As I was sitting in my usual spot in Booktowne, enjoying a periodic sojourn to Manasquan’s Main Street, the store’s owner Rita Maggio approached me with a proposition: “Would you like to read this advanced copy of Robert Kurson’s latest book?” That’s a bit like asking a choco-holic if he’d like a pre-tatse of Ghirardelli’s latest flavor. I’d long savored the author’s spell-binding style in Shadow Divers, popular in these parts because the story centers on local divers who discovered a World War II German U-boat sunk 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey in Manasquan’s back yard. But I absoliutely devoured Kurson’s follow up, “Crashing Through”, the amazing story of Mike May’s visual adventures. Knowing quite a bit about the issues involved enabled me to appreciate the depths of Kurson’s research. (I wrote an essay on the subject that was published in an optometric journal.)
Contrast that with Rocket Men, a subject I knew little about beyond Elton John’s iconic song.
It turns out that Elton’s construct shares much in common with Kurson’s take on the human interest factors he probes so deftly in telling the story of Apollo 8.
She packed my bags last night pre-flight
Zero hour nine A.M.
And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then
I miss the earth so much I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight
Among Kurson’s many gifts as a writer is his ability to relate very technical topics in narrative fashion, and Rocket Men reads like a fine novel from beginning to end. But as I meandered through the book I found myself wondering: Why the story of Apollo 8? And why now?
The author notes that he discovered the command capsule of Apollo 8 on a visit with friends to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago a few years ago. It was there and then that he realized he knew almost nothing about the mission, particularly compared to Apollo 11 and Apollo 13. Nor was he alone. To the public, Apollo 8’s journey around the moon garnered much less interest than the lunar landing of Apollo 11, and was less memorable than the near tragedy of Apollo 13. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are household names, even if one is not from a STEM family, the former for his “One Small Step for Man” quote and the latter for his iconic pose with the American flag on the moon. But Apollo 11, and the fulfillment of President Kennedy’s pledge in 1961 to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, would have never happened were it not for the Apollo 8’s successful journey.
Frank Borman is perhaps better known to my generation as the former President of Eastern Airlines than he is as the commander of Apollo 8, and Jim Lovell’s name is linked more often to the explosion on board Apollo 13 as popularized by Ron Howard’s directing of Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon in a movie about that failed lunar landing mission. This book is therefore an attempt to set the record straight on why the significant players associated with NASA felt that Apollo 8 was the most daring and courageous of the Apollo missions.
Regarding the timing of the book, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8 which launched on December 21, 1968 likely factored into the planning for a release date next April. I suspect the author and publisher may have also gauged the public’s appetite for more human interest stories about the space race with the Soviets based on the recent commercial success of Hidden Figures and our renewed contention with the Soviet Union.
There are many elements of space flight preparation that Kurson elaborates in detail that aren’t unique to Apollo 8. They are welcome insights into the background of astronauts and how NASA arrived at the compilation of each trio for the Apollo missions. We learn that there was fierce competition and jealousies among the space travelers, Borman and Lovell having been previously paired in the Gemini missions, with Kurson always at his best when bringing human factors to the surface. As an example, he manages to make his descriptions of the personal hygiene issues the crew had to deal with in space humorous while at the same time spellbinding.
The crew of Apollo 8 is the only one that flew in either the Gemini or Apollo programs whose marriages are still intact. The extensive interviews that the author conducted with each of the astronauts informs Rocket Men at a very personal level. It is clear that family meant a great deal to them, but at the same time family was called upon to make significant sacrifices essential to the success of the mission. The principals are now well into their 80s, but remain sharp with the exception of Susan Borman who is plagued by Alzheimer’s disease. The epilogue’s description of Frank Borman’s dedication to Susan will tug at your heartstrings.
At various intervals Kurson reminds of how successful Apollo 8 was, to an extent most people outside of NASA didn’t fully appreciate at the time. The journey around the moon occurred with significant unrest back on planet earth, and the success of the mission served as a unifying force of sorts. On December 24, Christmas eve, around 8:30PM Houston time, the spacecraft crew would make their second television broadcast. NASA estimated that more people around the world would be watching and listening than had ever tuned in to a human voice at one time. While the Moon moved across television screens all around the world, Anders spoke first, intoning the opening words of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth …” Lovell contnued the passage. Borman finished it, concluding their broadcast with these wishes: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you on the good Earth.”
As the screen went dark, grown men in Mission Control hugged each other and wept openly. Walter Cronkite choked back tears. You will find yourself doing the same at various times while reading Kurson’s magnificent recounting of a special era in technological history.