For people who were not alive in 1968 — or kids whose dads did not chart the craft’s every move on a family bulletin board — Robert Kurson’s “Rocket Men” is a riveting introduction to the flight. The book takes off when Apollo’s massive launch vehicle, the Saturn V, rises — an experience like “watching the Empire State Building leave Earth.”
Kurson details the mission in crisp, suspenseful scenes, interspersed with quieter history-driven chapters. The astronauts were not prepared for the ferocity of blastoff. In the ground-based flight simulator, they had modeled all manner of disasters, including fatal ones. “Dying helped the men learn to survive,” Kurson writes. But the mock-up never replicated the roar, the shuddering or the G-forces of the real thing.
Nor were they prepared for their own frailty; they were test pilots in top physical shape. But several hours into the mission, Borman suddenly vomited and had a bout of explosive diarrhea — too extensive to be either contained or cleaned up. The waste particles, reminders of their humanness, would travel with them. When the capsule splashed down in the Pacific, a rescuer poked his head in and recoiled — because, he told the men, of “the way you smelled.”
Soon, however, annoyances within the cabin were eclipsed by what was outside: the majesty of the moon, as well as that of our home planet — its brilliant blues and browns a contrast to the relentless lunar gray. In 1968, NASA itself was as colorless as the moon. Its work force was overwhelmingly white, Christian and male. Mission Control had no women’s restroom because there were no women. And the press fetishized the helpmate status of the astronauts’ wives — a detail that galled me even as a child.
If “Rocket Men” has a minor shortcoming, it is a sin of omission. Although Kurson’s source notes mention “papers once secret” that “have now been declassified,” he is silent on Operation Paperclip, the government program that sanitized the war records of Nazi engineers. He writes that the American aviator Charles Lindbergh, often seen as pro-Nazi, had “controversial political views.” But Wernher von Braun, who was a Nazi SS officer, gets a pass — as does the Saturn V manager Arthur Rudolph, who fled to Germany in 1984 rather than face a denaturalization hearing based on his war crimes.