I read John Rocco’s How We Got to the Moon this summer, 10-12 pages a day until I had read all 250. David McCauley calls it “Nothing short of stunning!” on the cover. He’s right. The book has a lot in common with McCauley’s books, but the color illustrations set his apart. Many are full two-page spreads. He includes many insets and assorted small illustrations. The book also benefits from having a single over-arching narrative thread: getting to the moon.
McCauley has focused mainly on technology. Rocco’s subtitle advertises a wider interest: “The People, Technology, and Daring Feats of Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Adventure.” He provides many, many personal profiles, including those of otherwise unsung heroes, from the seamstresses of suits and parachutes to the nutritionists who devised the space menu. Behind the third part of the subtitle–the daring feats–is the teamwork of “400,000 people” employed in the effort toward a single goal, as well as “the wives, husbands, partners, and families of everyone who participated in the Apollo program.” Rocco’s main interest, he says in the epilogue, is “the grit, determination, and hard work it took to achieve the goal–also the problem-solving, the organization, the science, and the sheer cleverness of it all.”
The main text is written as narrative in the present tense. Insets are written as long captions of a paragraph or two. Throughout are insets labeled Problem!, which describe a technical or organizational problem the Apollo program faced. These are followed by Solution! headings and explanations of how the problem was solved. The format is very effective.
Rocco has done impressive research, but it should be understood that the book is the result of a lifetime passion. (From the jacket About the Author: “If he wasn’t able to make books, he would like to work as an engineer for NASA.”) Much Apollo archive material was available to him online, but he also traveled widely and spoke to many of the men and women who were there. The personal interviews, he says in the acknowledgments, allowed him to get clarification on technical matters that otherwise eluded him. He explains in clear, effective prose. On only two or three pages did I truly get lost (on the pages, no surprise, about the rocket science). Everything was easily understandable for me and, I suspect, will be for children. His ability to illustrate his ideas in pictures as well as words is what sets his book apart. He was able to use photos of actual people and events as the basis for many of his illustrations.
I might add: I have no special interest in space exploration, never have. But this book is everything Rocco says it is in his epilogue: a tribute to the most ambitious group problem-solving endeavor in human history.
Rocco, John. How We Got to the Moon: The People, Technology, and Daring Feats of Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Adventure. New York: Crown Books for Young Readers, 2020.