he writes, “meant something very different from the Soviet flag. Instead of the triumph of tyranny, it was just the opposite: going to the Moon is forever the symbol of what freedom can accomplish.”

Fishman also finds fault, mainly in the lack of a long-range program to follow up on Apollo.

“No one in the world thought we were going to the Moon simply to go to the Moon,” he writes. “We were teaching ourselves to fly anywhere in the universe we wanted to go. And so in the world of space history and space policy, Apollo became regarded as a cul de sac. A brilliantly executed failure.”

Fishman’s journalistic background taught him to write short, simple sentences, using plain-and-simple Anglo-Saxon English. As a result, despite all the detail, “One Great Leap” goes down smoothly.

And credit Fishman with an eye for colorful detail. He notes that when the music video channel MTV “debuted on Aug. 1, 1981, its signature logo featured none other than Buzz Aldrin, standing in salute alongside the American flag on the Moon. The Stars and Stripes had been swapped out for the animated MTV logo.”

And now? Thirty-five years later, the “Moon Man” statuette is still the honor handed out at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.


When • 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where • St. Louis County Library, 1640 South Lindbergh Boulevard

How much • Free

More info • 314-994-3300