Apollo 8 risk revealed in Rocket Men

Sweet moments punctuate "Rocket Man," the mostly engrossing book about the historic but sometimes overlooked Apollo 8 mission. 
Apollo 8 risk revealed in Rocket Men

The first astronauts to orbit the moon ended their 1968 Christmas Eve television broadcast with a personal message for the people of Earth.

No one knew what the three Apollo 8 astronauts would say 240,000 miles (386,242.56km) away on Earth. With the moon showing on TV screens, Bill Anders began reading: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the Earth.” Jim Lovell and Frank Borman then followed by reading a few lines each from the book of Genesis. The plain voices reading the Bible’s creation story made grown men weep, Kurson writes.

Sweet moments like this punctuate this mostly engrossing book about the historic but sometimes overlooked Apollo 8 mission. Neil Armstrong and company will always get top billing among astronauts for landing on the moon in 1969, but first someone had to show it was even possible to get there and back. By 1968, the Soviets appeared poised to launch and deal Americans yet another in a series of space-related humiliations dating back to Sputnik. NASA was determined to get there first.

Kurson’s conception-to-splashdown reporting had the cooperation from the astronauts and their wives, giving him invaluable details of what happened inside the astronaut’s capsule and in their homes below. Most readers already know how the mission turned out, a success, but Kurson builds suspense around a mind-bendingly complex and dangerous journey.

One NASA official explained that with Apollo 8’s 5.6 million parts and 1.5 million systems, even if the mission went 99.9 percent right, there would be 5,600 defects. Borman, Lovell and Anders knew there was a real chance the tiny capsule could become their tomb.

Their wives knew it, too. Marilyn Lovell, Susan Borman and Valerie Anders all shared their husbands’ anxiety. 

Their fate was to keep brave faces for the press photographers and to wait to hear their husbands’ voices on the squawk boxes. Susan Borman even sat at her kitchen table to write her husband’s eulogy. 

The women provide the most poignant moments in the book, which starts slowly as Kurson tracks them through their childhood, courtships and military careers. But the no-nonsense Borman pops off the page once they start planning for the mission.

Borman argued with NASA mission planners who wanted more lunar orbits than he thought were prudent. Planners offered 12 orbits. Borman said 10 would be better. Planners told him 10 orbits would result in a pre-dawn splashdown on Earth. If the parachutes malfunctioned, no one could see what happened.

Borman replied that if the chutes didn’t work, they’d all die anyway.

Planners saw his point. There were 10 orbits.

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