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Author Topic:   Rocket Men (Craig Nelson)

Posts: 6210
From: Geneva, Switzerland
Registered: May 2006

posted 12-25-2008 01:18 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for cspg   Click Here to Email cspg     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon
by Craig Nelson
At 9:32 A.M. on July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 rocket launched in the presence of more than a million spectators who had gathered to witness a truly historic event. It carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins to the last frontier of human imagination: the moon.

Rocket Men is the thrilling story of the moon mission, and it restores the mystery and majesty to an event that may have become too familiar for most people to realize what a stunning achievement it represented in planning, technology, and execution.

Through interviews, twenty-three thousand pages of NASA oral histories, and declassified CIA documents on the space race, Craig Nelson re-creates a vivid and detailed account of the Apollo 11 mission. From the quotidian to the scientific to the magical, readers are taken right into the cockpit with Aldrin and Armstrong and behind the scenes at Mission Control.

Rocket Men is the story of a twentieth-century pilgrimage; a voyage into the unknown motivated by politics, faith, science, and wonder that changed the course of history.

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Viking Adult (June 25, 2009)
  • ISBN-10: 0670021032
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670021031

KC Stoever

Posts: 1012
From: Denver, CO USA
Registered: Oct 2002

posted 05-06-2009 06:53 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for KC Stoever   Click Here to Email KC Stoever     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I am paging through advance uncorrected proofs of this very promising new book on Apollo 11. The sticker on the front says it's "on sale" June 29.

"Rocket Men is the story of a twentieth-century pilgrimage, a voyage into the unknown motivated by politics, faith, science, and wonder that changed the course of history." That's from the back cover.

Just a head's up to cSers on what looks like an intensely researched book, not gonzo at all, with welcome historical and social context. Looks like the author was up to his earlobes in the NASA oral histories and declassified CIA documents on the space race.

New Member

Posts: 6
From: USA
Registered: Jul 2008

posted 07-16-2009 12:06 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for AndrewLiptak   Click Here to Email AndrewLiptak     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
My review! The Year of the Moon

Robert Pearlman

Posts: 42981
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 07-17-2009 06:17 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Historian Jim Oberg has been engaging the author and readers of "Rocket Men" on through the comment system associated with the book's listing. Here is his latest:
We're trying to judge this book by two conflicting criteria, here - three actually. Is it a work of literature, eloquent and well-written, by an experienced wordsmith? We all agree it is. Is it a work of scholarship, explaining a historical event accurately and in credible context? Nobody has argued with my factual criticisms on that ground - they've ignored them. Or - the third tongue-in-cheek criterion - is the book a victim of sloppy smearing, deserving of sympathy and knee-jerk support, that allows defenders to ignore any substantive criticisms?

The author describes the central event of the entire book - Armstrong's "small step" onto the Moon - wrong. How I found out about his error shouldn't be the question - how he made the error and got sympathetic reviewers to find excuses for it, seems more important.

The author is clearly a talented editor and writer, as his back flap bio shows. But there's a clue about the scholarship - the favorable reviews of the book on the back jacket are by fellow authors, not spaceflight veterans or specialists. And it's not hard to see why this may be so.

Whenever a good writer ventures into regions beyond his/her technical expertise, prudent editing calls for review of the manuscript (however well written it may be) for technical errors. There's always some amount of slack in complex topics, and a threshold of significance below which occasional errors are 'just life'. All writers (myself included) deserve some breaks.

But this book's frequent errors in terminology, technology, and outright factual events is far in excess of what should be tolerable, even in a book aimed for a popular audience with no previous exposure to this level of detail. These errors occur page by page, sometimes multiple times per page or even per paragraph. They make anybody familiar with the subject matter repeatedly wince, and they make anybody familiar with book publishing ask, where was the editor? Where was the technical review process?

The following list is by no means exhaustive, but it can serve as a catalog of the kinds of things that should never have been allowed into print - if the author and publisher wanted to produce a factually reliable book. How 'trivial' they are is up to potential buyers to decide, especially since they should expect to find many, many more examples of this kind.

The author's use of 'rocket science' terminology is confused throughout the book. On page 120, he describes the calculation of an orbit that included "the equatorial plane's inclination" - when he meant to say, "inclination of the orbital plane to the equator" [the inclination of the equatorial plane is ZERO, always]. He regularly refers to "Newton's escape velocity" of 18,000 mph for an orbiting satellite (p. 125), or 'escaping Earth's gravity' at that speed (p. 99). But 'Escape Velocity' to break free of Earth's gravity is 25,000 mph; the speed to remain in a low orbit is 'Orbital Velocity' (18,000 mph). The Boy Scouts of America merit badge on 'Space Exploration' requires the kids to know the difference; the author doesn't.

