Quick Pick: Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon by Suzanne Slade and Thomas Gonzalez

“The Eagle has landed,” proclaimed Buzz Aldrin as Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. What did it take to get there? And what about the 10 other Apollo missions?

By Christine Brovelli-O’Brien, Ph.D., Content

Countdown 2979 Days to the Moon book cover

On July 16, 1969 in Houston, Texas, the three American astronauts aboard Apollo 11 were launched into space. Just four days later, they not only landed on the moon but walked on its rugged, rocky surface while millions of viewers (600 million, in fact) around the world watched with breathless anticipation.

The exploration of our moon conducted by Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins marks a turning point in world history, but it’s one that was years in the making (2979 days, to be exact). In her forthcoming book, Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon, children’s author Suzanne Slade, a former mechanical engineer who actually has worked on Apollo space missions, depicts all eleven of these missions with flowing, exhilarating prose.  She’s crafty at building tension and treating difficult moments, such as President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts, with grace and empathy.

If you’re doing a unit on the Space Race, you could pair Countdown with another NASA book, Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, that shows the behind-the-scenes history of how these rockets got off the ground. The film is pretty terrific and gives life to these far-off adventures. Gonzalez includes a portrait of “computer” Katherine Jackson in one of his collages, which is awesome.                                                          

With his use of pastels, watercolor, pencil, and ink, illustrator Thomas Gonzalez creates life-like drawings that capture moments both big (Apollo 4 orbiting the earth) and small (an astronaut zipping up his spacesuit). His detailing of the spacecraft control panels resembles a photograph, with each knob and dial meticulously drawn.

Students who are visual learners will be drawn to Gonzalez’s artistic interpretations of the steps it takes to rocket into space. In a similar way, students can make their own text – as a graphic novel, for example, or an illustrated book like Slade’s – over the course of a space-themed teaching unit. The text can be as simple or complicated as time allows, and older kids can work on their projects at home.

If you want to take this a step further and make this an old-school, tactile project, ask students to create their text with hand-drawn images instead of using a computer program. A collage made of pictures from magazines and/or older books (you can find these at libraries and resale shops) would be fun and eco-friendly because it repurposes the old texts. Either way you approach it, this type of project underscores how the “A” fits into STEAM.

After reading Countdown, check out NASA’s “Humans in Space” page to see what’s on deck for the 50th anniversary and the next space launch!