From Laika to the Lunar Module

T-Minus: The Race to the Moon, by Jim Ottaviani. Illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon. 124 pp. Aladdin. $21.99. (Ages 8 to 12)

One Small Step: Celebrating the First Men on the Moon, by Jerry Stone. Illustrated. Unpaged. Flash Point/Roaring Brook Press. $24.95. (Ages 6 to 10)

Mission to the Moon, by Alan Dyer. Illustrated. 80 pp. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. $19.99. (Ages 8 to 12)

"T-Minus: The Race to the Moon," a graphic novel written by Jim Ottaviani, tells the story of America's come-from-behind victory in the space race's main event--a manned moon landing. Ottaviani takes minimal liberties with the actual events to compress the great race into 124 pages: he deftly reimagines and expands the roles played by a few real-life aerospace engineers and contractors and imagines plausible dialogue for places where the historical record is incomplete.

The illustrations by Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon (no relation) capture both the inky vastness of space and the glory of the big flying machines, but the book's primary subject is human emotions, not rockets or the heavens. Again and again, "T-Minus"--rocketeer lingo for time until takeoff--relies on close-ups to dramatize the life work of rocket visionaries from both nations' space programs, like Robert Goddard, Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev. It's about time the people who designed and built the spacecraft got top billing over the flyboys.

The Soviet Union's first firsts were followed by still more: first to put a live animal into orbit (Laika the space dog in 1958); first to put a man into orbit (1961); first to put a woman into orbit (1963); first to conduct a space walk (1965). By the mid-1960s the Soviets owned all of the space endurance flight records, too.

The gap between the two programs seemed to widen in 1967 after Gus Grissom and his two crew mates died in a fire during a launch-pad practice session of their Apollo 1 capsule. NASA, which ran the space program, suspended Apollo flights while it made the craft safer, and President John F. Kennedy's goal of landing on the moon by the end of the 1960s appeared unreachable. But then the Soviets stumbled. Korolev, a top rocket designer, died unexpectedly during surgery in 1966, and the Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed during the emergency landing of the Soyuz 1. These events helped to sidetrack the Soviet program and create an opening for the Americans.

A series of successful Apollo missions in the late 1960s restored confidence at NASA and provided the steppingstones for an American moon landing. Just before Christmas 1968, in a preview of what was to come, the re-engineered Apollo 8 left Earth's gravity and orbited the moon. "T-Minus" treats this flight to as many pages as the moon landing mission itself. In March 1969, Apollo 9 practiced docking with the lunar landing vehicle in Earth orbit; two months later Apollo 10 did the same in moon orbit; and on July 20, 1969--40 years ago--Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon at Tranquillity Base while Michael Collins orbited above in the mother ship that would ferry them back home.

"T-Minus" captures the optimism and courage of both countries' space pioneers, making it an ideal entry point for new readers intrigued by the topic. Space know-it-alls will learn something, too. Who knew that the Apollo's Saturn V launcher was delivered from Huntsville, Ala., to its Florida launch pad by barge?

This is a well-researched book. In its constellation of useful facts, dates and figures, I found just one error: it wrongly states that John Glenn's Friendship 7 orbited the Earth in 1961. As the authors know, Glenn's flight came in 1962.

The slickly produced "One Small Step: Celebrating the First Men on the Moon" purports to be a space-race scrapbook assembled by a young boy named Mike, who is pictured on its opening page and whose mother is a NASA scientist. Any reader inquisitive enough to enjoy "One Small Step" will quickly figure out that the annotated photos, insignias, lists, engineering diagrams and artwork taped and paper-clipped into place were assembled by the professionals listed on the book's copyright page, none of them named Mike.

Awkward as this approach is, don't let it keep you from appreciating "One Small Step." The book's scrapbook format invites readers to explore the concepts, technologies and personal stories behind manned space flight. Flaps open to chart the space race's timeline or to explain the functioning of a piece of space hardware. A postcard with Laika the space dog begs to be peeled off the page and mailed. There's even a detachable "First Man on the Moon" mini-pennant.

"Mission to the Moon," by Alan Dyer, celebrating the Apollo 11 anniversary, covers much of the same area but does so with a straight documentary approach supplemented by a bonus DVD of Apollo footage (which works on a computer disk drive but not on a TV). If "One Small Step" is big fun, "Mission to the Moon" is serious fun, trusting the material instead of flaps and human drama to sustain reader interest. It should go without saying which book I'd pick to spend an evening with and which book I'd choose to add to my library.

These three books remind us of the time when the moon was a place people actually visited, a time of science fact that eclipses every volume of science fiction ever written. As any 12-year-old can tell you, the long-ago years of the space race still feel more like the future than anything on the horizon.

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