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In 'Rocket Men,' Robert Kurson retells 'greatest space story ever told'

April 5, 2018

— Robert Kurson was there to see a submarine.

The author of the 2004 bestseller "Shadow Divers" about the discovery of a World War II German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey, Kurson was at the Museum of Science and Industry in his hometown of Chicago to see a similar submarine when he happened across the exhibit of a space capsule.

The sight of the Apollo 8 command module and a nearby placard explaining that it had carried the first humans to fly to the moon caught Kurson's attention. Reading more about Frank Borman's, Jim Lovell's and Bill Anders' journey after he returned home, Kurson came to a realization, "this is the best space story of them all."

Kurson's encounter with the Apollo 8 spacecraft ultimately led him to interviewing its crew and then authoring "Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon," published Tuesday (April 3) by Random House.

collectSPACE spoke with Robert Kurson a day before he reunited with the Apollo 8 crew at the Museum of Science and Industry on Thursday (April 5), where a sold out event would mark the launch of "Rocket Men."

collectSPACE (cS): Given your original impetus for writing "Rocket Men," were it you lived or were visiting San Diego, for example, and you had come across the Apollo 9 command module instead, would you have ended up writing a book about that mission?

Robert Kurson: "No, Apollo 8 is magical and singular.

"It struck me about how little I knew about it when I got home and started to read about it, but the fact that it was mankind's first journey away from Earth and man's first journey to the moon made it absolutely exceptional and unique to me in terms of human exploration.

"And on top of that, there were the incredible risks they were taking. The amount of time that was allowed for it, just four months when a 'normal' spaceflight might take 10 to 15 months [of preparation]. The fact they were making the first manned flight of the Saturn V when it had only been tested twice, the second time of which was a near disaster.

"The fact they were going without a lunar module, which acted as backup engine, meaning that if their primary engine didn't function at the moon properly there was all kinds of disaster waiting them. And so many more risks and firsts involved that made it the greatest space story ever told."

cS: You were just five years old when Apollo 8 launched to the moon in December 1968. Do you have memories of the mission?

Kurson: "I have vague memories of being in first grade and the teacher stopping class. I am not even sure if it was for Apollo 8, but I have this series of memories of being very young and being in grade school and having the classroom stopped and a little black and white TV that was bolted to the wall turned on and watching these images of these guys doing something that seemed absolutely incredible.

"The whole class was watching, both boys and girls, just staring in wonder at what mankind was attempting. And somehow, even at age five and six and seven, we knew that something incredible was occurring."

cS: The title, "Rocket Men," seems to focus more on the means of travel than the destination. Was that your intention?

Kurson: "I think the operative word is 'men.' It's not just about the three astronauts but about humanity and the idea that they were doing something so extraordinary and so dangerous and so ambitious.

"The word 'rocket' to me represents all of that and goes far beyond just the Saturn V. It represents the United States and its hopes, dreams and highest ambitions.

"So 'rocket' and then 'men,' the latter meaning all of humanity, not just these three men or men in general. Those two words represented everything to me."

cS: You note in "Rocket Men" that much of it was based on the interviews you did with Borman, Lovell and Anders. If you didn't have access to the astronauts, could you still have written the book?

Kurson: "I think that having access to them was essential.

"I've always written stories about people I could sit down with, not just to interview, but really get to know. I think you get the best details that way. Sometimes they're small details but they are the best almost invariably.

"So it is hard for me to now look back and think I could have written anything near to the kind of book I wrote if I didn't have access to all three crew members."

cS: That the astronauts agreed to sit down with you seems to have been helped along by the fact that Lovell had listened to the "Shadow Divers" audiobook while driving, even "orbiting" a parking lot to continue listening. That book focuses on a submarine and you compare the Apollo 8 command module to a submarine a few times in "Rocket Men." Are there parallels between writing the two books?

Kurson: "There are parallels between a submarine and an Apollo spacecraft that is traveling toward the moon. They are both very close quarters and you don't see much.

"I was very surprised to learn when I started to unpack the story of Apollo 8 that the astronauts really did not see the moon until they were just minutes away from it. I always pictured them seeing it off in the far distance, but that was not the case. They saw Earth grow smaller virtually before their eyes, but not the moon. So this idea of having to trust where you are going in the dark, so to speak, was common to the Apollo 8 story and to 'Shadow Divers.'

"But there were also the risks that these guys were undertaking. The dedication to country is so powerful in both stories. I am drawn to that kind of thing, where there was a higher purpose and a calling beyond one's own selfish concerns. I think that runs through all my stories."

cS: There were other books written about Apollo 8. You cite Robert Zimmerman's 1998 "Genesis" as one of your references and Time magazine's science editor Jeff Kluger published his book, "Apollo 8," last May. Do you feel the Apollo 8 mission is a large enough story to encompass multiple accounts and what sets "Rocket Men" apart from the others?

Kurson: "As I said before, I think it is one of the greatest stories of exploration in human history, so I think it deserves as much attention as people can pay to it.

"I never compare my work with anybody else's. I can only say that I researched the book meticulously and really got to know the astronauts very closely and made the book the best as I possibly could."

cS: Speaking of research, there have been debates about how much the threat of the Soviet Union winning the Space Race influenced the decision to direct Apollo 8 to the moon (it had originally been planned as an Earth orbit mission) or whether the delays building the lunar module (needed for Apollo 9) were the driving force. You seem to accept the narrative that the Soviet challenge was a key factor.

"I think I represent both sides and I do not think they are mutually exclusive. I think [Apollo spacecraft manager] George Low's epiphany to send Apollo 8 to the moon without a lunar module covered all bases and that is what made it such a brilliant decision.

