Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon

Rate this book
The inside, lesser-known story of NASA's boldest and riskiest mission: Apollo 8, mankind's first journey to the Moon on Christmas in 1968. A riveting account of three heroic astronauts who took one of the most dangerous space flights ever, from the New York Times bestselling author of Shadow Divers.

In early 1968, the Apollo program was on shaky footing. President Kennedy's end-of-decade deadline to put a man on the Moon was in jeopardy, and the Soviets were threatening to pull ahead in the space race. By August 1968, with its back against the wall, NASA decided to scrap its usual methodical approach and shoot for the heavens. With just four months to prepare--a fraction of the normal time--the agency would send the first men in history to the Moon. In a year of historic violence and discord--the Tet offensive, the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the Chicago DNC riots--the Apollo 8 mission was the boldest test of what America could do. With a focus on astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, and their wives and children, this is a vivid, gripping, you-are-there narrative that shows anew the epic danger involved, and the singular bravery it took, for man to leave Earth for the first time--and to arrive at a new world.

384 pages, Hardcover

First published April 3, 2018

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Robert Kurson

15 books699 followers
Robert Kurson is an American author, best known for his bestselling book, "Shadow Divers," the true story of two Americans who discover a sunken World War II German U-boat and for "Crashing Through," the story of an entrepreneur who regains his eyesight after a lifetime of blindness.

Kurson began his career as an attorney, graduating from Harvard Law School and practicing real estate law. His professional writing career began at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a sports agate clerk and soon gained a full-time features writing job. In 2000, Esquire published “My Favorite Teacher,” his first magazine story, which became a finalist for a National Magazine Award. He moved from the Sun-Times to Chicago magazine, then to Esquire, where he won a National Magazine Award and was a contributing editor for years. His stories have appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications. He lives in Chicago.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
5,669 (61%)
4 stars
2,829 (30%)
3 stars
611 (6%)
2 stars
74 (<1%)
1 star
19 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,246 reviews
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,308 reviews2,191 followers
November 4, 2019
I don’t read very many nonfiction books and I haven’t listened to many audiobooks, but I’m sure that this one will remain one of my favorites in both categories. Before I listened to this book, when I thought of space missions and the moon, I thought of the moon landing and Apollo 11 - the planting of the American flag, Neil Armstrong’s comment “....one giant step for mankind.” While I remember Apollo 8, I had no idea of it’s importance in laying the groundwork for future missions. While I always thought that astronauts as a group were brave, I never really thought about their individual stories, their personalities, the affect on their families, especially their spouses, the intense training or what went into preparing for their mission. Even though I knew the efforts of NASA to prepare, plan, build, test and manage from mission control had to be enormous, I never gave it a lot of thought. I didn’t think a lot about the historical context of these space missions. All of that changed in such an impactful way for me while listening to this absolutely amazing account.

I was captivated by the intimate look that I got of the crew - Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, how they grew up and became astronauts, how they met and fell in love with their wives, how their wives were impacted by what their husbands were doing, the sacrifice of family time. The wives of these men deserve a lot of credit and are heroes in their own right. Their personal stories are moving. I was on the edge of my seat as Kurson so skillfully gave me “a sense of being there”. I was surprised that some of the technical and scientific parts were made understandable and interesting and amazed at the scope of things that went into making decisions.

The way the mission is brought into historical context is simply stunning. I hung on every word as the picture is painted of a fractured time in American history with events that I remember- the race to space with Russia, John Kennedy’s dream of landing on the moon, the Vietnam war, civil rights protests, race riots , demonstrations in Chicago, unrest in the country, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. This book doesn’t just tell us about Apollo 8, it tells the story of our nation in 1968.

I loved the Epilogue finding out what the crew did afterwards and where they were in their lives at the time of the 50th anniversary of the mission. I very much appreciated the author’s note in his own voice, how he was inspired to write this book. Kurson’s research is extensive including time spent with Borman, Lovell, Anders , people from NASA, reading a multitude of documents, watching videos and so much more. This is a story of extraordinary men and their families, an extraordinary event in history. The narration by Ray Porter is absolutely wonderful.

Thanks to my Goodreads friend and book buddy, Diane S, whose terrific review led me to this book.
Profile Image for Dem.
1,190 reviews1,131 followers
June 6, 2020
Absolutely loved this book. A meticulous, uplifting (pardon the pun) and beautifully written account of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts who made Man’s first Journey to the moon

I knew when one of my friends here at Goodreads whose reviews I respect and love reviewed and rated this book 5 stars that it was one I wanted to get my hands on sooner rather than later and was so happy to have sourced this one on Audible.

I read this along with my husband and we discussed and marvelled over the details every day and to be honest I am going to miss the suspense and drama and company of this wonderful book.

Robert Kurson tells the story of the Apollo 8 and its crew and their amazing and riveting first mission to the Moon.

This book reminded me in ways of my reaction to the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption and while both books are totally different, I wondered going into this one did I really want to read a book about Rockets and space and the moon and yet the moment I started listening to this book I was hooked, I enjoyed reading about the men and their families, the challenges that they and their families and NASA faced with this mission. What it meant to Science and the average Joe all over the world. I wasn't very familiar with the Apollo 8 and the Astronauts but obviously knew they flew a very successful mission and yet the suspense created in this account had me totally gripped and at times so anxious for these guys (although I already knew the outcome of the mission).

