Warning: this post contains spoilers for Robert Kurson’s Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon
If you’ve been following along with the site for awhile, reading my rambling blog posts, then you know that my so-called “real job” involves working with space systems. It’s not merely a job; I’ve been excited about space since I was very young, and I get to work on the very cutting edge of our technologies and abilities as a species. So reading a story about Apollo 8 was hardly a chore. Like some idea stories in which it doesn’t matter how well-written or how interesting the story is, because the idea is so fascinating, the accomplishments of Apollo 8, and the context in which they occurred, are such that the quality of the story is almost secondary.
There was more than just discussion of Apollo in Rocket Men. Kurson sought to place the mission in its historical and geopolitical context. Although 1969 and Apollo 11 is what most people remember today, Apollo 8 and the events of 1968 were perhaps the true “moon shot” part of the entire program. Considering the events of this year, the inclusion of that context made for a more meaningful story. In 1968, America was torn by riots, deep political divisions, repeated tragedy, and a flu epidemic. Sound familiar? We do not today live in unprecedented times. History may not repeat itself, but as Mark Twain said, it does rhyme.
It was in that context, and following the near-failure of Apollo 6, that NASA mission planners came up with the idea to change Apollo 8 from an Earth-orbital checkout flight to a lunar orbital flight. There were some sound, scientific, mission related arguments, but more than any of that the decision to change Apollo 8 was about winning the Space Race with the USSR. It was six months later when Neil Armstrong took a small step for a man, but that step was enabled by the giant leap that was the Apollo 8 mission. Even compared to NASA’s usual protocols at the time, launching Apollo 8 to the moon was an astonishingly aggressive and daring move. It also helped what most people saw as one of the darkest years in American history end on perhaps humanity’s most impressive accomplishment.
As much as I loved the story, and the attention that the author put into it, I was not hugely fond of the writing. To my mind, the writing was too clipped, the sentences too short and overly forced, and there were parts of the book where it seemed that Kurson was stretching for content to make the story more exciting. To my mind, the story of Apollo 8 is exciting enough without artificial cliff-hangers or built-up personal drama. Then again, I avidly read thick biographies and histories full of footnotes, so perhaps this was simply targeted at a less niche audience.
Regardless, I cannot fault the enthusiasm that permeates the book. Even if you are intimately familiar with the story of Apollo 8 and its astronauts, Rocket Men provides a reminder of just how powerful the manned space enterprise is as a force to bring people together and advance the frontiers of human understanding of our place in the universe. After all the trials of 1968, Apollo 8’s success was not just America’s success. It was the whole world’s success, and it changed our perspective on everything.
This year, despite all of the trials facing the nation and the world, SpaceX successfully launched the first commercial crew to the ISS aboard their own Dragon capsule. It was the first time since the retirement of the space shuttle that people had launched from American soil, and it was a reminder of just what we can accomplish when we are willing to try. I hope that you’ll read Rocket Men, and maybe, one night, instead of looking down, look up at the stars.