There is a helpful 'notes' section in the back of the book, but only a fraction of the asserted facts are actually documented. Checking a few at random uncovers a high error rate: on p. 99, the author ascribes a description of Russian rocket designer Korolyov to "his lifelong colleague and bitter rival" Glushko, but the cited source (on page 146, not 121) attributes the quotation to an entirely different engineer named Ozerov. Somebody is supposed to check these things - perhaps the author's high status in the industry gave him immunity.

Page 96, the author asserts that "the essential formula for rocketry is simple," and then gets it wrong by describing the need for "compressed oxidizers like LOX and LH2" [the latter is a fuel, not an oxidizer, and neither is 'compressed' to any degree in a rocket]. On p. 99 he discussed "the use of LOX and LH2 for fuels". The first step in understanding rocket science is to know the difference between a fuel and an oxidizer, and the author doesn't. Maybe he should have called a Boy Scout.

Page 107, discussing the fate of German rocket scientists brought to the US and to Russia, the author describes the von Braun team's living conditions near El Paso as "a life not so very different from what their counterparts taken to Russia would eventually find in the new cosmodrome in the desert of Kazakhstan". But this is an imaginary and specious contrast that overlooks facts reported elsewhere in the book. All the Germans in Russia were repatriated prior to the founding of the Kazakhstan rocket base, and they had spent all their time in isolated communities north of Moscow - not one of them EVER got to the Kazakhstan base. This is creative writing with flair - but no reality.

Page 113: In 1954-5, "the navy tried to merge its Vanguard rocket development with the air force's Titan IRBM and the Thor ICBM (intercontinental) efforts." The 'Vanguard' was conceived in 1955, using a navy 'Viking' missile; the Titan was the intercontinental missile and the Thor the medium-range missile, the author reverses them. On page 139, "the United States... had stationed in Europe 160 Atlas ICBMs." Not so. Again, the author (and his fact-checkers and editors) confuses the names of vastly-different military missiles. Just a chronology of his misunderstanding of what was and wasn't a "Jupiter" missile is worth several more pages.

Page 116: In 1957, "the USAF had given up on its Atlas rocket and switched to engineering the kerosene-and-LOX-burning Titan." The Atlas was actually test flown years ahead of the Titan, which 'burned' not kerosene and LOX, but hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide.

Page 116, the author writes: "...the August 1957 test firings of the navy's Vanguard were catastrophic," but there weren't any such firings, catastrophic or otherwise - not until October (successful first stage test) and December (pad explosion). The Navy team that was doing Vanguard soon got transferred from its parent lab to NASA, but on page 129, the author states that as NASA was founded it absorbed a number of military facilities, including "the Navy's Research Laboratory (which would be renamed for Goddard)." By no means - just one of the projects (Vanguard) was transferred, along with other teams from other labs, to an entirely new location - and the original Naval Research Lab is still where it was before.

Page 117, the author refers to the Sergeant missile, "fueled by liquid hydrogen' - when it was a solid-fuel rocket. On page 125, describing the firing of the Sergeants comprising the three upper stages of Explorer-1's booster (solid rockets with a 6-second burn time) the author somehow claims that the first of the three upper stages fired for 247 seconds - somebody's typo, or bad note-taking.

Page 118, the author refers to a CIA study "in 1959, using information from Corona spy satellites," when in fact the first spy satellite didn't make a successful mission until mid-1960, as he explains a few pages later. On page 137, in a long list of space failures: "August 10, 1960: Corona 13 a success, but its capsule was lost at sea." By no means - Discoverer-13, as it was called ('Corona' was a top secret project name) was the first spacecraft ever recovered, by any nation, from orbit. It splashed down and was successfully retrieved. But the erroneous claim that it was 'lost' is part of a dramatic narrative.

Page 126, the author mixes up the first two American satellites when he writes: "Since Explorer I weighed only 3


Posts: 6210
From: Geneva, Switzerland
Registered: May 2006

posted 07-17-2009 10:09 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for cspg   Click Here to Email cspg     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
And readers should start with Jim Oberg's original post and pseudo-review of the book, rather than the one quoted above. Just to get an informed opinion, not just about the book but about the reviewer. If that's not already the case. I'll agree with Dwayne Day's reply.


Posts: 238
From: Ohio
Registered: Mar 2006

posted 07-18-2009 08:32 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for canyon42   Click Here to Email canyon42     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Haven't read the book, don't know if I will. I will admit to being somewhat surprised by Oberg's original "review" based upon a condensed version of the book. I think it's telling that in all of his replies he has avoided dealing with the central point that he himself is being taken to task for: negatively rating and "reviewing" a book which he had not read at the time of his original post.