On finishing this book I was as proud of the Rocket men as every American must have been back on Christmas 1968.

This is my second book by this author. I also enjoyed his book Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship.

Really enjoyed the sense of time and place and the reminders of events and people mentioned in the book.
Above all I loved reading and discussing this one with my husband who is a huge fan of all things space and science and he found this an entertaining and informative read too.

The audio read by Ray Porter and Robert Kurson and was extremely easy to listen to and the narration really added to my enjoyment of this book.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,782 reviews14.2k followers
September 14, 2019
Space, planets, NASA are not usually subjects to which I gravitate .So why then did I not want this book to end, finished it ready eyes and gave it all the stars? Well for one, I'm firmly convinced this author cannot write a bad book, can make any subject interesting. It's also because though this is about Apollo 8, it is also about real men, their wives, families and our country in the tumultuous year of 1968.

Kurson includes the three astronauts backgrounds, their training, their flight, but also what they were thinking, eating, even how they had to go to the bathroom. Why NASA chose Christmas for this first flight to the moon? Their wives and their backgrounds, fears for their husbands. All the terrible events of that year and how divided our country was by the Vietnam war, and racial issues.

Kurson let's the reader in on little tidbits of interest, making for a more personal read. His writing, this story, taking and immersing the reader back into this time, these men and others at NASA who were in control central. At books end Kurson himself takes over, explaining how he became interested in this story, his research, his interviews with these three men who at the time of his writing were all still alive. This was the only crew of astronauts who all stayed married to their original spouses.

Teary eyed? You'll have to read it yourself to find out why. It's, imo, fantastic as was the narration by Ray Porter.
Profile Image for Martin.
327 reviews143 followers
October 20, 2019
Before Apollo Eleven landed on the Moon astronauts had to prove they could actually get there.
This was the record breaking mission of Apollo Eight.


The first men who;
left Earth's orbit,
flew to the Moon,
orbited the Moon,
saw the far-side,
mapped the landing site,
and returned safely to Earth.


The year 1968 was a disaster for America and the world. Dissent, revolution, the assassinations of Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the unraveling of Vietnam, the riots in Chicago - all were pulling the country apart and the Russians had planned to get to the Moon first. If this happened the Russians would remain first in all aspects of the Space Race.


Then NASA planned the impossible - launch Apollo Eight for a Lunar orbit to arrive by Christmas 1968. With only four months for planning everyone prepared to beat the Russians to the Moon.


It all began with President Kennedy
Apollo had a single goal, perhaps the greatest and most audacious ever conceived: to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy had committed the United States to achieving this goal by the end of the decade. Never had a more inspiring promise been made to the American people—or one that could be so easily verified.


This is a marvelously crafted record of not just the Apollo Eight flight, but on all the newsworthy events of 1968 that drove the astronauts to achieve their mission.

Profile Image for Libby.
594 reviews156 followers
January 26, 2020
Although I’d known about NASA’s Apollo 8 circumlunar mission, my knowledge was very very superficial. Robert Kurson takes the reader inside the mission with words that describe the incredible power and complexities of the Saturn V rocket that astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders rode to the moon on their incredible voyage in December 1968. He describes the lives of the men as they were growing up, how they came to be astronauts, their relationships with their wives, how they interacted during this spectacular mission, and their lives afterward. The narrative has a very generous scope but Kurson’s laser focus reveals the mission’s significance to the world of science and even more importantly, its role in the psyche of the troubled nation that was America in 1968.

I was eleven years old at the time of the mission and my memory evokes only that family gathered around the TV and that I knew that something important was taking place. Back then I certainly wouldn’t have understood words like “a vehicle that will generate the energy of a small atomic bomb,” or “the six-and-a-half-million pound beast broke free from its bonds." I still find the fact of something that weighed that much blasting off from a launchpad into outer space almost incomprehensible, and the fact that a loved one would have been inside the beast unimaginable. And yet, the astronauts’ wives and children watched as their beloved husbands and fathers were sent on a journey that had been planned only months before. It was an aggressive move by NASA to jump ahead of the Soviets in the space race, who had been first to launch a manmade object that orbited the earth (Sputnik), the first to do a circumlunar unmanned orbit (Luna 1) and the first to land a probe on the moon (Luna 2) and the first to take pictures of the far side of the moon (Luna 3). Apollo 8 was America’s audacious answer to this competitive race.

One of the most heartrending chapters in “Rocket Men” is Chapter 13, ‘A Deeply Troubled Year,’ in which Kurson sets this event squarely in the history of the times, which were indeed troubled. With young people deciding “don’t trust anyone over 30” and the older generation complaining about the music of the young people and their lack of respect for authority and their government, the Vietnam war raged. Riots broke out on college campuses and after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, there was violence across the country. Politics seemed polarized and when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, many people were convinced that the country had gone crazy. Kurson shows how Apollo 8 was the one bright spot showing man’s true capabilities. It was not a panacea, but still, it was a moment of intense national pride and satisfaction.

