Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon

by Robert Kurson


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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The riveting inside story of three heroic astronauts who took on the challenge of mankind’s historic first mission to the Moon, from the bestselling author of Shadow Divers.

“Robert Kurson tells the tale of Apollo 8 with novelistic detail and immediacy.”—Andy Weir, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Martian and Artemis

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.

Rocket Men is a riveting introduction to the [Apollo 8] flight. . . . Kurson details the mission in crisp, suspenseful scenes. . . . [A] gripping book.”—The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812988710
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/21/2019
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 27,825
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Robert Kurson earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin and a law degree from Harvard Law School. His award-winning stories have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Esquire, where he was a contributing editor. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Shadow Divers, the 2005 American Booksellers Association’s nonfiction Book Sense Book of the Year; Crashing Through, based on Kurson’s 2006 National Magazine Award–winning profile in Esquire of the blind speed skier, CIA analyst, and entrepreneur Mike May; and Pirate Hunters. He lives in Chicago.


Chicago, Illinois

Place of Birth:

Chicago, Illinois


B.A. in Philosophy, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1986; J.D., Harvard Law School, 1990

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Do You Want to Go to the Moon?

August 3, 1968—Four months earlier

As he sat on a beach in the Caribbean, a quiet engineer named George Low ran his fingers through the sand and wondered whether he should risk everything to win the Space Race and help save the world.

At forty-one, Low was already a top manager and one of the most important people at NASA, in charge of making sure the Apollo spacecraft was flightworthy.

Apollo had a single goal, perhaps the greatest and most audacious ever conceived: to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy had committed the United States to achieving this goal by the end of the decade. Never had a more inspiring promise been made to the American people—or one that could be so easily verified.

Now, Kennedy’s end-of-decade deadline was in jeopardy. Design and engineering problems with the lunar module—the spidery landing craft that would move astronauts from their orbiting ship to the lunar surface and back again—threatened to stall the Apollo program and put Kennedy’s deadline, just sixteen months away, out of reach. And that led to another problem. Every day that Apollo languished, the Soviet Union moved closer to landing its own crew on the Moon. And that mattered. The nation that landed the first men on the Moon would score the ultimate victory in the years-long Space Race between the two superpowers, one from which the second place finisher might never recover.

For months, NASA’s best minds had worked around the clock to fix the issues with the lunar module, but the temperamental and complex landing craft only fell further and further behind schedule. By summer, many at the space agency had abandoned hope of making a manned lunar landing by the end of the decade.

And then Low had an idea.

It had come to him just a few weeks before he’d arrived at this beach, and it was wild, an epiphany, a dream. It was also dangerous, risky beyond anything NASA had ever attempted. But the more Low thought about it, the more he believed it could keep the Apollo program moving and save Kennedy’s deadline—and maybe even beat the Soviets to the Moon.

Low inhaled the fresh, salty air and tried to push space travel out of his thoughts. At home, his mind burned nonstop with ideas, formulae, trajectories. Now he needed a break, and it should have been easy to find one in this tropical paradise. About the only reminder of America was the local newspaper, which told of the Newport Pop Festival in Costa Mesa, California, where more than a hundred thousand music fans were expected, and brought word of potential protests at the coming Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It had been an explosive year already, with assassinations, riots, and violence. A quiet beach was just where a man like Low needed to be.

But Low could not relax. He walked the beach, looking out over the ocean toward Moscow and the Moon, thinking, imagining, America and the world on fire behind him.

Five days after Low returned from vacation, a serious man with an oversized head went to work inside a giant assembly plant in Downey, California. His mission: to build a machine from the future that would help make the world safe for democracy.

Over and over, astronaut Frank Borman opened and closed the hatch on the Apollo command module, a cone-shaped capsule made to fly a three-man crew to the Moon. He’d already certified that the hatch worked, then certified it again, but he would not stop pushing on it, making sure it opened, no matter what.

Nearby, Borman’s two crewmates, Jim Lovell and rookie Bill Anders, got ready to test the hundreds of dials, switches, levers, lights, and gauges that made the command module work. The spacecraft was small, measuring just eleven feet tall and thirteen feet wide at its base, but every inch of it had been designed by Borman and others to be impervious to a galaxy of deadly forces.

A nearby transistor radio played Top 40 music, which caught Borman’s ear.

