Review: Rocket Men

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon
by Robert Kurson
Random House, 2018
hardcover, 384 pp.
ISBN 978-0-8129-8870-3

Fifty years ago, many people were transfixed by the new movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose scenes included flights to the Moon and bases there (see “Review: Space Odyssey”, The Space Review, April 2, 2018). That included many members of NASA’s astronaut corps, who were preparing for real flights to the Moon on Apollo missions. An exception, though, was Frank Borman. “That stuff was science fiction, Borman told his colleagues,” as recalled in the new book Rocket Men. “America had real people to get to the Moon.”

Borman, of course, would get to go to the Moon at the end of the year, commanding the Apollo 8 mission that was the first crewed mission to go beyond Earth orbit and orbit the Moon. The mission was pulled together on just a few months’ notice, in response to concerns within NASA that the United States was in danger of being beat by the Soviets. It would go on to become one of the most remarkable, and successful, missions in the agency’s history, to this day.

In Rocket Men, Kurson able tells a familiar story well. He traces the mission from its origins in discussions among NASA officials in August 1968, proposing an alternative, but risky, mission to testing in Earth orbit in order to beat the Russians while also buying time for the troubled lunar module development. Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders were then planning to fly the Apollo 9 mission, but Borman agreed to take the revised Apollo 8 mission.

Kurson interleaves chapters charting the chronological progress of the mission with other chapters that provide background: one each for the astronauts, for example, as well as a background on the space race itself and even a capsule history of 1968. He links those chapters together such that the shift from those on the mission to those with background never seem particularly jarring. There are plenty of anecdotes to both enlighten and entertain along the way.

The book is well-written overall, and Kurson interviewed all three members of the Apollo 8 crew for it. If there’s one drawback to it, though, it’s that the story is a familiar one: the books doesn’t really unearth anything new about the mission that had not been discussed in previous books or articles. Kurson said he was inspired to write the book after seeing the Apollo 8 capsule in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago: “The more I read about the odyssey of Apollo 8, the more starling it seemed that so little had been written about it.” But, in fact, there’s been a lot written about the book, such as Jeffrey Kluger’s Apollo 8 published a year ago (see “Review: Apollo 8”, The Space Review, June 19, 2017). And that was hardly the first book written about the mission.

Rocket Men is a good book about the Apollo 8 mission, but perhaps one best suited for those not familiar with the mission at all versus those who have already read various books about the mission and are looking for new details. The book, and the mission itself, offer a reminder that sometimes science fiction becomes science fact, if not necessarily the way we envisioned it.