While reading, I thought of the Apple TV series, “For All Mankind” where an alternate version of history has the Soviets landing the first man on the moon in 1969. In the TV series, the Soviet accomplishment actually offers an impetus to NASA’s space exploration in which they eventually far exceed what has in reality happened. It’s an interesting viewpoint and a 'what if' we can never know as our history took its own course shaped by the events of 1968 and years prior. The most fascinating section of the book (for me) dealt with how the human perspective of our blue planet changed with the pictures that Bill Anders took of Earthrise. These men traveled 240,000 miles and found the moon a lonely and isolated world of blacks and grays, while their habitable and troubled world beckoned out the window of their spacecraft, beautiful and mysterious. An environment that has cradled man since his origin and nurtured his biology and social adaptation, a world that is too often taken for granted. Against a backdrop of infinity, there came an almost mystical vision of our total dependence on 'the good earth' and our interconnectedness on this fragile blue planet, our home.
Profile Image for Cindy Burnett (Thoughts from a Page).
575 reviews992 followers
August 1, 2020
Rocket Men is the masterfully depicted tale of the three courageous astronauts who pioneered humankinds’ first trip to the moon and the NASA engineers and other employees who made such a journey possible. 1968 was a tumultuous year in the United States with the escalation of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F Kennedy, Nixon’s election as President, and massive protests and riots happening throughout the country. Meanwhile, the Soviet/United States space race was in high gear, and it began to appear that the Soviets might send someone to orbit the moon before the U.S. could. Kurson expertly sets the stage for these astronauts’ incredible mission by alternating between the backstories of those individuals who played roles in helping Apollo 8 orbit the moon and elaborating on the cultural and political issues that were rocking the United States in 1968.

Kurson provides just enough technical details to interest the reader and effectively relay the story without bogging down the reader with information that most people would find unnecessary (and potentially boring). I was so intrigued by the process of rushing Apollo 8 into space that my poor husband was the beneficiary of an almost constant stream of facts and items that I found fascinating to the point that he finally told me he wasn’t going to have to read the book himself since I had read most of it aloud to him. While my favorite part of the book was the amazing story Kurson tells, I also found some solace in the realization that the United States has previously survived a politically contentious time period similar to the one we are currently experiencing.

Rocket Men is a powerful and life-affirming story that will resonate with anyone who reads it. It was a joy to read from beginning to end.

Listen to my podcast at https://www.thoughtsfromapage.com for fun author interviews. For more book reviews, check out my Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/thoughtsfro....
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,780 reviews1,458 followers
October 10, 2019
I went into this book with hesitation—spacecraft and rockets are not my usual cup of tea. Understanding so little about them, I feared I would either be bored stiff or totally lost, confused by technical terms that would go over my head. I was neither bored nor confused. The book is directed toward the layman and SO exciting you simply do not want to put it down. Give the book a bit of time. Don’t even consider dropping the book until December 21, 1968, and the launching of the rocket. During the Apollo 8 mission you are there in the command module with the astronauts --Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders.

I was told by friends the book was so very good because you intimately come to know the three men, their wives and families. This is true, and you do get to know them all well, but this is absolutely NOT what made the book special for me. It was being there myself in the module, seeing what they saw, experiencing what they experienced; the book put me there! Only a talented writer can pull this off. Robert Kurson pulls this off here. You need not pick yourself up and go to a movie, just sit yourself down in a chair and read the book! Except…..I am very glad to have not experienced some of the horrible things they had to go through. Armchair travel is my preferred choice of travel.

The book focuses primarily on Apollo 8, both the earlier and subsequent Apollo missions are covered too but with less depth. The earlier fill in the background and the latter gives readers information about what happened to the program the men had given their hearts and souls to. An epilog states what followed in the lives of the three astronauts and their wives after Apollo 8. Why the wives? Because in the telling we have learned the extent to which they have supported their husbands. We have come to know the values and priorities of each astronaut as well as the family dynamics of each.

So why is the focus on Apollo 8 and not Apollo 11? It was the Apollo 11 spaceflight that first put humans actually on the moon! Apollo 8 was the breakthrough mission. It was the mission that proved getting to the moon was in fact possible. It was the mission that orbited men around the moon and got them back to the earth safely. It proved that American technology was the world’s best, and it proved this during the Cold War when Russia and the U.S. were fighting for hegemony. It gave hope to a nation struggling with dissent. The Vietnam War was in full swing, the Democratic Convention in Chicago had broken out in riots and both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. The space race had started, and with Sputnik and the Russian satellite orbiting Laika around the earth, all believed Russia was in the lead. Apollo 8 proved this to be wrong.

I have drawn off a star for the extreme nationalistic and patriotic tone of the book. I do not share such views. Back in the 1960s, I was one of the dissenters. The patriotism of Frank Borman and the author’s clearly supportive attitude of such thinking is not to my liking.

The author’s note at the book’s end details the extensive research that lies behind the writing of this book. The astronauts and two of the three wives were interviewed. The author met with the third wife, but having Alzheimer’s, she could not be lengthily interviewed. Frank Borman and James Lovell, both eighty-seven years of age, and William Anders, eighty-three years of age, were fully cogent and very willing to speak with the author. Chris Kraft, ninety-one years of age, the head officer of the mission, was interviewed too. The web-based flight journal of Apollo 8 as well as other sources material are sited.

