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Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moonby Craig Nelson
Synopses & Reviews
A richly detailed and dramatic account of one of the greatest achievements of humankind
At 9:32 A.M. on July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 rocket launched in the presence of more than a million spectators who had gathered to witness a truly historic event. It carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins to the last frontier of human imagination: the moon.
Rocket Men is the thrilling story of the moon mission, and it restores the mystery and majesty to an event that may have become too familiar for most people to realize what a stunning achievement it represented in planning, technology, and execution.
Through interviews, twenty-three thousand pages of NASA oral histories, and declassified CIA documents on the space race, Craig Nelson re-creates a vivid and detailed account of the Apollo 11 mission. From the quotidian to the scientific to the magical, readers are taken right into the cockpit with Aldrin and Armstrong and behind the scenes at Mission Control.
Rocket Men is the story of a twentieth-century pilgrimage; a voyage into the unknown motivated by politics, faith, science, and wonder that changed the course of history.
"On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. In this extensively researched account of that epic achievement, former publishing executive and prize-winning author Nelson (The First Heroes) moves seamlessly between Apollo 11 astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, their nervous families and the equally nervous NASA ground crew. Nelson follows Armstrong in nail-biting detail as he tries to find a place to land with less than a minute's worth of fuel remaining. A large central section of the book digresses to provide some backstory on the feverish American-Soviet game of one-upmanship in the year leading up to the Apollo 11 launch. For instance, Nelson describes Apollo 8 as an almost reckless gamble by NASA to beat the Russians in sending men to orbit the moon The book also describes the sad personal toll the mission took. Collins was best able to deal with the cost of fame yet expressed the anticlimax of life after Apollo 11: 'I seem gripped by earthly ennui.' Space fans and readers who remember that momentous time will find this an exciting read. (June 29)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
To understand how completely Apollo 11 dominates the history of the space program, consider for a moment the previous mission, Apollo 10. The astronauts on that one were ... um ... hold on ... Googling as we speak ... John Young, Eugene Cernan and Thomas Stafford. All they did was get in a capsule atop a 30-story rocket, blast off the planet and fly all the freakin' way to the moon.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Two of them then got into a contraption called the Lunar Module and descended toward the moon's surface. Down, down they went. But they didn't land, because this was just a practice run for lunar orbit rendezvous. The glory of the first lunar landing would be reserved for the next mission. Indeed, to ensure that no eager-beaver astronaut would say to heck with it and try to land, NASA didn't give the ascent module enough fuel to leave the moon's surface. The astronauts would have been stranded if they'd ignored orders. And so they dutifully flew home, their mission soon lost in the glare of Apollo 11. Forty years on, the space program is still struggling to figure out how to top the fabled moonshot of July 1969. Apollo 11 may have been the greatest achievement in space flight, but arguably it nearly killed the space program. Because what do you do after you shoot the moon? You build a space shuttle. You build a space station. You launch telescopes. You dither around in low Earth orbit for decades. But no matter what you do, you find that Apollo 11 is an impossible act to follow. This summer, under orders from President Obama, NASA's human space flight program is getting a soup-to-nuts review by a 10-person panel headed by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine. The committee will spend a lot of time pondering rocket design (which do you prefer, the Ares 1 or an EELV?). But while racing toward an end-of-summer deadline, the committee will grapple with a more basic question: What are we doing in space? NASA currently plans to finish building the International Space Station and retire the shuttle, probably somewhere around the end of 2010. We're supposed to have a new fleet of spacecraft ready by about 2015. NASA hopes to put astronauts on the moon again by 2020. This is not an Apollo-style rush job, but an incremental expansion of our presence in space, with a future Mars mission lurking as a remote possibility. Taxpayers are likely to ask an obvious question about a moonshot: Didn't we already do that? Apollo 11 was something of a stunt, a flags-and-footprints mission in which science got short shrift. But what a stunt! Craig Nelson's new book, "Rocket Men," captures the drama and chaos of July 1969 and the almost unbearable tension of the moon landing. When reporters knocked on astronaut spouse Joan Aldrin's door and started pelting her with inane questions soon after the Eagle set down on the Sea of Tranquillity, she screamed at them: "Listen! Aren't you all excited? They did it! They did it!" Yeah: They did it, and they did it with smarts, pluck and — against all odds in a technogeek culture — style. Space flight requires exquisite planning as well as improvisation. Apollo 11 represented that in the extreme. Years in the making, with a supporting cast of tens of thousands, the mission ultimately depended on Neil Armstrong flying the Lunar Module over a boulder field with only seconds of fuel to spare. Nelson describes the landing so vividly that the engrossed reader isn't sure that Armstrong and crewmate Buzz Aldrin are going to make it. Nelson places Apollo 11 in a broader narrative of American engineering genius. Our society, he argues, does not adequately