REVIEW: Rocket Men by Robert Kurson
The riveting inside story of three heroic astronauts who took on the challenge of mankind’s historic first mission to the Moon, from the New York Times bestselling author of Shadow Divers.
By August 1968, the American space program was in danger of failing in its two most important objectives: to land a man on the Moon by President Kennedy’s end-of-decade deadline, and to triumph over the Soviets in space. With its back against the wall, NASA made an almost unimaginable leap: It would scrap its usual methodical approach and risk everything on a sudden launch, sending the first men in history to the Moon—in just four months. And it would all happen at Christmas.
In a year of historic violence and discord—the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago—the Apollo 8 mission would be the boldest, riskiest test of America’s greatness under pressure. In this gripping insider account, Robert Kurson puts the focus on the three astronauts and their families: the commander, Frank Borman, a conflicted man on his final mission; idealistic Jim Lovell, who’d dreamed since boyhood of riding a rocket to the Moon; and Bill Anders, a young nuclear engineer and hotshot fighter pilot making his first space flight.
Drawn from hundreds of hours of one-on-one interviews with the astronauts, their loved ones, NASA personnel, and myriad experts, and filled with vivid and unforgettable detail, Rocket Men is the definitive account of one of America’s finest hours. In this real-life thriller, Kurson reveals the epic dangers involved, and the singular bravery it took, for mankind to leave Earth for the first time—and arrive at a new world.
Dear Mr. Kurson,
I’ve read about the Mercury 7, about Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11, about Apollo 13 and how failure was not an option and about the engineers who worked the command center in Houston but when I saw this book and read the blurb I realized there was a lot I didn’t know about this flight and it sounded like I needed to rectify that. Not having read any of your other books, I wasn’t sure if I’d get a tech heavy and dry story. Well, it was fascinating and a book that almost read itself.
THREE ASTRONAUTS ARE STRAPPED INTO A SMALL SPACECRAFT thirty-six stories in the air, awaiting the final moments of countdown. They sit atop the most powerful machine ever built.
But wait, there’s more. Apollo 8 wasn’t just in between 7 and 9. It wasn’t merely the next stage in NASA’s quest to land men on the moon. Instead it was a bold leap – a bid to keep Kennedy’s space flight timeline on schedule and (well, let’s be as honest as Frank Borman is) beat the Russians. And it all came together over an impossibly short amount of time (in NASA terms) in the face of daunting problems that NASA was still working out.
But that’s not all. It occurred while America was seemingly tearing itself apart and being battered on all fronts. The year 1968 saw assassinations, a realization that Vietnam was unwinnable, then demonstrations and protests on US streets culminating in violence against citizens that shocked the nation.
Yet it didn’t really even start there. Instead it went back a year to the terrible fire of Apollo 1 which made NASA rethink and re-engineer – and after which an astronaut named Frank Borman testified before Congress and helped convince them to keep the space program going. Then a NASA engineer named George Low had an epiphany and in his risky proposal some at the agency saw a way to overcome the recent setbacks and catapult the US back into the front of the space race.
Risky? Oh yeah and the initial response from the head of NASA when it was first proposed – “Are you out of your mind?” – pretty much said it all. Apollo 8 was supposed to have been an Earth orbit chance to test untried but crucial elements that NASA knew would be needed for a Moon landing. Lots of them. There were countless ways the flight could go wrong, and if it went wrong, kill the astronauts. As the NASA boss pointed out, if Apollo 8 failed and men died at the Moon, no one would ever be able to look at it without thinking of them. Plus the orbital “window of opportunity” put the best time for the flight over Christmas.
But when he was asked to head the mission, Borman didn’t hesitate and committed himself as well as Jim Lovell and Bill Anders. The Saturn V rocket had spectacularly failed during its previous flight, there was no LEM to be a backup life raft and they would only have sixteen weeks to train – during which the SimSup would take them through endless scenarios designed to test and teach them, and also “kill” them – but all three men were on board, so to speak.
I enjoyed seeing the astronauts’ wives be such a large part of the story. They were among the unsung heroines of the NASA programs, expected to cheerfully keep the home fires burning, dress to impress, let the world into their homes and lives and also hide their fears from the public. Susan Borman dared to defend the photo during which she turned her head away from watching Frank be blasted off for another flight – yes, she was scared and she wasn’t going to deny it. Valerie Anders and Marilyn Lovell were also old hands at being military wives but the support their fellow wives and friends gave them helped keep them steady. They were all definitely proud if not always happy or thrilled.
Storms of white vapor began to billow near the base of the rocket, liquid oxygen boiling off during the Saturn V’s final moments on Earth. “T minus fifteen,” King called, “fourteen … thirteen … twelve … eleven … ten …”
Heart pounding, Borman’s left hand remained gripping one of the spacecraft’s controls, ready to twist it to the left and abort the mission in case of a catastrophic problem.
“Nine … We have ignition sequence start, the engines are armed!” King said, as a fury of orange-yellow flames lit beneath the rocket and exploded against the launchpad.
Flames spread from beneath the rocket and erupted out to the sides, a typhoon of fire awakened and screaming as the ground began to shake.
A man-made thunder crashed into people and windows and buildings for miles around.
At 7:51 A.M., King called it.
“We have lift-off.”
The fury of lift-off was only the beginning and NASA along with the astronauts’ families held their breath during each new maneuver, each chance for things to go wrong. Motion sickness, lack of sleep, fogged windows and sometimes iffy meal rations – no one wanted the beef or egg bites – couldn’t stop them. Their spacecraft was traveling at 5000 mph, the Moon at 2000 mph and Apollo 8 was supposed to edge in front of the Moon by 69 miles before firing a rocket to slow it down enough to be captured by the Moon’s gravity. Borman, Lovell and Anders – who by virtue of his seating position beat out his fellow astronauts to be the first by centimeters to reach the Moon – became the first men to leave Earth orbit and venture to another heavenly body. Anders’ realization of his first glimpse of the Moon close-up, sent shivers down my spine. Finally, humankind had arrived at the Moon.
There were dangers the crew faced during the return trip and re-entry – and times when breath was held awaiting confirmation they’d survived yet another challenge. There were sharpshooters aboard the Navy recovery helicopter in case sharks were spotted before the crew was retrieved. The wives waited and prayed – and this is the only crew whose marriages have all survived the pressures of the job. But Apollo 8 also proved the technology and calculations and kept NASA on track for July 1969 and at the end of a turbulent year, provided something behind which Americans could rally and of which they could be proud. B+
Telegrams for the astronauts poured in by the thousands. One, however, stood out from the rest. It came not from a world leader or celebrity or other luminary, but from an anonymous stranger. It read:
THANKS. YOU SAVED 1968.
Want to see more? Watch these two videos up on youtube to see the launch of Apollo 8 and then a 40 year reunion discussion with Borman, Anders and Lovell. They’re hilarious as they recall the mission.
And this is just too cool. What Curiosity rover has been up to during its 2000 Martian sols. Scroll down for the selfie.