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

I have read numerous books about NASA and the space program, and Rocket Men is one of the more interesting and illuminating ones. Before I read this, I was unaware of the extreme danger and urgency of Apollo 8. What was supposed to be a relatively routine jaunt around the Earth became a desperate Cold War race to see whether the Americans or the Soviets could first have a crew make it to the Moon. An official at NASA came up with the idea of fast-tracking Apollo 8 – of getting it ready for a moon launch before the end of 1968.

Many observers of the space program consider Apollo 8 to be even more risky and significant than Apollo 11, the flight that actually placed the first man on the moon’s surface. It happened at a crucial time – when it appeared as if the Soviets might pull ahead in astronomical achievement and in prestige in the eyes of the world.

This book reads like an adventure novel. It presents the urgency of the problem and then how NASA went about making Apollo 8 successful. It goes into the background of the astronauts who went on the flight and of their wives. It follows the drama of the flight and all its dangers from the perspectives of the astronauts and also their wives and the ground crew anxiously tracking their spacecraft.

One thing that I like about this book is that it goes into all the little details of spaceflight that I always wondered about but no author ever mentioned. For instance, while contemplating a six-day journey through space, one of my concerns is how I would manage to urinate and defecate. The procedures are explained in this book. It also describes Frank Borman, the commander of the flight, getting sick enroute to the moon and spewing vomit and diarrhea in tiny globules all over the interior of the tiny cabin. After splashdown, when the first diver reached the spacecraft and opened the hatch, he recoiled from the terrible smell of the interior. One of the astronauts, Bill Anders, managed to avoid defecating for the entire flight, but when he reached the aircraft carrier that picked up the capsule, he had to make a beeline for a toilet. President Johnson chose that time to give the astronauts a call, and Anders had to speak to the president from the bathroom.

I tell you these somewhat disgusting stories not because I like to dwell on such things, but because I want to emphasize that Kurson in this book shares details that we wonder about but no one else ever addressed.

One of the strengths of the book is the author’s ability to help readers see and feel the story from multiple perspectives. We feel the astronauts’ tension and discomfort, the stress their wives go through, and the concern at mission control. By the end we are so invested in the characters that the epilog telling of what happened to the astronauts and their families afterwards is imperative. Another interesting aspect of the Apollo 8 flight that the author brings out is its relevance at that point in history. The United States was being torn apart by internal conflict, by cultural wars waged over the Vietnam War, the ongoing struggle against racism, and other domestic traumas. Apollo 8 closed out a tumultuous year with a resounding bright moment of triumph.

Rocket Men is well-written, exciting, and illuminating. Highly recommended.

This entry was posted in Book Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s