The author reads the author’s note at the book’s end. Otherwise it is Ray Porter who narrates the audiobook. Every word he speaks is clear and distinct. The pacing is perfect. He gives and absolutely excellent narration. A rating of a whopping five stars is what I have given the audiobook narration.

Yep, this was definitely worth reading, despite my hesitation.


*Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon 4 stars
*Shadow Divers 3 stars
*Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship TBR
Profile Image for Char.
1,681 reviews1,554 followers
July 3, 2019
This is an amazing story, made even more amazing by Ray Porter's excellent narration.

I can't help but feel that, much like 1968 when this tale took place, we need this kind of patriotic, inspiring story to get us through this tough time.

(And then I see something like this proposed Trump July 4th parade, and I think to myself, this is NOT what we need right now.)

Sorry to get political. These men were patriots, they were brave and they were Americans. It was a pleasure to learn more about them.

*Thanks to my public library for the free download. Libraries RULE!*
Profile Image for Kend.
1,249 reviews68 followers
January 18, 2018
How is it even possible to make a book about space that I don't love? Here are some ways:

- Continuous, unrepentant use of idioms and clichés. If you're quoting someone or deliberately reflecting the patterns of speech of your subjects (think Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff ) that's one thing. If you're reaching for the easiest phrase in the phrasebook, that's ... lazy. This was definitely not the former.

- Indistinguishable voices. Every line of this book felt uniform in tone and pattern. This doesn't ever happen in real life, and I always notice when I'm fifty or a hundred pages into a book and can't even remember which character said which line in a dialogue because they all sound identical and have done so throughout.

- Invisible research. This is ostensibly a book documenting actual things which happened. In space. And yet I was about a quarter of the way in before I found the first evidence of research (quotation marks, block quotes, footnotes, asterisks, end-note citations, lines like "in early interviews, [x] was prone to saying [y]"). And there were only a handful of moments throughout this book's hundreds of collective pages when Kurson made reference to documentation. I literally had no clue that this book was based on interviews until I read the author's note at the very end of the book. I received an early copy, so there were no appendices or indices or end matter other than that note ... so there might be more to find in future finished editions. HOWEVER. It won't ever be enough to salvage the book from its lack of internal cues throughout. And it bothers me that Kurson adopted a journalist's supposedly objective "reporting" voice for conveying the internal feelings of people who have long since died and never recorded their feelings about these events in public. And just like the dialogue, these italicized internal thoughts felt uniform. They felt like Kurson's voice. It felt like a lie every time.

- Poor Susan. Kurson was clearly interested in developing her character, and he repeatedly (REPEATEDLY) notes how much Frank loves her. And I really think there probably is something fascinating about her, but her development of Alzheimer's means that she was not able to contribute her own thoughts and feelings to this book. Which means that every line and thought attributed to her struck me as ... you guessed it ... artificial. As projections of Kurson's own thoughts and feelings.

- Telling, not showing. I honestly can't remember a single evocative image from this book. It consists of hundreds of pages of Kurson telling his readers that things happened ... without him conveying or evoking the emotion of those moments. If you're not going to saturate your book with research (or are going to base it entirely upon personal interviews conveyed anecdotally and without confirmation) and you're not going to try and impress upon your readers the experience of the moment, what's left? You're not a McCullough or a Wolfe, obviously.

If I'd had a hand in editing this book, I would have recommended trimming the summarizing waaaaay back and finding a compelling through-line. This book has no narrative heart. It's ... technically correct in many ways, but always tedious.

I read sections of this book aloud to my roomies while at a graduate course intensive. They found it reductive in its approach to women and the idioms/clichés frustrating to parse.
Profile Image for Dave.
3,106 reviews353 followers
January 25, 2018
Kurson's incredible book "Rocket Men" tells one of the greatest stories of adventure in the modern age, a story that captivated not just the nation, but the entire world. It's the story of the race to the moon. If you loved The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, you'll love this book. After the Soviets launched Sputnik, the space race had begun and, although John Kennedy set getting to the moon within ten years as a goal, it almost didn't happen. Growing up, we all knew the names of the three astronauts who actually landed on the moon, but the story of Apollo 8, the rocket that first made it to the moon is a far more incredible story, particularly given how quickly the launch came together without the usual testing.

Kurson takes on a journey with Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, to the moon and back, step by breathtaking step. You can feel the world's emotions as the countdown commences, as each rocket stage breaks off, as the astronauts disappear in the dark side of the moon, and as they re-enter the earth's atmosphere and splash into the Pacific.

It's also set appropriately in historical perspective with the Cold War space race, the war in Vietnam, the riots in the cities, and in 1968 as Dr King and Robert Kennedy were brutally cut down, taking with them so much of the hopes and dreams of the nation. It took a Christmas miracle in the form of Apollo 8 to give the country hope and optimism again.

Kurson also gives us the background history of each of these astronauts, where they grew up, how they met their wives, how they dreamed of being test pilots and eventually chosen to be the second group of astronauts, following the Gemini program.

It's amazing that this journey to the moon could be done with the simple technology of the day and the computers they had then. Yet, the scientist' calculations were spot on.

