The Apollo 8 blasts off from Cape Kennedy, Fla., on Dec. 21, 1968. (Associated Press)
There were, in all, 12 Apollo spaceflights. We remember them by number if history was made (Apollo 11) or things went wrong (1 and 13). By either measure, we should remember Apollo 8: the first mission to take humans all the way to (if not yet onto) the moon.
“Rocket Men” opens in summer 1968, with the space race in high gear. The Soviet Union had already put the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, as well as the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into Earth’s orbit. The Soviets were projected to reach the moon by the end of the year, months ahead of the United States. (Similar drama played out in book publishing last year. Just as galleys of “Rocket Men” were touching down on reviewers’ desks, Henry Holt launched the hardback of Jeffrey Kluger’s “Apollo 8.”)
The race, at this point, was to get close to the moon, rather than to land or even to orbit it. The mission was to be a simple flyby: a sort of dress rehearsal for an eventual landing. I say simple the way movie popcorn vendors say small. Simple, only in that once the spacecraft was blasted out of Earth’s orbit toward the moon, physics and gravity would handle the rest.
NASA’s progress had been hobbled by problems with its lunar module — the spidery lander that would one day shuttle astronauts from the orbiting mothership down to the surface of the moon and back up. Although a flyby doesn’t require a lander, NASA would have sent it up so the payload would match that of the eventual landing mission.
But, sitting on a beach one day, a NASA engineer named George Low had an idea: The United States could beat the Soviets to the moon if NASA left the lunar module behind on Earth. NASA brass then upped the dangers by adding multiple lunar orbits. Rather than sling-shotting partway around the moon, the crew would circle it 10 times, carrying out some of the necessary prep for an eventual landing, scouting level landing sites and measuring gravity fluctuations, which can alter a spacecraft’s path in potentially catastrophic ways.
To understand the added dangers of a lunar orbit mission, the reader must understand some rocketry basics. Here’s where Kurson is our man. As he takes us through the flight moment by moment, his instinct for what needs explaining and in how much detail is unerring. For the astronauts of Apollo 8 to orbit the moon, their spacecraft had to be slowed. If it wasn’t, the forces of gravity and inertia would have whipped them partway around the moon and then back toward Earth. To slow the spacecraft, the propulsion system had to be fired in reverse for a precisely calculated duration. Too much “burn,” and the craft would slow too much, drop out of orbit and crash into the moon; too little, and it would careen off into deep space with no way to reverse course. (The engine on the lunar module could have served as a backup, had they brought it along.) Adding to the danger, this critical maneuver took place on the dark side, where the moon blocks communication with Mission Control.
Kurson unpacks this and several other critical maneuvers, effectively escalating the tension. Several things did go wrong, but the real drama lay in the gnawing anticipation of fatal catastrophe. Everyone involved knew that schedules were rushed, steps were skipped and tremendous risks were undertaken. (This was the first time, for instance, that the Saturn V rocket had carried a crew; the previous time it flew, it malfunctioned badly.) Engineers were nervous to the point of passing out. Wives chewed their pearls while they listened to the squawk boxes NASA installed in their homes to let them eavesdrop on mission communications. Cruelly, a photographer from Life magazine was on hand to capture these high-stress moments.
The astronaut wife was the original NASA support module. These women humanized the cold engineering and militaristic strivings of America’s moon shot, smiling when they felt like screaming, making sandwiches and endless pots of coffee for the TV crews decamped in their yards. Space was a man’s world, and so, sometimes, is Kurson’s prose. “Lovell packed Marilyn and their three kids into the car.” “Orbital mechanics — the way the universe ordered and moved itself — worked. And man had figured it out to the split second.” Given the recent book and film about the women who made some of those critical calculations, that “man” is a bit of a clanker.
What Kurson has managed is impressive, given the hundreds of hours of transcripts he waded through. Those include transcripts of his own interviews as well as voluminous Apollo 8 mission communications. (Note to moon-landing deniers: It is easier to put a human on the moon than it would be to fake the hundreds of thousands of pages of Apollo mission documents on NASA.gov.) A nonfiction author is a massive filtration system. You’re only as good as what you leave out. Kurson omits skillfully. “Rocket Man” is close-to-the-bone adventure-telling on a par with Alfred Lansing’s “Endurance” and Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.” It’s as close to a movie as writing gets.
History cast it well. As flight commander, we have Frank Borman, West Point graduate, test pilot, “a serious man with an oversized head.” Borman’s foil is Jim Lovell, the easygoing heckuva nice guy, gazing up at the stars as a boy and dreaming of space. (In what is either the most or least romantic gesture in history, Lovell names an impact crater after his wife.) The token nerd is scientist William Anders, the astronaut no one has heard of. I am grateful to Kurson for plucking him from obscurity. Here’s a man who took his congratulatory call from the president while on the toilet (having avoided the dreaded fecal bag his entire week in space). Awaiting countdown, Anders noticed a wasp outside the spacecraft window, building a nest, and thought: “You are in for a surprise.” When Borman became ill on the way to the moon, Anders watched “with wonder” as a drifting blob of vomit split, “one wobbling part headed this way, the other wobbling in the perfect opposite direction.” He thought: “That’s Isaac Newton. That’s conservation of momentum.”
The real heroes of “Rocket Men” are math and physics. The reentry trajectory of the Apollo 8 capsule had been calculated so precisely that it dropped almost directly on top of the ship that had sailed out to meet it. It was science that got us to the moon — not just its mastery but a cultural consensus about its importance and worth. Without that, we don’t have a wasp’s chance in liftoff of ever again doing something so bold.