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Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon

Review

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon

1968 was a pretty terrible year, whether measured by North American or global criteria. As a Canadian grade 13 student, sharing my peers’ uncertainties over a world that seemed headed from cold war into a very hot nuclear one, it seemed that every day’s news headlines thrust new disasters in our faces.

Natural, military and political tragedies, both large and now nearly forgotten, abounded. No one who lived through that year can block out memories of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, for example, or the chaos of the Detroit riots, the misery and losses of the Vietnam War, women’s liberation protests, race riots in the southern states, or even how Canadians would pay the bills coming in for Expo, our big centennial party of 1967.

In fact, it was such a bad-ass year that Robert Kurson’s newly published ROCKET MEN devotes an entire chapter to it so that readers born during the past half-century can begin to understand where the miracle of the Apollo 8 orbital moon mission came from.

Just a few months from the end of that depressing year, something happened that captivated the world’s population as never before, when NASA scientists overrode their reputation for methodical research, diligent testing and plain common sense. Instead, they crammed more than a year of preparation into a mere four months and successfully sent Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders to the moon, around it 10 times, and back. It was the first Christmas celebrated by humans in space.

"[W]hat makes ROCKET MEN such a powerful and enthralling account as we approach the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8’s December 1968 voyage is the electric momentum of its prose and the remarkable balance of authentic human narrative with meticulous new research."

ROCKET MEN tells the riveting story of why this hugely risky venture became far more than a desperate bid to fulfill the late president John F. Kennedy’s vow to overtake Russia’s lead in the space race and land astronauts on the moon before the end of that decade.

Kurson’s is one of many current books available about the turbulent history of NASA, the space program, the astronauts, and thousands of dedicated professionals whose collective imagination and skill sent humans beyond the earth’s reach. But what makes ROCKET MEN such a powerful and enthralling account as we approach the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8’s December 1968 voyage is the electric momentum of its prose and the remarkable balance of authentic human narrative with meticulous new research.

Writing about a paradigm-shifting event that happened when he was only five years old, Kurson dutifully keeps the reader connected to a timeline whose sequence includes not only scientific developments but social and political ones as well. Yet there are also pages where the tether of chronology is relaxed, and he strategically detours to share thoughtful biographies of Borman, Lovell and Anders as fascinating and complex individuals in their own right. Each is given a well-deserved chapter that reveals their differences of personality and background, along with shared assets of discipline, courage, curiosity, loyalty and even humility, which made them a genuine NASA “dream team.”

While ROCKET MEN’s title unfortunately perpetuates the myth that NASA’s success was wholly the work of male innovation and skill (it definitely wasn’t!), Kurson’s content redeems the misconception somewhat by taking a more informed and thoughtful approach than usual to the situation of each astronaut’s wife and children.

Amid the explosion of media and public interest around their husbands’ daring adventure, Susan Borman, Marilyn Lovell and Valerie Anders struggled to maintain the normal daily lives of their young families; to always be available for photos and interviews with perfect hair and dresses; to make coffee and sandwiches for reporters literally camped in their front yards; to put on the wholesome smiles that hid a gamut of conflicting emotions from fatalism to paralyzing fear; and to “be there” emotionally for their spouses, no matter what.

There was no psychological coaching back then for people suddenly thrust into a world of newsworthy appearance-making. Like their husbands, they just did it, but not without deep personal costs that lasted for years after Apollo 8 faded from the front pages, supplanted by the actual moon-surface landing of Apollo 11 in July 1969. Nevertheless, Kurson takes the trouble to point out that as ROCKET MEN was completed, the Bormans, Lovells and Anders were still couples. Half a century later, they’d bucked a trend that has seen many astronauts’ marriages fail under the immense pressures of what is perhaps the most exposed and dangerous career there is.

In addition to his profound grasp of personal elements amid the feverish schedule of tasks and setbacks that marked the preparation for Apollo 8, Kurson weaves in significant and compelling scientific detail about the mission in practical and contextual ways that any interested reader will find both enlightening and accessible.

Just a quick glance through the sources listed at the end of ROCKET MEN reveals the enormity of this feat: the book’s clarity and substance are the result of sifting through tens of thousands of pages of declassified NASA documents, in addition to original personal research involving hundreds of interview hours with both the principals and supporting cast of the Apollo program.

In that vein, Mary Roach of the Washington Post beautifully nailed it when she wrote on April 6, 2018 that “A nonfiction author is a massive filtration system. You’re only as good as what you leave out.” As I launched into ROCKET MEN, Kurson was true to Roach’s words on every page, keeping me firmly attuned to a present-day relationship with a 50-year-old event that transcends nostalgia and dry facts. This was the right time to rediscover Apollo 8 as a truly global human achievement.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on April 27, 2018

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon
by Robert Kurson

  • Publication Date: April 3, 2018
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0812988701
  • ISBN-13: 9780812988703