This book is do well-written and do fascinating that it was a joy to read. Thank you to Random House for providing a copy for review.
Profile Image for ☮Karen.
1,533 reviews9 followers
February 15, 2020
1968 - A blast from the past. I remember 1968 well for its many tragedies and a pervasive gloominess about the country's future outlook. What I don't remember is how the year ended with the first manned trip to the moon on Apollo 8, set to launch Christmas day. One man even told NASA they dare not launch on Christmas, because it was sure to fail, kill everyone, and ruin the holiday for the entire country from that day forward. But the flight succeeded. Succeeded in ways one couldn't imagine at the time, and for which credit is seldom given. It gave the country a blast of just what it needed at that time -- Spirit? Patriotism? Unity, I think.

Another thing I cannot remember are the names of which astronauts went with which Apollo mission. I am horrible with names. And numbers. Apollo 11 and 13 stand out but only because they are in the news so often. A thankfully brief history was given, and then on to the exciting stuff, off to orbit the moon and witness the dark side.

Some male acquaintances will find the descriptions of getting sick in a spaceship --where vomit and diarrhea become floating projectiles -- quite amusing. Well, so did I! And I enjoyed the suspense each time the spaceship came to a new phase in its journey, always with a question about whether it would function as designed, or fail. And the human faces put on the three astronauts as they made mistakes and at times struggled with their choices that put family second to career.

Narrator Ray Porter has a very nice voice and was able to make his reading sound conversational and to keep me interested even in the science parts. In the lighter moments, I could have sworn I was listening to a snarky Tom Hanks, which is the highest of compliments!
Profile Image for Howard.
1,288 reviews80 followers
May 19, 2020
5 Stars for Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon (audiobook) by Robert Kurson read by Ray Porter. This is an amazing book. I believe that the Apollo 11 story has really overshadowed this story. The author does a wonderful job of introducing us to the men who oversaw and flew this mission. He also really put the mission into perspective for the country. This is a great audiobook.
Profile Image for Rachel (TheShadesofOrange).
2,206 reviews3,213 followers
September 19, 2021
4.0 Stars
This was a thrilling piece of non fiction that recounted the first mission to the moon. I usually don't enjoy a lot of non fiction but this one honestly felt like a piece of science fiction. I highly recommend the audio version which is narrated by Ray Porter.
Profile Image for Scott.
1,798 reviews130 followers
August 20, 2018
1968 - America was not having a particularly good year. Whether it was the surprise Tet Offensive, the capture of the USS Pueblo, the riots in the streets of Chicago during the DNC, or the double-tragedy of the Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, many headline news stories were often casting a fairly bleak view for the country. But in the final weeks there was a story that, if only for a few brief moments, raised the spirits for some of the nation during the holiday season.

Kurson's Rocket Men does an exceptional job explaining just how dangerous the Apollo 8 mission was, and delves into the personalities involved - not just stalwart astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders (nicely represented as career military pilots who were also devoted sons / husbands / fathers) but their respective wives and also the background players at NASA who designed the assignment. The goal, as put forth by JFK in his brief presidency, was to land Americans on the moon before 1970. (The handful of the three-man missions prior to the legendary Apollo 11 in the summer of '69 were for research / 'dry-run' purposes and to work out the kinks of space travel.)

I think this was one of the better straightforward 20th century history books I've read in awhile.
Profile Image for Christopher.
171 reviews36 followers
March 2, 2019
Short version: Wow, what a surprise.

In 2018, the 50th anniversary year after the flight of Apollo 8, I resolved to reread the two books devoted to the subject—Robert Zimmerman's Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8, The First Manned Flight to Another World, and Jeffrey Kluger's Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon.

To space fans, Apollo 8 is probably the least celebrated of the great spaceflights of the cold war. There wasn't a book devoted to covering the flight until Zimmerman published his trailblazing book in 1998, thirty years after the fact. Amazingly, it was nearly another twenty years before Kluger's book arrived in 2017.

I was enthusiastic for Kluger’s book. He was Jim Lovell’s collaborator on Lost Moon, which later became the basis for the movie Apollo 13. Kluger is an outstanding writer, and I think his efforts on Lost Moon made it one of the best books about the Apollo program.

With Apollo 8, it seemed to me that Kluger had written the definitive book about Apollo 8. Kluger wrote elegantly and authoritatively, and he tells the story almost through the eyes of the astronauts themselves. What more needed to be said about this event?

But as we sometimes learn, a new perspective can be refreshing, even when we think the last word may have been spoken about a particular subject.

In 2018, a new book about Apollo 8 was unexpected, especially from a writer whose skills did not appear to be in aerospace. I found Rocket Men by a happy accident during a search on Amazon, and I automatically knew I needed to have it.

But I was skeptical, I’ll admit. Robert Kurson was a bestselling author, but I didn't know anything about him or the book he wrote, Shadow Divers. I’ve read a number of books of space history by authors whose scholarship was casual and dubious, and I was afraid this might be one of them.

It was with that skepticism that began reading Rocket Men. It initially did nothing to allay my fears. First, I groused about the title, which I felt was too broad and undescriptive. Rocket Men also happens to be the title of an earlier (and lesser) book about the Apollo program, so the chance of confusion was possible. What author wants to title their book after an earlier, undistinguished book about the same subject?

