The sun god’s journey to the moon

An awe-inspiring new book by teNeues Publishing on the Apollo space program — timed to anticipate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing next summer — also offers a reminder of the classical, familial origins of the program’s name.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s official history details a moment in July 1960 when Abe Silverstein, NASA’s director of space flight development, suggested the name Apollo for the program that would ultimately land a man on the moon.

Why use the name of a Greco-Roman god? The precedent had been set with two previous programs. As the new book, “APOLLO VII-XVII” ($65, 320 pages) points out, “Project Mercury put the first American, Alan Shepard, into space on May 5, 1961.” The project was named for the fleet Roman messenger god — Hermes in Greek mythology — he of the winged cap and feet, an image later immortalized in bronze by Renaissance artist Giambologna.

“After a further five Mercury solo missions,” the book notes, “Project Gemini was seen as the stepping stone to the moon where two-man crews flew 10…missions during 1965 and 1966 with three main objectives — to fly extended-duration missions (the time it would take to get to the moon and back), to develop EVA (extravehicular activity) techniques and to develop the procedures necessary to rendezvous and dock.”

With two men aboard each flight, Gemini — after the devoted twin brothers of Greek mythology, Castor and Pollux — seemed like an appropriate name.

But why Mercury’s big brother Apollo — who was, after all, god of the sun, along with music and truth — and not Apollo’s twin sister, Artemis (Diana in Roman mythology), goddess of the moon and the hunt? There seems to be no other reason than Silverstein found Apollo to be an attractive name. Plus, he thought the image of the god in his golden, horse-drawn chariot, hauling the sun on its daily journey across the sky — an image crystallized in a fountain at the gardens of Versailles — captured the grandeur of the mission NASA was about to undertake. (This was also an era in which hurricanes had only female names. Perhaps NASA saw a female name as bad luck.)

In any event, Apollo 7, the first manned mission in the Apollo program, went into space on Oct. 11, 1968. (It was preceded by a number of missions that did not carry the Apollo designation. The mission known as Apollo 1 was named retroactively to honor the crew of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger E. Chaffee, who died on Jan. 27, 1967, in a fire aboard the command module during a launch pad test.) Apollo 18 through 20 would be scrapped for a variety of reasons. The return of Apollo 17 on Dec. 19, 1972, would mark the end of the program, though we did not know it. 

Best known, of course, are the two missions that were the program’s apotheosis — Apollo 11, the first lunar landing — and its most spectacular failure — Apollo 13, with its exploding oxygen tank that damaged the service module, aborted a moon landing and instituted a race to return the crew alive to Earth. (The story was absorbingly told in Apollo 13 Commander James A. Lovell Jr.’s book, “Lost Moon,” and the subsequent movie, “Apollo 13,” starring Tom Hanks.)

In its four years and 11 missions, Apollo gave us a heck of a ride, as this book demonstrates in 225 color and black-and-white photographs that required new technology and new training for the astronauts to shoot pictures in space. 

Some will be familiar, like the first color photograph, courtesy of Apollo 8, of the earthrise — in which earth appears like a cloudy blue marble, at once so special yet perhaps also so lonesome in its life-bearing properties. Others, like a blue ombré effect casting light on a sliver of textured blue moon, via Apollo 13, read like an abstract painting.

Many of these photographs have a mystical quality, achieving, along with the work they captured, the transcendent.

“APOLLO VII-XVII” was written by Floris Heyne, Joel Meter, Simon Phillipson and Delano Steenmeijer and edited by Neil Pearson. It contains a special foreword by Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham. For more, visit

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