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Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon

Forty years later, another look at man’s first walk on the moon.

By Matthew Battles / July 7, 2009



When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, Werner von Braun thought his footsteps as important to our species’ history as those taken by the first life-forms to leave the oceans for dry land. And yet as the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing (July 19, 1969) approaches, the climax of the space race seems dim and shadowed, lost among the mysteries of the cold war.

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Craig Nelson sheds light on Apollo’s complicated story in Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon.
Nelson’s book lacks the mythopoetic punch of Norman Mailer’s “Of a Fire on the Moon” and the analytic swagger of its most obvious precursor, Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff.”

But it provides a different service from those books by exploring the work of the men who went to the moon through their own words and deeds. In doing so, it gives its illustrious predecessors the lie; for in Nelson’s book, the astronauts are neither Wolfe’s daredevil speed freaks nor the addled Odysseans of Mailer’s invention. They’re people of their time – professionals, organization men, even nerds (Nelson reports that both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin carried slide rules with them to the moon).

Nelson begins his account of the Apollo missions in media res, as the gargantuan Saturn V rocket arrives at its launchpad. The story unfolds as implacably as the countdown itself: the great craft is filled with the supercold hypergolic fuels that will explode when they meet in the rocket’s inner chambers; astronauts lock down their helmets and plug in their suits while engineers tick off maddening, endless lists of tasks; wives cringe and smoke as reporters trample the peonies. It’s all a bit of a whirlwind – which of course it was, although the strands of the story tend to fray under the pressure of time and detail.

The gravity of “Rocket Men” increases once Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins are safely in orbit and Nelson steps back to consider the strange history of rocket science and spaceflight in the 20th century. There’s a great deal of ground to cover here as Massachusetts-based rocketry expert Robert Goddard struggles for funding and recognition, NASA whiz Werner von Braun sheds his Nazi past, and Soviet designer Sergei Korolyov battles health problems and the suspicion of apparatchiks.

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