Book Review: Joel Achenbach on Rocket Men by Craig Nelson

Craig Nelson's new book, "Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon," recounts the dramatic days in July 1969 and the astronauts who became legends.
By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, July 19, 2009


The Epic Story Of the First Men On the Moon

By Craig Nelson

Viking. 404 pp. $27.95

To understand how completely Apollo 11 dominates the history of the space program, consider for a moment the previous mission, Apollo 10. The astronauts on that one were . . . um . . . hold on . . . Googling as we speak . . . John Young, Eugene Cernan and Thomas Stafford.

All they did was get in a capsule atop a 30-story rocket, blast off the planet and fly all the freakin' way to the moon. Two of them then got into a contraption called a lunar module and descended toward the moon's surface. Down, down they went. But they didn't land, because this was just a practice run for lunar orbit rendezvous. The glory of the first lunar landing would be reserved for the next mission. Indeed, to ensure that no eager-beaver astronaut would say to heck with it and try to land, NASA didn't give the ascent module enough fuel to leave the moon's surface. The astronauts would have been stranded if they'd ignored orders.

And so they dutifully flew home, their mission soon lost in the glare of Apollo 11.

Forty years on, the space program is still struggling to figure out how to top the fabled moonshot of July 1969. Apollo 11 may have been the greatest achievement in space flight, but arguably, it nearly killed the space program. Because what do you do after you shoot the moon?

You build a space shuttle. You build a space station. You launch telescopes. You dither around in low-Earth orbit for decades. But no matter what you do, you find that Apollo 11 is an impossible act to follow.

This summer, under orders from President Obama, NASA's human space flight program is getting a soup-to-nuts review by a 10-person panel headed by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine. The committee will spend a lot of time pondering rocket design (which do you prefer, the Ares 1 or an EELV?). But while racing toward an end-of-summer deadline, the committee will grapple with a more basic question: What are we doing in space?

NASA currently plans to finish building the international space station and retire the shuttle, probably somewhere around the end of 2010. We're supposed to have a new fleet of spacecraft ready by about 2015. NASA hopes to put astronauts on the moon again by 2020. This is not an Apollo-style rush job but an incremental expansion of our presence in space, with a future Mars mission lurking as a remote possibility. Taxpayers are likely to ask an obvious question about a moonshot: Didn't we already do that?

Apollo 11 was something of a stunt, a flags-and-footprints mission in which science got short shrift. But what a stunt! Craig Nelson's new book, "Rocket Men," captures the drama and chaos of July 1969 and the almost unbearable tension of the moon landing. When reporters knocked on astronaut spouse Joan Aldrin's door and started pelting her with inane questions soon after the Eagle set down on the Sea of Tranquillity, she screamed at them: "Listen! Aren't you all excited? They did it! They did it!"

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