appreciate the technological feats that make our culture possible: "the big pipes, the vast roads, the power grids, the dams, and the people-and-cargo-carrying vehicles of heroic engineering and big science." He writes: "Before the 1990s' Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with their Red Bulls, boxed pizza, and Cheetos, there were the short-sleeved-white-shirted denizens of Houston's NASA with pocket protectors, Mexican takeout, evaporating hot-plate coffee, and ashtrays choked in smoldering cigarette butts, and before them were New York and New Mexico's Manhattan Project brain trust of alpha engineers in their fedoras and soft, floppy jackets." Everyone knew that spaceflight was dangerous, but, even so, the public was never told of the internal fears and uncertainties at NASA. Consider, for example, Apollo 8. It may have been an even more daring mission than the lunar landing. It was only the third flight of the giant Saturn V rocket, and the first with human beings in a capsule on top. NASA decided not only to launch a crew into orbit on the Saturn V but to send them all the way to the moon, a quarter-million miles away. It came close to a suicide mission. Someone overheard a NASA official wondering, before the launch, "Just how do we tell Susan Borman, 'Frank is stranded in orbit around the moon?'" In many cases the astronauts struggled to communicate exactly what it was like, being out there in space. They spoke in jargon and acronyms. They stuck to the engineering tasks at hand. The can-do attitude is so embedded in the space-cowboy psyche that it's impossible for the astronauts to admit that the whole thing is shot through with uncertainty, doubt, fear, occasional despair, a little bit of grief and a lot of night sweats. Michael Collins, the third Apollo 11 crewman, said that if someone asked him during a spaceflight how he felt about something, he'd answer, "What? Huh? I don't know how I feel about that, you want the temperature, you want the pressure, you want the velocity, you want the altitude, what do you mean, how do I feel about that?" Armstrong was a particularly taciturn figure. He nearly died in a training exercise shortly before the Apollo 11 mission — he had to eject and parachute to safety as his Lunar Module training craft exploded — then calmly returned to his office and said nothing about it. No, he didn't have ice water in his veins — his pulse hit 156 as he struggled to find a safe place to land the Lunar Module — but he was extraordinarily reserved and remains to this day something of an enigma. Which makes Buzz Aldrin the most compelling Apollo figure: His new memoir, "Magnificent Desolation," describes how he was debilitated by depression and alcoholism soon after he returned from the moon. Aldrin downplays the significance of being second rather than first, but Nelson notes that when he got home he had to look at a commemorative stamp showing "First Man on the Moon" — one guy! As though stepping onto the moon 20 minutes after Armstrong made him a rounding error. Another tidbit from Nelson: There are no good photographs of Neil Armstrong on the moon. Aldrin, um, kind of forgot to take any. So the most iconic shots of a spaceman on the moon were taken by Armstrong and show Aldrin. Nelson has a dim view of NASA's achievements since Apollo, particularly compared to that initial burst of technological brilliance in which rockets went from weapons to spaceships: "A mere twenty-five years from guided missile to man on the Moon, and then ... nothing." Which is too harsh, by far. Raise your hand if you watched the astronauts fix the Hubble telescope this spring. It was space flight at its finest. The shuttle, derided as a mere space truck, never quite got its due (indeed, it can perform many feats that the next generation of spacecraft couldn't possibly achieve). But even if he's a bit dyspeptic about current space programs, Nelson is surely correct in the main: We've never matched Apollo 11. There will be more marvelous achievements in space, but it's not clear how many of them will be by flesh-and-blood creatures, or by Americans. The Augustine committee members, busy as they are figuring out our destiny in space, should bone up on Apollo 11. It was a bit like Babe Ruth pointing to a spot in the distant bleachers before belting a home run to that exact location. But it was also great engineering and dazzling human bravado. And it was the kind of thing that great nations do. Joel Achenbach, a staff writer on The Washington Post's national desk, writes frequently about space. He blogs at washingtonpost.com/achenblog. Reviewed by Joel Achenbach, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
The thrilling story of the Apollo Moon mission restores the mystery and majesty to an event that may have become too familiar for most people to realize what a stunning achievement it represented in planning, technology, and execution.
Unabridged CDs ? 18 hours, 14 CDs
A richly detailed and dramatic account of one of the greatest achievements of humankind.
Read Craig Nelson's posts on the Penguin Blog.
-The Wall Street Journal
Restoring the drama, majesty, and sheer improbability of an American triumph, this is award-winning historian Craig Nelson's definitive and thrilling story of man's first trip to the moon. At 9:32 a.m. on July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 rocket launched in the presence of more than a million spectators who had gathered to witness a truly historic event. Through interviews, 23,000 pages of NASA oral histories, and declassified CIA documents on the space race, Rocket Men presents a vivid narrative of the moon mission, taking readers on the journey to one of the last frontiers of the human imagination.
About the Author
Craig Nelson has been a vice president and executive editor of Harper & Row, Hyperion, Random House, and Villard, and a literary agent. He is the author of several books, including Thomas Paine, winner of the 2007 Henry Adams Prize. He has been profiled in Variety, Interview, Publishers Weekly, and Time Out.
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