Adding to my skepticism was reading Kurson’s opening line to Chapter One:

As he sat on a beach in the Caribbean, a quiet engineer named George Low ran his fingers through the sand and wondered whether he should risk everything to win the Space Race and help save the world.

Kurson was losing me right from the gate. What quiet engineer contemplates saving the world? This did not seem like the behavior of George Low, one of the architects of the Apollo program. What a melodramatic way to begin a book, I kept thinking.

Kurson’s first big mistake came in describing how Apollo 8 came to be a lunar mission.

As Kluger accurately described in his book, the crew that would eventually become Apollo 8—Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders—were originally slated for a high earth orbit mission on Apollo 9. When Apollo 8 was reconfigured for a lunar mission, the crews of Apollo 8 and 9 were swapped, so Borman’s crew took Apollo 8. Apollo 9 was then scheduled for the high earth orbit mission with a test lunar module, which would not be available in time for Apollo 8’s late December schedule.

This is an important change, and all it needs is a short explanation of before and after. But Kurson’s description is brief, incomplete, and confusing. I can only imagine the quizzical look on the reader’s face when they read on page 9 that Borman is commander of Apollo 9, only to learn on page 12 he’s leading Apollo 8. The reader might naturally believe it's a typo on page 9.

Elsewhere, there are a few minor errors of fact. In one instance, Kurson describes the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 as having taken place at the Baikonur Cosmodrome—although the launch complex was not known by that name until many years later. In the 1950s it was known merely as a missile test range near Tyuratam. It’s a small error, but when I see an error like this, I always wonder what else is wrong.

A bit later, for whatever reason, Kurson chooses to translate the words ‘astronaut’ and ‘cosmonaut’ into the overly simplistic ‘star sailor’ and ‘universe sailor,’ respectively—and I began to imagine that Kurson was grasping at straws.

Still later, in a disappointingly brief single line, he says of Apollo's immediate predecessor, ‘Project Gemini, designed to perfect techniques the Apollo flights would use to land men on the Moon, opened a floodgate of progress.’ That's it? How about that Gemini’s major successes were in spacecraft rendezvous and extravehicular activity? And how about that those skillsets arguably vaulted the US space program ahead of the Soviets by that point? To understand how Apollo came to be, I think it must be said why Gemini was important in laying the groundwork.

And then came my outrage of the book. It was with a story apparently shared with Kurson by former Johnson Space Center director Christopher Kraft. In describing the reconfiguration of Apollo 8 as a lunar flight, Kurson writes, ‘Engineers hadn’t even run a trajectory analysis to account for the phases of the Moon in December, or lunar lighting at that time of the year, or the position of the Moon relative to the Earth during such a flight.’

This is misleading, because such a sentence would only have been true before the mission was reconfigured. Kraft is certainly referring to a specific point in the Apollo 8 planning, when a December mission date was contemplated but not yet committed. By the time Kurson tells this story, Slayton had already swapped Apollo 8 and 9, and Apollo 8 was designated a lunar mission with a known December window. So why would there be any question about lunar positions and trajectories? Because there wouldn't be. Kurson inserted this story too late, and it should have taken place when the change was being discussed in August.

I'll freely admit that I'm nitpicking heavily on some of this. But that's what I do with any space book. As I begin reading space history books by unfamiliar authors, my bullshit radar is always locked on. Likewise, I'm also looking for positives that set books and authors apart from others. No difference here.

Fortunately, after that, Kurson’s flaws pretty much disappeared, and he began to find his stride. My opinion about Kurson’s writing began to turn around as he described how NASA administrator James Webb reacted to the mission’s planning:

Apollo 8 was a truly audacious undertaking—it would be the first time human beings would ride on the Saturn V rocket; it would be the first time human beings left low earth orbit; and it would be the first time human beings flew toward (and around) the moon. All of these goals were extremely hazardous, and potentially catastrophic. Apollo 8 would be by far the riskiest and most complex mission of the US space program to that point.

That realization was not lost on James Webb. Upon learning from his subordinates of the proposed reconfiguration of Apollo 8 as a lunar flight, the NASA administrator notably yelled over the telephone, ‘Are you out of your mind?!’ Even so, he did not veto it. To his credit, he deferred to his colleagues and allowed the plan to proceed.

According to the history of Webb’s departure from NASA, we know two things—(1) that Webb had already been planning to resign to coincide with the close of the Johnson administration, and (2) that when Webb told President Johnson in October 1968 of his plan to resign, Johnson ordered him to resign forthwith.

Kurson suggests—and I think convincingly—that Apollo 8 influenced or simply reinforced Webb’s decision to resign. Webb was wary of the great risks involved in the mission, and he may have felt betrayed that he was kept out of the loop on decisions such as the configuration of Apollo 8 as a lunar mission.

Webb’s diminishing presence in NASA leadership is suggested in the previous Apollo 8 books, but here’s where Kurson goes further. In several stretches, Kurson shares that there was some pessimism about scheduling Apollo 8 during the Christmas season. Some newspaper op/ed pieces warned against it, and Webb apparently was quite worried that a failure of such a high-profile mission in front of the whole world would remind Americans of that tragedy each Christmas season and all but ruin the holiday for generations to come. That was potentially a very heavy burden to carry into retirement.