“That’s a pretty slick song,” Borman said. “Who’s the fella singing it?”

“That’s the Beatles, Frank,” Lovell said, laughing.

Borman preferred the standards. As a kid, he’d memorized the lyrics to all the great Western songs played on the radio in Arizona. He could still sing “Cowboy Jack”—a ditty that dated to the nineteenth century—but didn’t dare start because he knew Lovell and Anders would insist that he sing it to the end.

Borman stuck to classic films, too. Alone among astronauts, it seemed, he hadn’t bothered to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, the new Stanley Kubrick film released in April that showed men flying to the Moon. That stuff was science fiction, Borman told his colleagues; America had real people to get to the Moon.

Borman and his crewmates knew that the lunar module was troubled and behind schedule. But until designers and engineers could make the fixes, these astronauts could do little more than make certain that the command module was perfect. So they climbed inside their spacecraft and began testing it, pushing the command module mercilessly, because that’s what outer space would do to it, too.

And then the phone rang.

Smart people knew better than to bother Borman at work. But the man on the line went back a long way with Borman. And he said it was urgent.

Donald Kent “Deke” Slayton was in charge of managing astronaut training and choosing crews for manned space missions. If an astronaut flew on board a NASA spacecraft, it was because Slayton had chosen him to go.

When Borman heard who was calling, he wriggled out of the capsule and grabbed an extension.

“Deke, I’m in the middle of a big test here,” he said.

“Frank, I need you back in Houston.”

“Talk to me now.”

“No, I can’t talk over the phone. It’s gotta be in person. Grab an airplane and get to Houston. On the double.”

Borman grimaced—America did not have time for nonsense and delays—but Slayton was in charge, and NASA, no matter its official designation as a civilian organization, was a military operation to Borman, so he took his orders. Poking his head back inside the spacecraft, he told his partners, “You guys are stuck with the module. I’ve gotta go back to Houston.”

Borman grabbed his rental car, drove to Los Angeles International Airport, and hopped in a T-38 Talon, a two-seat twin-engine supersonic jet used by astronauts for training, commuting, and even some fun, and pointed it toward Texas. At forty, he still looked every bit the West Point cadet: sandy blond near-crewcut, square jaw and chin set for combat, arched eyebrows that seemed a radar for anything askew. Even his head was military issue, all right angles and slightly larger than life, a feature that had earned him the childhood nickname Squarehead.

Borman couldn’t imagine why he was needed in Houston, and so suddenly. He was commander of Apollo 9, the third of four manned test flights NASA planned before it would attempt to land men on the Moon. Apollo 9 was to be a basic mission—orbit Earth, test the spacecraft, come home. It wasn’t scheduled to launch for another six months. Still, Borman knew he hadn’t been summoned for nothing. The last time he’d received a “drop everything” call had been the darkest day in NASA’s history.

It had happened about a year and half earlier, on January 27, 1967, when a fire broke out in the spacecraft during a simulated countdown on the launchpad in Florida. The Apollo 1 rehearsal should have been safe and routine for the three astronauts inside, who were preparing for the actual flight about four weeks later. But a spark occurred in the electrical system and the men were trapped as the sudden fire spread in pure oxygen. Even Ed White, the strongest of all NASA’s astronauts, couldn’t muscle open the command module’s hatch as flames spread through the spacecraft.

Borman had been enjoying a rare break with his family at a lakeside cottage near Houston, where they lived, when Slayton’s call came in that day.

“Frank, we’ve had a bad fire on Pad Thirty-four and we’ve got three astronauts dead—Gus Grissom, Ed White, and one of the new boys, Roger Chaffee. Get to the Cape as quick as you can; you’ve been appointed to the investigative committee.”

The news stunned Borman, who considered Ed White the brother he’d never had. And it devastated Borman’s wife, Susan, who counted Pat White among her best friends. Borman told Slayton he’d fly to Florida right away but first needed to stop at the Whites’ home in Houston.

When he and Susan arrived, Pat was hysterical. She was the mother of two children, ages ten and thirteen, who suddenly had no father. Even in her raw grief, just hours after receiving the news, a Washington bureaucrat had informed her that despite Ed’s wishes to be buried at West Point, the three fallen astronauts would all be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Give me the guy’s name,” Borman said.

