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.

Find more of my reviews here.

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