"It meant that the Apollo program would not stall while waiting for the lunar module to catch up. It also meant that NASA had a chance to keep President Kennedy's promise to land men on the moon by the end of the decade, which was important to everybody at NASA.

"And it gave them a fighting chance to get the first men at least around the moon, which was a threat by the Soviets. The Soviets really did look ready to do that by late 1968 and there were reports from the Soviet Union that they had cosmonauts on the launch pad ready to go.

"The beauty and poetry of Low's decision to send Apollo 8 on a lunar orbit mission in December 1968 is that it spoke to all of those concerns at once."

cS: Another area of debate — at least jokingly among the three crew members — was over who it was who took the now iconic photo of Earthrise. In your interviews with them, did the astronauts still take jabs at the others about that?

Kurson: "They love to joke about that but it was clearly Anders who took it. They all acknowledge that.

"They were all thrilled by the sight of it and they were all snapping off pictures. And I believe Borman might have gotten the first picture in black and white. But it was Anders who captured that iconic color image of Earth rising over the barren lunar landscape that became so famous. It is his for sure."

cS: One aspect you include in "Rocket Men" that often gets overlooked in space mission histories was the role the astronauts' wives played, not just during Apollo 8 but also before and after their husbands' journey was over. Why was it important for you to tell the stories of Susan Borman, Marilyn Lovell and Valerie Anders?

Kurson: "It was important to me first and foremost because it was so important to the three of them [the astronauts]. None of them could really describe what it was like to undertake Apollo 8 or pull it off without referring to the incredible support of their wives.

"I talked to two of the wives. Susan Borman was too ill by the time that I met her to speak, but Frank certainly spoke endlessly about the love and support of Susan. And the two others did of their wives as well. It seemed very early on that I don't know if these guys could have done it without the support of their wives. And not just their support during the mission, but for all of the years leading up to it.

"It was very difficult to be an astronaut's wife — there were tremendous stresses and strains put on these women. They saw the husbands of their friends dying all of the time, and not just as astronauts, but as test pilots and fighter pilots. It was a very stressful existence and then when these guys became astronauts, they were very rarely home. The strain on the marriage was tremendous.

"The Apollo 8 crew was the only crew from both the Gemini and Apollo programs where all of the marriages survived, which tells you something about how difficult it was to keep a marriage healthy if you were an astronaut.

"So because these men thought so lovingly of their wives and continued to invoke the support that they were given for all of those years, it seemed to me a beautiful part of the story and an indispensable part. I don't think this would have happened the same way without them."

cS: What do you hope readers who are not familiar with Apollo 8 or space history in general to take away from reading the book?

Kurson: "That this was one of the bravest and most daring things that this country has ever attempted and it was done in an era where we faced what we perceived to be an existential threat and the Soviet Union was a threat to our very existence. That with our backs against the walls, we are capable of anything, even something impossible. And it sure seemed to be impossible to send men to the moon on four months notice at the end of 1968.

"Another interesting thing is that this came at the end of one of the most terrible and fractious years in American history. In 1968 were the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy and all the violence in the street, including here in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention. There were all kinds of problems, strife and divide, and there was nothing that could bring this country back together — until these three men flew to the moon and made a Christmas Eve broadcast heard by nearly a third of the world's population.

"They read from the book of Genesis and then they came back and there was nobody it seemed in all of America or even all of the world who could disagree that something beautiful had happened. And at the very end, just after Christmas 1968, this flight brings the country and the world together."

cS: And what about readers who are versed on the mission? What does "Rocket Men" hold for them?

Kurson: "I think the story of the families, the wives and children is very important and very moving and helps contextualize the whole thing.

"I tried not to make this book too technical, I wanted it to appeal to everyone. I don't like those books that spend a lot of time on the mixtures of propellants and things like that, but I do feel it is important to feel like you are inside the space capsule with them.

"So what I really tried to do was spend as much time as I could with the astronauts having them tell me what it felt like to make the journey to put everyone in the command module with them because that is what I want people to get, the true feeling of going to the moon for the first time in our history."

cS: Was Apollo 8 sending the first crew to orbit the moon a greater triumph than the Apollo 11 moon landing?

Kurson: "One of the first things that struck me as I listened to an interview with Neil Armstrong talking about Apollo 8, he spoke about in almost reverential terms. He said something to the effect that by the time Apollo 11 went, Apollo 8 proved so much of what Apollo 11 was going to do, but before Apollo 8 no one knew if you could do so many of these things.

"I also read where Michael Collins said that if you ask people which one was more important, Apollo 8 or Apollo 11, he would say that you probably have to give it to Apollo 8.

"I was struck by those statements in the very early days when I knew very little about Apollo 8. And by the way, many astronauts will say the same thing. Chris Kraft [director of flight operations at the time of Apollo 8] says it is the most daring thing that NASA ever did.

"When you hear these giants talk in such reverential tones about Apollo 8, it really makes you sit up and pay attention."

cS: Now that you've written "Rocket Men," do you look at the Apollo 8 command module at the Museum of Science and Industry differently?

Kurson: "I do. I saw it just yesterday when I was at the museum getting ready for the [book launch] and to know the sacrifices of so many people that went into this and to see all it had been through and to know what was at stake and what people believed to be at stake, it puts it in a big different context.

"There are some people who walk by and they take a look and it looks interesting to them for a few seconds and then they walk by. When you learn what really went into Apollo 8, you can never walk by that command module without stopping and looking for a very long time."


(Random House)





(Robert Kurson)





Apollo 8 command module at Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago (A Field Guide to American Spacecraft)





Apollo 8 crew members, from left: James Lovell, William Anders and Frank Borman. (NASA)





Earthrise as seen by the Apollo 8 crew on Dec. 24, 1968. (NASA)





Apollo 8 mission patch. (NASA)

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