Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Reading | Rocket Men

Rocket Men | Robert Kurson

If you know anything at all about the Apollo space program, you're probably aware that Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon, along with that guy from Toy Story, and their flight was called Apollo 11. Maybe you've also heard about the nearly disastrous saga of Apollo 13, during which an oxygen tank blew up, putting in peril the lives of astronauts Tom Hanks and Ron Howard. Or something like that. 

But pop culture references aside, perhaps the flight most deserving of universal fame is that of Apollo 8, which was the very first spacecraft to slip the surly bonds of earth orbit and carry three men - nearly flawlessly - across a quarter of a million miles to orbit the moon and safely back home again. Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders became the first humans to gaze upon an alien heavenly body at close quarters, and Anders' groundbreaking photo of our home, Earthrise, came to rewire our collective understanding of Planet Earth. This book tells in familiar prose the fascinating and deeply personal story of their risk-filled journey complete with easy-to-grasp technical explanations and color photos, to boot. 

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My space exploration deep dive continues. From Robert Goddard fooling around with liquid fuels back in the 1920s, to the Mars rover's current mission to gather rocks, I'm fascinated. (Just don't talk to me about private sector billionaires' flights to the upper atmosphere. I'm not impressed.) 

But Apollo is at the very heart of my obsession. And to be honest, I had fallen into the typical trap of assuming that Apollo 11, the first lunar landing, was the peak of NASA's prowess and the defining moment of our success in space. But Rocket Men has changed my mind about that. After buzzing through this well-written page-turner, I better understand the nuances of incremental progress in the program - how NASA systematically tested each new bit of equipment and practiced piloting maneuvers in a delicately programmed series of flights, and each crew's successes were unquestionably built on the backs of previous crews' gutsy hard work. 

So it is that the fine gents of Apollo 8, Borman, Lovell, and Anders, deserve so much more recognition and respect for their unprecedented journey to the moon. In the midst of some very complex mission planning that was subject to the vagaries of temperamental equipment, shifting crew assignments, and the Soviets breathing down our necks, just four short months before liftoff these three men were unceremoniously thrust into making a quick and risky decision: are you ready to try for the moon? They said yes, and the rest is beautiful, interesting, inspiring history. 

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