Rocket Men

Robert Kurson 2018 / Bvtn 629.454 KUR

This book focuses on Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, the three astronauts who first orbited the Moon in Apollo 8, on December 24-25, 1968. Much about their careers, their families, and details of the flight itself. Author Kurson befriended the astronauts and families, and flew on their personal aircraft.

There is much information on the astronaut's wives Susan Borman, Marilyn Lovell, and Valarie Anders, but out-of-context notes here would not be appropriate. I was impressed by Kurson's informative and sensitive approach to their stories.

This mission was very high risk, changed from an Earth-orbit test (with 4 months to prepare) because the LM was late and the Soviets were preparing to send a manned Zond spacecraft in a Lunar flyby. This was only the third launch of the Saturn V rocket, which had suffered from serious pogo thrust oscillations on the second unmanned Apollo 6 test. Von Braun's Huntsville team thought they had solved it, but they never completely succeeded. This was a structural oscillation combined with feed problems, and requires active damping to control on large structures.

This first manned Saturn V launch was violent; "Anders already felt like a rat in the jaws of a giant, angrey terrier" (p153) as the rocket crawled above the launch tower (10 seconds to climb 363 feet). First staging at 215,000 feet (66 km) dropped acceleration instantly from 4 gees to zero, throwing the astronaut's arms forward (p156). Then the second stage kicked in at 5 gees, slamming them back into their seats (and gouging their helmets with their wrist rings).

The book dwells on 1968 as a year of dissent, protest violence, and assassination. Apollo 8 (and especially the Christmas Day broadcast from the moon) was a healing event for the US. The reading of Genesis by the astronauts angered some atheists, but moved and comforted most of the world. I wish the angry atheists would figure out even better ways to comfort people, so that we could heal even more of our world's anger and conflict. Until then, a demonstration to the religous majority that superb scientific achievement is compatable with faith counteracts demagogues and other misanthropic pseudointellectuals.

A couple of chapters of information about the astronaut's post-NASA careers, and the author's interactions with them. Assuming these gentlemen were as kind and friendly as the author portrays them, they handled fame and success responsibly and generously.