I'm not qualified to judge his arguments about the technical points he raises concerning the book, particularly as I haven't read it. I am more than qualified, though, to state that from a journalistic standpoint trashing a book which one has not actually read is unprofessional, to say the least. Whether the book is good or not is one issue. The damage done to Mr. Oberg's own credibility and reputation is another. I have to admit that any future "reviews" I might see by him, particularly negative ones, will be influenced by this episode.


Posts: 900
From: Humboldt KS USA
Registered: Dec 2003

posted 07-19-2009 07:40 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for mdmyer   Click Here to Email mdmyer     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I have not read Mr. Nelson's book but I did catch his lecture on Book TV on C-SPAN today.

Mr. Nelson started off telling how Armstrong was shy or a recluse, even while he was an astronaut. He explained that was why other astronauts often called him the "Icy Commander". Then he explained how Buzz Aldrin has recently legally changed his name to Buzz and advised the people in attendance that they should not call him Eugene any more.

Then he explained why the manned missions splashed down in the oceans instead of landing on the Earth. He said that NASA did not have the ability to accurately land the returning spacecraft on the Earth. As an example he asked what would happen if NASA aimed for the desert of the American southwest but instead had the spaceship land in Albuquerque. That, he explained, was why NASA used the oceans.

Then he told of a launch of an X-15 rocket plane. He explained that Armstrong was piloting a B-29 with an X-15 strapped to one of its wings. He explained how one of the B-29 engines was going bad and the prop was coming loose. Armstrong told the pilot of the X-15 that he needed to drop him. The pilot reported that he was not ready but Armstrong explained that he needed to drop him anyway. Armstrong released him and then the prop fell off the B-29 and it took out two other engines. Armstrong was able to land the B-29 on the one remaining engine. The whole time he was telling this story the slide showed a B-29 and a rocket plane but it was not an X-15.

Later Mr. Nelson detailed the crash of the LLTV that Armstrong was piloting. He said the LLTV was actually a prototype lunar lander and that it crashed because of wind shear.

Later he told of how Armstrong almost died on Gemini 8 when it went out of control. He had a slide that showed the Gemini 8 docked to the Agena. He even said you could see the Gemini to one side of the Agena. The photo showed the Agena in orbit. It was a profile shot. Needless to say, you could not see the Gemini 8, or any other Gemini docked to the Agena.

Then Mr. Nelson explained how Armstrong had a lonely or boring life after Apollo. Mr. Nelson did not seem very impressed that Armstrong went in to teaching.

After that I lost interest in the show.

Richard Easton

Posts: 175
From: Winnetka, IL USA
Registered: Jun 2006

posted 07-19-2009 09:05 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Richard Easton     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Originally posted by mdmyer:
The whole time he was telling this story the slide showed a B-29 and a rocket plane but it was not an X-15.
I caught just a few minutes on C-SPAN and was not impressed. Did he say it was a B-29? The X-15 was launched from a B-52.


Posts: 170
From: Tucson, Arizona
Registered: Jan 2009

posted 07-19-2009 11:55 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for JPSastro   Click Here to Email JPSastro     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The author has shown that he can't get facts correct on the C-Span program. The B-29 story in it's self is unbelievable! (That is the second time I've seen the that story.) Neil flew the B-29 (1956) from the right hand seat on a number of X-series drops. NEVER saw a story about an in-flight situation though.

X-15 on a 29... Ah, never happened. And the LLTV was not a prototype. A trainer, yes.

I have my doubts on this author's fact finding. I would not purchase this book.


Posts: 900
From: Humboldt KS USA
Registered: Dec 2003

posted 07-20-2009 08:40 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for mdmyer   Click Here to Email mdmyer     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Originally posted by Richard Easton:
Did he say it was a B-29? The X-15 was launched from a B-52.
Yes, he was talking about a prop coming off a B-29 during an x-15 drop. Of course the B-52 did not have props. The "prototype" LLTV was one that really got me.

Another thing Mr. Nelson mentioned was that gimbling was invented because so many of the early rockets had crashed in to their launch towers. Gimbling allowed the rockets to be steered away from their towers.


Posts: 809
From: Cortlandt Manor, NY
Registered: May 2000

posted 07-20-2009 10:19 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for WAWalsh   Click Here to Email WAWalsh     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The book presents problems to me as well. It was clear that the author had problems with facts when in the first few pages of the book he credits Gene Cernan as flying on Apollo 10 and 14 and stating that the cost of the LM and CSM was $100,000 each.

