Title: Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon
Author: Craig Nelson
Release Date: June 25, 2009
Publisher: Viking Adult
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Rating: 4 out of 5
Rocket Men is the story of Apollo 11, the space mission during which the first men set foot on the moon. It does not confine itself to the duration of the flight, however. Instead, author Craig Nelson goes back to the beginning of the space program to trace how America managed to get to the lunar surface. This is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at Apollo 11 and the entire space program, complete with interviews of most of the major and minor players. Nelson leaves no possible interviewee untapped; as a result, this book is comprehensive and very well put together.
The best part of Rocket Men lies in how Nelson reveals the distinct personalities of each of the people he discusses. He tries to illustrate what they were really like, whether they were an astronaut, an engineer, or worked in Mission Control. As a result, the reader gets the uncanny sense of talking to each of these people – they seem real. Nelson’s talent serves to underline one of the main premises of Rocket Men: getting people to the moon was accomplished through the dedication and hard work of the people involved. This book is a tribute to the 400,000 people who worked to make the Apollo program a reality.
Nelson widens the frame to include the people behind the scenes rather than merely looking at the astronauts themselves. This, along with his decision to start from before the space program was founded to tell the story of Apollo 11, informs this impressively thorough view. Nelson makes clear that there were many people involved in the project over a number of years. Apollo 11 was the culmination of more than a decade of the effort of hundreds of thousands of people – it wasn’t a singular, one-time thing. Though he does clearly depict each astronaut’s face and personality, he also demonstrates that much more was going on than what was seen in the public eye. It makes Rocket Men a fascinating read and a far-reaching look at the entire space program despite its focus on Apollo 11.
My personal favorite part of Nelson’s book is that he doesn’t stop with Apollo 11’s safe return home. He explores what happened to the astronauts after they returned – the sense of discontent, the feelings of loss, even descents into depression and alcoholism. It’s sad to see that after traveling to the moon, the men of Apollo 11 had trouble grounding themselves back on Earth.
Unfortunately, it is clear that this book was rushed to production without double-checking some of the technical details contained within its pages, though very few of the factual errors are obvious. I still enjoyed Rocket Men despite these technical issues, but a space program aficionado who is picky about details will probably not be able to get past them. As a result, this book is definitely better for those with a casual interest in the Apollo program rather those who have read multiple books on the subject.
Rocket Men is sweeping enough to be a full look at NASA before and during the Apollo years but can also serve as a great launching point for anyone who wants to explore this topic and time period more fully.