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To the moon and back - ‘Rocket Men’

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It’s remarkable to think that 50 years ago, we sent men to the moon with slide rules and punch-card computers. You’ve probably got something in your pocket right now exponentially more powerful than the combined computing power of NASA in the late 1960s.

But send them we did.

While history most clearly remembers Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon back in July of 1969, he and his crew were just the latest in a long line of astronauts who took many first steps of their own – steps that led to the planting of a flag somewhere not of the Earth.

Robert Kurson’s “Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon” (Random House, $28) tells the story of one such step – the mission undertaken by Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders to become the first men ever to travel to the moon. From meticulous research and hours of interviews springs a lively narrative, one that brings the bravery and brainpower of all involved to vivid life.

The year 1968 was a difficult one for America, for many reasons. The war in Vietnam was raging, proceeding in an unexpected and unwelcome manner. Cultural and political icons Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were each cut down by an assassin’s bullets. And the Soviet Union appeared to be pulling ahead in mankind’s race to reach the moon.

So NASA took a swing. A big one.

Apollo 8 – the first manned mission to the Moon from the United States – was to be planned and executed within just a few months. The decision was made in August … for a December launch. Right around Christmastime, actually. Borman, Lovell and Anders would be at the helm, shouldering the risk in hopes of the maximum reward.

To go to the moon. And to make it back again.

“Rocket Men” focuses largely on the three astronauts who undertook the journey – and does an admirable job capturing and accentuating the shared characteristics and ideals of the trio while also allowing a look at what made them individuals. Very similar men, but it’s the differences, small though they may be, that make them real.

We learn about Frank Borman, whose devotion to duty is what drove him to space. What he wanted more than anything was to defeat the Soviet enemy in every possible way. Apollo 8 would mark an opportunity to deal them as devastating a defeat as they could suffer away from the battlefield. Jim Lovell had dreamed of flying to the moon since he was a kid. Now, he had a chance to make those boyhood fantasies become reality. Bill Anders was a staunch Catholic and hotshot test pilot who felt equal yearnings for exploration and intellectual stimulation. All three men were brilliant specimens, both physically and mentally. Their courage in the face of mystery is undeniable.

Yet it’s the supporting players that keep returning to mind. The astronaut wives tamping down their fears with a blend of cheerfulness and stoicism that seems unique to their tiny group of peers, displaying a courage not unlike that of their moon-bound spouses. The ground crew and administrators at NASA, the people who had to simply have faith that their scientific acumen would be enough in the face of the unknown. Susan Borman. Marilyn Lovell. Valerie Anders. Chris Kraft. Deke Slayton. They too are heroes of the Space Race.

There’s a brightness to the narrative that you don’t often get from this kind of book. Kurson resists the temptation to get too wonky (though you can occasionally feel him want to nerd out just a bit more). Instead, we get some deep dives into character and some surprisingly tense storytelling – it’s hard to generate genuine tension when the reader already knows the ending, but Kurson pulls it off.

A compelling story is a compelling story, whether we’re talking about fiction or nonfiction or whatever. And the story of Apollo 8 is one hell of a compelling story. What Kurson has done with “Rocket Men” is let the tale unfold as it will; he’s good about staying out of the way. He steers it and shapes it, but also allows it to breathe. He gives context – about the people, about the times – deftly and only as needed.

Half a century ago, we sent men to the moon. They sat in tiny tin capsules atop massive missiles filled with millions of pounds of fuel and we lit the fuse. We blasted them 250,000 miles into space … and then were able to bring them back.

“Rocket Men” is a fascinating reminder of just what mankind can do when we set our collective minds to something. It’s worth remembering. We can’t forget that the voyage of Apollo 8 was an incredible feat in a tumultuous time, illustrating the many kinds of courage necessary to reach for the sky and change the world.

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