He had the man on the phone a minute later.

“It’s already been decided in Washington,” the man insisted.

“I don’t give a good goddamn what’s been decided,” Borman said. “Ed wanted to be buried at West Point and that’s what’s going to happen, and I’ll go all the way to President Johnson to make sure it happens, so you better fucking well do it.”

Four days later, White was buried at West Point. Borman and Lovell were among the pallbearers. Anders also attended.

After the funeral, Borman began his work on the investigative committee convened by NASA. He was the only astronaut on the panel, a sign that NASA considered him to be among its best. His first job was to help supervise the disassembly of the Apollo 1 spacecraft at Cape Kennedy in order to determine the cause of the fire. Days later, he became the first astronaut to enter the cabin. He found a burned-out nightmare. Rows of equipment and panels had been charred and covered in soot, debris was scattered everywhere. Hoses connecting the astronauts to their life support systems were melted. No matter where he looked, Borman could see no color, only grays and blacks.

That night, he joined Slayton and others at a restaurant in Cocoa Beach called The Mousetrap, a NASA haunt. Borman seldom drank to excess, but the smell of the scorched spacecraft needed bleaching, and he started in early. He raised toasts to his fallen brothers, then threw his glass into the fireplace. White was among the straightest arrows Borman had ever known—honest to a fault, a true patriot, and a man who didn’t mess around with the sports cars or fast women so readily available to astronauts. For both men, family came first. The Bormans and Whites often shared a house on a lake near Houston for fishing trips. Borman couldn’t remember missing someone as much as he missed Ed White that night.

Borman spent the next two months inside the burned spacecraft, studying the design, searching for flaws, making fixes in his mind. In April 1967, Congress held hearings into the cause of the fire, and Borman was called to testify.

Much of the questioning was aggressive and antagonistic, full of second-guesses and should-haves and pointed fingers, but Borman held firm, hiding nothing and acknowledging NASA’s responsibility, but never allowing congressmen to kick the agency just because it was down. He still ached for the loss of his friend, Ed White, but never allowed those emotions to spill into his report. Near the end of the hearings, he offered some of its most memorable testimony.

“We are trying to tell you that we are confident in our management, and in our engineering, and in ourselves,” Borman said. “I think the question is really: Are you confident in us?” A few days later, he told lawmakers, “Let’s stop the witch hunt and get on with it.” At NASA, it seemed there wasn’t a person, from the administrator to the janitors, who didn’t cheer him on. In the end, Congress took his advice and NASA continued on its mission to land men on the Moon.

Having survived the inquest, NASA approached Borman with an extraordinary offer: Take temporary leave from the astronaut program to head up the team tasked with implementing design changes to the command module. He accepted on the spot. He and others worked to make the new version of the capsule the most advanced, and safest, spacecraft ever built.

Borman could only hope there hadn’t been another tragedy as he landed his jet at Ellington Air Force Base and made his way to Slayton’s office. He suspected something unusual was afoot when he was asked to close the door behind him. Slayton addressed him without even sitting down:

“We just got word from the CIA that the Russians are planning a lunar fly-by before the end of the year. We want to change Apollo 8 from an Earth orbital to a lunar orbital flight. A lot has to come together. And Apollo 7 has to be perfect. But if it happens, Frank, do you want to go to the Moon?”

The idea startled Borman. Apollo 8 was meant to fly in December, just four months from now, but certainly not to the Moon. Apollo 8 was a conservative mission designed for low Earth orbit, perhaps at 125 miles altitude. It was one of several essential steps leading up to a manned lunar landing, hopefully before the end of 1969. Everything went in steps at NASA. Everything.

But Slayton meant exactly what he said. He wanted Borman to change missions and fly to the Moon. At a distance of 240,000 miles. In just sixteen weeks. Slayton didn’t discuss the fact that the lunar module couldn’t possibly be ready by then. He didn’t discuss any of the other myriad reasons NASA couldn’t be ready to fly men to the Moon by year’s end. In fact, Slayton gave very few additional details. He didn’t even ask if Borman cared to talk things over with his wife or crew.

