Book Review – Rocket Men

My brother recommended this book to me a couple of months ago and since I have a special interest in astronauts and the space program, I picked it up. Rocket Men by Robert Kurson tells the story of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to reach the moon (not land on it, but to orbit it).

Kurson also wrote Shadow Divers which I had ready many years ago while doing some wreck diving off the Jersey shore. I didn’t review that book, but it is a well-researched story of the discovery and identification of a sunken U-boat off the coast of New Jersey that inspired the television show Deep Sea Detectives.

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Here is the blurb:

By August 1968, the American space program was in danger of failing in its two most important objectives: to land a man on the Moon by President Kennedy’s end-of-decade deadline, and to triumph over the Soviets in space. With its back against the wall, NASA made an almost unimaginable leap: It would scrap its usual methodical approach and risk everything on a sudden launch, sending the first men in history to the Moon—in just four months. And it would all happen at Christmas.

In a year of historic violence and discord—the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago—the Apollo 8 mission would be the boldest, riskiest test of America’s greatness under pressure. In this gripping insider account, Robert Kurson puts the focus on the three astronauts and their families: the commander, Frank Borman, a conflicted man on his final mission; idealistic Jim Lovell, who’d dreamed since boyhood of riding a rocket to the Moon; and Bill Anders, a young nuclear engineer and hotshot fighter pilot making his first space flight.

Drawn from hundreds of hours of one-on-one interviews with the astronauts, their loved ones, NASA personnel, and myriad experts, and filled with vivid and unforgettable detail, Rocket Men is the definitive account of one of America’s finest hours. In this real-life thriller, Kurson reveals the epic dangers involved, and the singular bravery it took, for mankind to leave Earth for the first time—and arrive at a new world.

This book told both the stories of the astronauts and their families, which was an approach I hadn’t seen before in similar non-fiction. The narrative jumps around a lot historically, weaving the imminent mission with the background of each astronaut. But this approach worked, and I never had trouble following the story.

While it would probably help to have some basic knowledge of the early space program before reading this book, it isn’t essential. I already knew the background of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Many of the names tossed around in the book were also already familiar to me, but maybe to someone less knowledgeable of the history, it might be confusing.

I enjoyed this book and found that it gave me a new appreciation for Apollo 8. I hadn’t realized how many obstacles had to be overcome to launch this flight and how it really was the mission that won the Russia/US space race more than the actual moon landing.

Have you read much non-fiction about the space program? Let me know in the comments above. Here are a couple of other books that I would recommend on the topic if you want to learn more: The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, Failure is Not an Option by Gene Kranz, and Red Moon Rising by Matthew Brzezinski.

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Book Review – Challenger: An American Tragedy: The Inside Story From Launch Control

I have trying to get back to my stack of space-themed non-fiction books recently. This one was a short read that I picked up on sale last year and I read it on my Kindle. Challenger: An American Tragedy: The Inside Story From Launch Control is written by Hugh Harris, a journalist who worked as “the voice of launch control” for NASA.

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Here is the blurb:

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Seventy-three seconds after launch, the fiery breach of a solid motor joint caused a rupture of the propellant tanks, and a stunned nation watched as flames engulfed the craft, killing all seven crew members on board. It was Hugh Harris, “the voice of launch control,” whom audiences across the country heard counting down to lift-off on that fateful day.

With over fifty years of experience with NASA’s missions, Harris presents the story of the Challenger tragedy as only an insider can. With by-the-second accounts of the spacecraft’s launch and a comprehensive overview of the ensuing investigation, Harris gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at the devastating accident that grounded the shuttle fleet for over two years. This book tells the whole story of the Challenger’s tragic legacy.

While this book was short, it was also hard to read. I was one of many school children watching the launch live in my classroom when the tragedy unfolded. Up until that day I had wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. At only eight years old, I didn’t understand the risks of exploration and spaceflight. After the accident, I abandoned that dream (until later, but that’s a different tale).

The author gives a good overview of the events around the disaster and the investigations that followed. He doesn’t go into exhaustive detail, but just enough to relate the relevant information. The author focuses more on the dry details and less on the emotional side of the tragedy, so while those human aspects are all included, the way it was written made it easier to read than it might have been.

Next up in my space-themed non-fiction, Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson. What other non-fiction books about space exploration have you read? Let me know in the comments!

Read more of my reviews here.

A Quick Update

I’ve been rather inactive on updating this page, but I’ve had a lot going on lately. I should have a little more time now to catch up and to get back to posting here. In no particular order, here is what I’m going to be working on:

I should be back to posting some reviews for books, comics, and television shows.

I’m getting back to writing some fiction, so I may have an occasional update on that.

I’ll be back at fencing practice next week, preparing for competitions as the spring nears. I’m also training for my first triathlon, which will be easier when the weather warms up.

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Mars – Photo courtesy of NASA

Lastly, my main focus for the next few weeks is to work on submitting my application to NASA for the upcoming astronaut selection. The requirements to apply are straightforward, but the odds are very long. I may post an update on that process here if I hear anything more than the standard “thank you for applying, but no” postcard.

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