It’s an interesting point, and not one shared in any of the other books about this mission.

For the first time, I felt like Webb left in part because he didn’t want to bear the chance of having to mourn the loss of Apollo 8, as he had the loss of the Apollo 1 crew the year before. It probably would have crushed him.

In another interesting section, Kurson highlights that it was Frank Borman who was the key figure who trimmed the number of lunar orbits down to just ten (i.e. a mere 20 hours in lunar orbit!). Borman was not one of those starry-eyed guys like Lovell who loved being ‘in the mission.’ Borman wanted to check only the necessary boxes and get their asses home. He figured the longer they stayed away from earth, the more the chance for failure.

Borman also fought other, lesser battles as well, including his refusal to allow a TV camera on the flight (a battle which he lost).

Like all single-mission histories, Rocket Men features the requisite chapter-long bios of the crewmembers. Kurson did his homework here, as well. All of the bios include some information either not widely shared or never before. One such story is of Anders’ single-digit greeting to a Soviet bomber crew during a mid-air encounter near eastern Iceland ca. 1958. Kurson also relates stories of Lovell’s deep and abiding love for his wife and his mother. I also came away with an even fuller understanding of—and maybe even an appreciation for—Borman's tightly wound, no-nonsense personality.

Another deeply reported section—also not mentioned in the other Apollo 8 books—describes the evening before launch day. After the crew spent time with Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Anders had several guests of his own, including his childhood priest. As the visit continued, Borman—tense in the hours ahead of launch—snapped at Anders for the perceived distraction, and then apologized for his outburst.

My favorite part of the book was Kurson’s description of launch day, including the ascent of Apollo 8 to orbit. Kurson takes his time, imparting a number of interesting details. This is one of the only Apollo books I’ve read, for example, that named one of the suit specialists helping the astronauts into their pressure suits. Not long after, he even notes that the red alloy rings were for output and the blue rings were for input—not the usual stuff most Apollo books repeat ad infinitum.

From the twenty-minute mark before launch to the completion of Apollo 8’s first orbit was a full 15 pages, and not one of those pages dragged. One of my pet peeves about space books is authors' tendencies to summarize the pre-launch, launch, and post launch phases into disappointingly few pages. (If I remember correctly, Zimmerman's book summarized the Apollo 8 launch in a flimsy three pages.) Launch is one of the greatest fascinations of rocket flight, but sadly, not many writers get it right. Here, it was surprising and satisfying to finally read an author expounding upon this central subject. Kurson manages to weave many different elements into a fast-moving narrative, and gets into a good amount of detail. He emphasizes the rough ascent of the Saturn V rocket and notes several times how terrifically loud it was in the command module. And central to the Saturn V’s success was the correction of the ‘pogo problem’—a significant linear oscillation that crippled the ascent of the uncrewed Apollo 6’s Saturn V. Interestingly, Apollo 8 did in fact encounter a pogo effect in the Saturn’s second stage on its ascent to orbit, and it was not an insignificant event. Still, Borman kept his hand steady at the abort handle, and when the third stage engaged, Borman reported the problem had safely passed.

[Work in progress. To be completed.]
Profile Image for Jeff Koeppen.
561 reviews37 followers
February 11, 2019
Apollo 8 was the first time human beings traveled beyond Earth orbit and through deep space to another world - three astronauts traveled to the moon and made ten orbits before returning to the Earth. Rocket Men is a fantastic recounting of this mission and the stories of the three astronauts that pulled it off: Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders. Despite the fact that the Apollo 8 mission took place during late December 1968 and was soon overshadowed by Apollo 11’s moon landing mission in July 1969; those at NASA, including the Apollo 11 crew, talk reverentially about Apollo 8. And you will understand why when you read the book.

1968 was one of the worst years in the United States’ history, with the Viet Nam war raging, bloody DNC Chicago riots, and the assassinations of MLK and Robert Kennedy. NASA was facing increasing pressure to keep up with the Russians in the space race and meet JFK’s goal of landing a man on the moon before the decade was over. The US was lagging behind the Russians in all aspects of the space race - the Russians had put the first human in space, performed the first spacewalk, and had their eyes firmly set on the moon. Meanwhile, NASA was having issues with their massive and complicated space vehicle, the Saturn V, which was designed to carry the first astronauts to the moon. With intelligence coming back of an impending Russian mission to send cosmonauts to a lunar orbit, NASA gambled and decided to push Apollo 8 forward, despite the fact that engines malfunctioned during the unmanned Apollo 6 test flight. But after Apollo 7's successful October 1968 test flight, NASA felt confident enough to shoot for the moon in December 1968. There was a lot of hand wringing at NASA as the apex of the Apollo 8 mission would take place over Christmas and if something went wrong at the moon (or before) and the astronauts did not return, many would look at the moon differently and would remember Christmas with a heavy heart from that year forward.

Rocket Men contains a lot of biographical information about the three astronauts before and after Apollo 8, not just what they went through during the mission. The reader also gets to know their wives, which I though was pretty neat, because they went through so much while their husbands trained and flew their missions. In fact, Apollo 8 is the only NASA crew in which all the marriages remained intact.

