There were a total of 12 Apollo space flights. We remember them by number if the story was made (Apollo 11) or things went wrong (1 and 13). With either action, we should remember Apollo 8: The first mission to take people all the way to (though not on) the moon.
"Rocket Men" opens in the summer of 1968, with the spacecraft in high gear. The Soviet Union had already laid the world's first satellite, Sputnik, as well as the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into the path of the earth. The Soviets projected to reach the moon by the end of the year, months before the United States. (Similar drama appeared in book publishers last year. Just like galleries of "Rocket Men" were on the reviewers' desk, Henry Holt launched the hardback of Jeffrey Kluger's "Apollo 8".)
The race, at this time, was coming close the moon, rather than landing or even rob it. The mission was to be a single airport: a kind of dress repetition for a possible landing. I simply say how popcorn suppliers say small. Simply, only when the spacecraft was blown out of the earth's orbit to the moon, physics and gravity would handle the rest.
NASA's progress had been hobbled by problems with its moon module ̵
But one day on a beach, a NASA engineer named George Low had an idea: the United States could beat the Soviets to the moon if NASA left the moon module behind the earth. NASA brass raised the dangers by adding several moon lanes. Instead of sling-shotting halfway around the moon, the crew would circle it 10 times, implement some necessary prep for possible landing, scouting landings and measurement of gravity fluctuations, which could change a spacecraft's way in potentially catastrophic ways.
In order to understand the further dangers of a lunar overflow mission, the reader must understand certain rockets. Here is Kurson our man. When he takes us through the flight immediately, his instinct is what needs to be explained and how much detail it is incredible.
For astronauts in Apollo 8 to run the moon, their spacecraft must slow down. If it were not, the forces of gravity and inertia would have shown them halfway around the moon and then back to earth. In order to reduce spacecraft, the propulsion system must fire the opposite of an exact estimated duration. Too much "burn", and the craft would slow too much, let go of crash and crash into the moon; too little, and it would bother deep into space without going back to the course. (The engine on the moon module could have worked as a backup if they had taken it.) Adding to the danger took this maneuver on the dark side, where the moon blocks communication with Mission Control.
Course packs this and several other critical maneuvers, which effectively increase the tension. Several things went wrong, but the real drama was in the gnome's expectation of fatal disaster. All involved knew that schedules were rushed, steps jumped and huge risks were made. (It was for the first time that the Saturn V rocket had taken a crew, the first time it flew, it badly bothered.)
The engineers were nervous when they went out. Women chewed their pearls while they listened to the squawk boxes NASA installed in their homes to let them listen to communication communication. Cruelly, a photographer from Life Magazine, was on hand to capture these high voltage torques.
Astronaut Configuration was the original NASA support module. These women humanized the cold technologies and militaristic pursuit of America's moonlight, laughing when they felt like screaming, making sandwiches and endless pots of coffee for the television crew decoded in their yards.
The space was the world of a human being, and sometimes, Kurson's prose. Lovell packed Marilyn and their three children into the car. " "Orbital mechanics – how the universes ordered and moved themselves – worked. And the man had figured it out to the other part." In view of the latest book and film about the women who made some of these critical calculations, the "man" is a bit of a sound.
What the Course has been successful is impressive, considering the hundreds of hours of transcript he waded through. These include transcripts of own interviews as well as extensive Apollo 8 communication communications. (Note: Moon lands denier: It's easier to put a person on the moon than it would be to fake hundreds of thousands of pages of Apollo documents on NASA.gov.) A non-fiction writer is a massive filtration system. You're just as good as what you're leaving. Course disappears skillfully. "Rocket Man" is close to the leg adventures, which is in line with Alfred Lansing's "Endurance" and Jon Krakauer "Into Thin Air." It's as close to a movie as writing gets.
The story threw it well. As flight director, we have Frank Borman, West Point exam, test pilot, "a serious man with a big head." Borman's film is Jim Lovell, the easygoing heckuva fine guy, staring at the stars like a boy and dreaming of space. (In which is the most or least romantic gesture in history, Lovell is called a battlefield after his wife.) The Token Nerd is scientist William Anders, the astronaut whom no one has heard of. I'm grateful for Kurson to pick him up from the dark.
Here is a man who took his congratulations from the president while he was on the toilet (avoiding the dreaded fecal bag all week in space). In anticipation of countdown, Anders noted a wasp outside the spacecraft window, built a living and thought, "You are surprised." When Borman got sick on the way to the moon, Anders "wondered" as a driving flower of throwing up splitting, "a wobbling part on the way like this, the other angles in the perfect opposite direction." He thought, "It's Isaac Newton. It's the preservation of momentum."
The real heroes of "Rocket Men" are mathematics and physics. The apollo 8 capsule's returnway had been calculated so accurately that it fell almost directly on top of the ship that had sailed out to meet it. It was science that brought us to the moon – not just its ability but a cultural consensus about its importance and value. Without it, we have no chance of lifting something ever so bold.
Mary Roach is the author of "Packing for Mars", "Stiff" and other books. She wrote this for the Washington Post Book World.