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

This is not the personality driven, author showcase of a “The Right Stuff,” nor the tense drama of an “Apollo 13.” It was something of a mix of the two, an introduction to the personalities that were involved in the Apollo 8 mission to the moon alongside a description of what a tremendously difficult team project unfolded under the stressful conditions of a Cold War space race with the Russians. With deft description and crisp narrative, Kurson puts the reader in the command module of the Apollo 8 rocket and provides plenty of tense narrative and dialogue to portray the awe-inspiring simple nature of this project. But the real triumph of the book is in the way he portrays all of this in the context of the nation-rending events of 1968. With that context, he makes the book something more than just a portrayal of the human beings who took on this imposing challenge – though he certainly paints a picture of the astronauts, scientists and families who were the centerpiece of that story – and something more than just a dramatic scientific adventure – though he definitely provides the sense of that drama. But beyond that, he shows how all these things – the personalities of the Apollo 8 crew, their families and the mission’s managers as well as the drama of the mission itself and the political/social context of an international space race – blended into something bigger, the salvation of America’s national identity in a year in which two of its political icons were assassinated and the country appeared to be on the verge of being torn apart over the war in Vietnam, a conflict between generations and the emergence of new cultural identities. It’s a wonderful book that will be variously edifying, inspiring, heart-stopping and thought-provoking. Read it.