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.
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.
Together these three men would midwife rocketry’s dubious, dazzling transformation from a hand-built, Kitty Hawk-esque world of wire and sheet metal into one of the main fronts of the cold war and the beginnings of the military-industrial complex. It’s here that Nelson’s narrative and analytic skills are most effectively put to use weaving the political and cultural history of the cold war together with the more ancient strands of science and wonder that attend it.
With Apollo’s context firmly in place, Nelson returns to Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins en route to the moon. His account of the mission relies heavily on long quotes, and in places the sequence of events seems scrambled. The story of the first moon landing has been told many times in film and books, but the tale is as staggering as ever: the distances crossed, the dangers averted, the fuel burned, the dollars spent.
The temperaments of the astronauts, too, are familiar from previous accounts. Collins is workmanlike and modest, seemingly content to tenant the orbiting command module while his colleagues walk on the moon. Aldrin, whose edgy wit marked him as Apollo’s hepcat, never quite masters his ambition to be the first man to climb down the ladder. Armstrong, bland and omnicompetent, is as enigmatic as the man in the moon.
But their experiences in space remain striking, and Nelson conveys the worries, wonder, and sheer delight they felt when they landed on the moon. And if there are occasional missteps and flat notes, there are freshly observed passages as well – as when Nelson compares the Lunar Module to a bacteriophage virus: “[I[t was, after all, a machine engineered to attach itself to a foreign body and release its alien DNA – Armstrong and Aldrin.”
Nelson manages a formidable task here, tackling not only the complex story of Apollo, but the massive literature spawned by the space race. Andrew Smith’s quirky, moving “Moondust” plumbs the astronautic psyche; David Mindell’s lucid, eye-opening “Digital Apollo” examines the technological story of the moon landings; Robert Poole’s ruminative, wide-ranging “Earthrise” charts the symbolic meanings of these voyages at the edge of interplanetary space.
“Rocket Men” strives to touch what these more focused books have done; in the end, it reaches its goal fitfully, through massive expenditures of time and energy. In this way, it’s reminiscent of Apollo itself.
Matthew Battles is a writer in Jamaica Plain, Mass. Born during the Apollo 8 mission, he has always been fascinated with the moon.