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It was a time not unlike our own. A newly elected young president with a flair for inspirational rhetoric and ambitious goals challenged the United States to re-establish its world leadership.
Addressing Congress on May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy declared, "I believe that this nation, should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth."
Eight years later, on July 20, 1969, a rapt world watched grainy black-and-white analog broadcast television images as Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon.
Today we watch elaborately produced retrospectives of the Apollo 11 moon landing in crisp, full-color, high-definition, digital format. But as Craig Nelson notes in his new book Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, the mythology surrounding the accomplishment is the same as it was when Armstrong took that "one small step" four decades ago.
Nelson, a former publishing executive and author of Thomas Paine, which won the 2007 Henry Adams Prize, captures not only the historical richness behind NASA's greatest accomplishment, but also and the breadth, depth, and humanity of the team that achieved it.
The feat was technological, but its goal was clearly political and rooted in the Cold War. "The at times pugnacious Kennedy... [realized] that there were three avenues of competition between Russia and America: war, business, and technology. The first meant the unacceptable course of nuclear war, while the second would involve engaging in a long contest before the winner would be known. With the very public and deeply symbolic Space Race, however, the entire world would immediately know who had triumphed."
The book is filled with in-their-own-words descriptions drawn from NASA's transcripts and oral history archive. These place readers on the scene with the astronauts, their families, and the launch and mission control teams.
Its centerpiece, of course, is the Apollo 11 mission.
The book is divided into three parts. Part I is the pre-launch story of the Apollo 11 astronauts, Armstrong, his fellow moon-walker Buzz Aldrin, and command module pilot Michael Collins.
The book's lengthy but exquisitely controlled opening sentence--about 100 words in length if hyphens are neglected--captures readers immediately. "On May 20, 1969, at 12:30 p.m. EST, a thirty-story-high black-and-white Saturn V rocket... was painstakingly trundled five miles across the raging heat and searing green of central Florida's east coast by an eleven-man Kennedy Space Center crew aboard the world's largest land vehicle, a six-million-pound, tank-wheeled crawler out of NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building, itself a 129-million-cubic-foot edifice so massive that... interior clouds would form under its 525-foot ceiling... and it would rain." (The last ellipsis is part of the original text.)
This you-are-there approach continues throughout the book's three sections. At critical moments in Apollo 11 and other missions, Nelson's vivid detail rivets readers to their seats before releasing them to rise in celebration or to sink in despair (as in the sights, sounds, and odors of the tragic Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts).
By the end of Part I, when Apollo 11's launch vehicle has just cleared its tower, readers have made intimate acquaintances with Armstrong and his crewmates, the astronauts' families, and key members of the mission control and launch teams.
In the second section, Nelson carries readers from NASA's origins to the day of that momentous launch. "The standard version of the history of NASA has always been that, alarmed and deflated by Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, the United States created a wholly civilian agency that, through the vital legacy of its youngest president, won the Space Race 'in peace for all mankind.' Besides the fact that almost all these assertions are either misleading or expressly false,... [t]he actual story is much richer and the achievements more profound."
This section is the most nuanced of the book. It begins in the final days of World War II with Operation Paper Clip that brought Wernher von Braun and his brilliant team of ex-Nazi rocket scientists to the United States rather than Russia. Their moral ambiguity and engineering excellence are on display side-by-side. Nelson never falls into the trap of either lionizing or demonizing these problematic but important figures--including one who was eventually revealed to be a war criminal, stripped of U.S. citizenship, and deported, but not before he made important contributions to NASA rocketry.
Part II also explores complex political calculations of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. Though the public saw the Apollo program as largely civilian with emphasis on science and technology, it had major military and geopolitical implications.
In many ways, Nelson's task in presenting this history is as daunting as NASA's original challenge. But he rises to the occasion with meticulous research, skillful storytelling rich in detail, and a narrative arc as stimulating and disciplined as Apollo 11's own trajectory through space and history.
Part III picks up where part I ended just after Apollo 11 liftoff and continues to the Moon and beyond. It is full of vivid, heart-pounding detail that reaches its peak as Armstrong searches for a boulder-free area to set down the Eagle.
"From a height of two thousand feet while traveling twenty feet per second, Armstrong tried to orient himself to the landscape below from his studies of the Apollo 10 photographs, but Eagle was now too low to the ground, and too far off-course," Nelson writes. Then, drawing on the NASA archive, he leaves the rest of the narration to Flight Director Gene Kranz, Aldrin, Armstrong, and Armstrong's wife, Jan.
The book closes with a poignant and thought-provoking discussion of the biggest question faced by the astronauts and agency alike: What do you do after you've been to the moon?
The most dramatic story is Buzz Aldrin's. The second man on the moon was unprepared for the spotlight. He was a pilot who wanted nothing else but his next assignment, but NASA did not want to put the life of its new national treasures at risk. He fell into depression and alcoholism and eventually had to be secretly hospitalized.
Fortunately, Nelson writes, Aldrin emerged into a new life with his old determination intact. "In time, Buzz became one of the bravest of all of America's astronauts by publicly revealing his mental illness." He wrote a memoir about his troubles and recovery and served as chair of the National Mental Health Association.
Michael Collins has had a surprisingly normal life, including a stint as director of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
Like Aldrin, Neil Armstrong missed being a pilot and struggled with too much attention from too many people. But he learned to use his fame to his benefit, including taking several corporate directorships, traveling to the North Pole with Sir Edmund Hillary, and serving as vice-chair of the presidential commission investigating the Challenger tragedy. He also became a much-sought-after speaker.
But by the 1990s, personal problems, including a divorce, began to take their toll, and Armstrong became reclusive. During "the interminable Shuttle/Space Station era, when NASA seemed to fall into a holding period of somnolent torpor, its most historic and historic and galvanizing figure, Neil Armstrong, was nowhere in evidence."
Today, the future of manned spaceflight is in doubt. In the 21st century, NASA is much less willing to take risks than it was in the Apollo years.
Will the agency ever be willing to chance a human mission to Mars? Based on the book's closing quotation (from a NASA Flight director), Nelson thinks it might. It will take the alignment of four curves that Neil Armstrong used to describe as an engineering professor in the 1970s. They were labeled "Leadership," "Threat," "Good Economy," and "Peace."
Their alignment was just right in the 1960s for Apollo to flourish. If they come into alignment again, will we be ready?
Rocket Men could have been written simply to exploit the fortieth anniversary of Apollo 11 for commercial success, but Craig Nelson has produced something far better. It is that rare combination of a definitive history and a "great read." When the centennial of mankind's giant leap is celebrated, readers will be hard pressed to find anything better.