That said, his use of the oral history project and other sources to pull together a broad collection of quotations from individuals involved was fascinating. Presuming that he got the quotations correct, that effort alone makes the book worth reading.

There are two facts in the book that I do not recall hearing before and wonder about them.

  1. Nelson writes that Slayton approached Armstrong during Apollo 8, told him that Aldrin would be the second man on his mission and asked him whether he wanted Haise, with Aldrin becoming CMP, or Collins, with Aldrin becoming LMP, as the third member of the crew. I keep meaning to go back to "Deke" and check to see if this account is correct, but have not yet done so.

  2. Nelson attributes Eagle landing long, in part, to the crew's failure to completely depressurize the connection to the CSM and LM resulting in a puff of air providing an added kick to the LM's velocity at undocking.

Robert Pearlman

Posts: 42981
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 07-20-2009 12:23 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Originally posted by WAWalsh:
There are two facts in the book that I do not recall hearing before and wonder about them.
If I remember correctly, "First Man" (Hansen) cites Armstrong as recounting that Slayton offered him Lovell during Apollo 8, not Haise.

And to the best of my knowledge, Apollo 11 was long due to the effect of lunar mascons, not the spacecraft separation.


Posts: 481
From: Germantown, WI USA
Registered: Jan 2004

posted 07-20-2009 01:26 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for mikej   Click Here to Email mikej     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Without endorsing any of the other "facts" attributed to Nelson, I too seemed to recall reading somewhere that tunnel pressure imparted an unexpected velocity on the LM at separation and contributed to a long landing.

It took some Googling, but I eventually found a quote from Gene Kranz in discussion on the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, after time code 102:36:21:

There were several interrelated navigation problems... The principal error induced by maneuvering of the spacecraft was, however, the incomplete vent of the tunnel propagated over one orbit after separation. We made a change in all future missions to get a MCC go-nogo on tunnel delta P before giving the crew a Go to undock. ... To my recollection, the trajectory reconstruction determined that with the exception of the tunnel venting, most of the other perturbations were essentially self canceling. Further the post mission review indicated that the delta P gauge was too gross, the markings misleading and the tunnel had to be vented earlier in the timeline and the valve left in the tunnel vent position rather than returned to off.

Robert Pearlman

Posts: 42981
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 05-28-2010 01:52 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The Space Review: Don’t know much about history: setting the record straight on Rocket Men
...even a cursory examination of Rocket Men leaves any informed student of space history wondering how such a manuscript passed muster to reach publication and why so many reviewers gave it good reviews.


Posts: 186
From: Scotland
Registered: Jun 2009

posted 06-02-2010 08:28 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for hermit   Click Here to Email hermit     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I saw it in a bookstore some months ago, spent a few minutes browsing it, saw a lot of errors and put it back on the shelf.


Posts: 729
From: South Carolina
Registered: Jul 2006

posted 06-02-2010 05:24 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for ea757grrl   Click Here to Email ea757grrl     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I found my copy in a remainder section at a chain bookstore for, oh, $5 or so. I knew the stories about the book's dubious accuracy, but couldn't resist the temptation, and it also adds to my library of diverse accounts of the Apollo program. Much of it looked familiar, and I noted the use of material from the oral histories; even without looking at the endnotes, I recognized some things. (I also noted that Nelson retold the story about USS John F. Kennedy supposedly being nixed by the White House as Apollo 11 prime recovery ship, a story I hope to someday soon finally determine the origins of.)

I read through the book, and it made me sad because it could potentially have been a really good book had it enjoyed outside expert review and cross-check prior to publication. Nelson is an able storyteller, and his style would certainly get a lay audience interested in the Apollo story. Unfortunately, there are just too many inaccuracies that should have been caught.

Like the film "The Right Stuff," which was a beautiful piece of cinema but awful when it came to the real history of the rocket pilots and the Original Seven, "Rocket Men" is storytelling executed with flourish, but falling down when it comes to accuracy.


Posts: 1031
From: New Jersey, USA
Registered: Mar 2010

posted 06-02-2010 05:51 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Fezman92   Click Here to Email Fezman92     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I have read some of it and it seems an 'ok' book for the $7 I paid for it. I am no expert on the Apollo program and that is one of the reasons why I got this book, but now after reading this topic, I am not sure how much of the book I should believe. Anyone have any advice on what Apollo books I should read?

Robert Pearlman

Posts: 42981
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 06-02-2010 06:01 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Originally posted by Fezman92:
Anyone have any advice on what Apollo books I should read?
See: Book recommendations: Apollo Program (additional advice can be posted there too, so as to leave this thread for discussion of "Rocket Men").

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