Borman would have been justified in taking days, if not weeks, to consider such a proposition. And yet Slayton needed an answer, and he needed it now. Borman understood the urgency. If the Soviet Union sent men to the Moon first—even if those men didn’t land—it would score a major victory in the Space Race and deal a devastating blow in the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union. The mission Slayton was proposing would be exquisitely dangerous. But it also had the power to change history. Now, suddenly, it all depended on the decision of Frank Borman and his crew.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Countdown 3

Chapter 1 Do You Want To Go To The Moon? 5

Chapter 2 The Space Race 13

Chapter 3 A Secret Plan 29

Chapter 4 Are You Out Of Your Mind? 39

Chapter 5 Frank Borman 53

Chapter 6 Just Four Months 69

Chapter 7 Jim Lovell 84

Chapter 8 Pushed To Superhuman Speeds 99

Chapter 9 Bill Anders 108

Chapter 10 How's Fifty-Fifty? 126

Chapter 11 My God, We Are Really Doing This 136

Chapter 12 Leaving Home 151

Chapter 13 A Deeply Troubled Year 169

Chapter 14 A Critical Test 183

Chapter 15 An Astronaut In Trouble 196

Chapter 16 Equigravisphere 205

Chapter 17 Racing the Moon 220

Chapter 18 Our Most Ancient Companion 228

Chapter 19 Earthrise 233

Chapter 20 The Heaven and the Earth 250

Chapter 21 Aiming for Home 264

Chapter 22 Please Be Informed-There is a Santa Claus 273

Chapter 23 Help From an Old Friend 287

Chapter 24 The Men Who Saved 1968 299

Epilogue 314

Acknowledgments 337

Diagram of Apollo 8 342

Author's Note 345

A Note On Sources 351

Index 357

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Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
AE2 More than 1 year ago
In August 1868, NASA, intent on getting ahead of Russia in the space race and hoping to overcome demoralizing rocket failures, made the dramatic decision to push to send men to orbit the moon in December--giving them way less preparation time than usual. Engineers, astronauts, and everyone at NASA worked together to get astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders prepared for whatever would come on their unprecedented mission. This narrative nonfiction is superb. Robert Kurson does a great job taking readers into 1968--to see the unrest in the United States, with protests of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and more. It was really interesting to see how this mission brought people together and brought a good ending to an otherwise rough year. It was also really interesting to see the different personalities of the three astronauts as well as their wives and families. It's jammed with interesting information--mind-blowing numbers (like the weight of the rocket!), the realities of space life (like what happens when one crew member gets diarrhea!), and what Walter Cronkite announced on TV during their orbit. It really takes the reader back in time, and it's an engaging and informative read. Really fantastic piece of nonfiction. I read a copy of the book via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
443918 More than 1 year ago
Kurson Does it Again! Rocket Men is an exciting story of an adventure that almost didn't happen. We live in a world that looks at historical events as though they were inevitable and Kurson writes such a compelling text that you are able to feel the anxiety and intensity of the moment back in 1968. U.S. astronauts were true heroes who helped Americans to come together in triumph at a time when the country was being pulled apart by tragedy and Robert Kurson is able to capture the details of this story. Kurson is a best-selling writer for a reason - he is writes in way that makes every book captivating regardless of the topic. Rocket Men is no different -- this book is an important reminder of public service and dedication, of love and sacrifice, and it is written with such care for all the details that the reader feels they actually know the astronauts and their families. This is a great read, don't miss it!
LilacDreams More than 1 year ago
I’ve been fascinated by space since studying the solar system in second grade. If there’s an astronaut book out there, I’ve read it. This is a great addition. Apollos 11 and 13 are famous as the first moon landing and the successful failure of a moon landing. Apollo 8 is less well-known, but, in the words of the late Neil Armstrong, was “an enormously bold decision.” The American space program was in trouble. A crew had perished in a spacecraft fire on the pad in 1967. And not only the space program, but all of America was convulsing with anti-war fervor, racial unrest, and assassinations in 1968. A circumlunar flight was dangerous, but it would keep the space program moving forward toward the goal of landing men on the moon before the end of the decade, and maybe even beat the Soviets. The flight of Apollo 8 was a resounding success. And 1968 ended on a bright, shining note.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Robert Kurson has written another brilliant novel full of his characteristic attention to personal and technical detail which he somehow always manages to imbue with wonder and excitement. Truly great read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought I was well read on US space program history ... until I read Rocket Men
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great book for all to learn about a fantastic human voyage.