Review of Rocket Men by Robert Kurson (NY Times Best-seller)

While we await Liberty One, I thought I’d stick to the space theme for this month’s review.

Rocket Men is a non-fiction account of Apollo 8, NASA’s first manned mission to leave Earth and head for the Moon in 1968. The astronauts didn’t land of course – that happened on Apollo 11 the following year, but the significance of this mission is that the crew were the first humans to leave planet Earth for another world. They took monumental risks to get all those great earthrise shots we love.

This book is great on so many fronts. It begins with the Cold War, so you get an idea of the world at the time and covers an amazing level of detail for such a distant event. It explains the stakes at key moments and also delves into the history and characters of the spacemen, describing how their families coped with the experience too. It also touches on what the Soviets were doing in space, because it was a race, after all.

What struck me most about this particular amazing journey was the incredible precision with which NASA was able to compute exactly where the spaceship would be to the second. To compare capability, my three year old wristwatch has more computing power than a sixties spaceship.

The mission was also a public beta on an astronomical scale. NASA was playing with fire. Not only did they do the Moon orbit on Christmas Day, there seemed to be no way they could have been confident of success, with so much that could have gone wrong. It was never tried before. The astronauts had only one SPS engine to get them into and out of lunar orbit. No backup. If it failed, they’d probably still be up there somewhere today. All of that gives this mission a significance that the later Moon landings don’t have.

Just to give you an idea of the stakes, this was also the first crewed mission on the humongous Saturn V, the previous test having failed very badly. Disaster seemed just as likely as success. It makes me wonder what the men were thinking when they climbed aboard that rocket. Was it simply too late to pull the plug inside the public eye?

Whatever the answer, it was probably complicated. What we know is that the commander, Frank Borman, declined any further missions before he even got onboard this one. Perhaps that says something. For him, it was all about beating the Communists to the Moon. And he would have achieved that goal by the time he got back. He was essentially fighting the Cold War in space.

The book also gives a strong sense of the skeptics and naysayers, who said it couldn’t or shouldn’t be done, contrasted with a small group of NASA managers and astronauts who just did it and made history anyway.

Incredibly, the entire transcript of the actual Apollo 8 flight is on YouTube herehere and here, so you can follow the real thing while reading the book.

I listened to the audio book at 2 speed, and read the book a couple of years back while researching Freefall.

Overall verdict: Fabulous book if you want to know about NASA’s (and mankind’s) first foray to the Moon.

There are many memorable quotes, but here are a handful to whet your appetite:

‘It took more courage to make the decision to do Apollo 8 than anything we ever did in the space program.’

‘The astronauts had come all this way to discover the Moon, and yet here they had discovered the Earth.’

‘It’s a vast, lonely, forbidding type existence, or expanse, of nothing. It looks rather like clouds and clouds of pumice stone, and it certainly would not appear to be a very inviting place to live or work.’

‘Three conquering heroes returned from the moon, hanging upside down and dripping in garbage.’

One boy in the crowd told his friend, “I know they didn’t have radiation because I just shook their hands.”

Anders recognized the man who’d first opened the hatch of the spacecraft. “That was really great, Corporal,” Anders said. “I noticed, though, that when you poked your head in you fell backward. Was it the way we looked?” “No, sir,” the man replied. “It was the way you smelled.”


Click here to get Rocket Men on Amazon

You can find my review of The Astronaut Wives Club here if you missed it – another amazing book which reveals the lives of the wives of America’s first astronauts.

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