I read this because I grew up mesmerized by the Apollo program (although I don’t really remember Apollo 8). I remember watching as much as I could of the subsequent missions, though. I visited the Apollo 8 capsule at the Chicago Museum of Science and Technology and we took a family trip to Florida in the late 90s and visited the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, and saw the Saturn V there. The Saturn V is an amazing sight, and still the most powerful machine ever made. I am nuts about all things space. But there is so much more to this book than just a space mission.

Take time to read the Sources section at the end of the book. I almost wish this would’ve been a part of the prologue as when I started reading I wondered how the author could possibly have known all of the information he included in the book. He spent several days with each of the astronauts and interviewed two of the astronauts’ wives for several hours as well (one has Alzheimer’s and could not be interviewed). He also spend days with then NASA Flight Director Chris Kraft, interviewed anyone connected with Apollo 8 still alive to get the full story, and pored over many once-secret declassified documents. The detail in the book is a testament to the amount of research carried out.

Apollo 8 is truly a great story of boldly venturing in to the unknown along the lines of other monumental quests like climbing Everest, sailing across the Atlantic for the first time, or traveling to the poles for the first time. I’m glad it was given its due in this book.
Profile Image for Jason.
172 reviews1 follower
November 18, 2017
Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 is a very compelling narrative history of the first and very risky journey of man leaving earth to orbit the moon. Kurson, like in his previous work, Shadow Divers, delves deeply into the context of a singular event, and makes the unique fit into the larger history.

With Rocket Men, the primary focus is on astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders. While appropriate attention is devoted to their three families back in Houston, events in Mission Control and a couple chapters to set the historical scene of the tumultuous 1968 in the United States, most of the text of this book takes place within the 11 x 13 sq foot space of the Apollo 8 command module. Even within that confined capsule, that traveled a quarter million miles, and with an outcome that is well known, the intensity of the flight, it's risky and aggressiveness and world historical importance are told with full impact.

The admiration the author has for the crew is clear. The respect he has for their families and ground control teams comes through well enough. He does perhaps hit on a bit too often the risks involved with the engines, and the lunar orbit insertion and extraction burns. That said, the he has written in a way that the reader can be the fourth member of the crew, understanding why events and decisions happened the way they did.

Kurson draws on great secondary sources, but the strength of this book is his access and extensive interviews of the three crew members and their families. Due to their age, this book may be the last time their full story can be told this way and so well. Each of the three astronauts, who later achieved success in the corporate world, goes to great lengths to show the love and connection they had and still have with their families and especially their spouses. As a the fifty year anniversary of this mission is approaching, reliving the important events of Apollo 8 for a new generation is very important.

As a narrative history, Rocket Men is quite enjoyable and a page turner. It is highly recommended.
Profile Image for Carly Friedman.
468 reviews100 followers
September 12, 2019
I thoroughly enjoyed this book! Kurson did an amazing job describing multiple aspects of the Apollo 8 mission. The book describes the background of the three astronauts: Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders. We also learn about how they were selected, the training and other preparation for the mission, and their wives and families. I loved the chapters that summarized the political and social environment during that time period. The description of the mission had me on the edge of my seat from takeoff to their return on earth. Kurson interviewed the astronauts and thus the level of detail is amazing.

Highly recommended! I genuinely look forward to reading more by this author.
Profile Image for Ben.
969 reviews90 followers
December 1, 2018
The story of Apollo 8, the first manned trip to and around the Moon. For example, Bill Anders took his famous Earthrise photo in orbit around the Moon. There's very little new information here, but it is a good story.

Kurson's angle seems to have been to interview each of the astronauts and their families, so we hear about their thoughts, and family and marital problems. That's fine. There are extended biographical sketches of each astronaut. The book gives a good sense of the atmosphere for the astronauts and their families. Kurson also includes short summaries of current events. Even though this is obviously just filler, to bulk the book up, I appreciated the context.

The astronaut hero worship is still tiresome. For example, Kurson says that no one else would have been willing to make the trip (because it was so dangerous!). I think millions of people would have happily volunteered. "Borman taught elite young Air Force pilots to fly for America and defend her greatness." Rah, America! Based on this book, one might wonder if anybody else worked for NASA, or if the astronauts designed and built the rockets themselves.
Profile Image for Moonkiszt.
2,160 reviews210 followers
April 20, 2022
This was a book club read for me, and I listened to it as I lived my regular life. It was amazing to compare the two, one a piece of 3 men + their waiting families and all those who had something to do in getting them up and out, and those who sustained them during their time off planet, and then the team that brings them home. . . .thousands of people holding their breath, fully expecting that this 50/50 venture might not end on the happy side. The other in the equation was just an old working girl doing the daily work gig and regular responsibilities. All the usual circumstances.

There were some amusing, and gross happenings, and I had a rather constant feeling of "so-glad-it-was-you-not-me" about this read. Space travel and astronaut life was never a high priority for me. It was for my father and brother, who watched it with all the fanship that they whipped out for their sports interests. Me? Nope. Lotta money spent for why? And I was a teen then, had a lot bigger worries than the US space program. I was never going to be an astronaut, nor did I want to be anything but earthbound my entire life. So reading about it was the next best thing. . .

It was a good read, I had itchy feelings about how manly it felt, a man writing to other men. The writing about the wives felt very 2-dimensional, like they were hardly part of the process, and only used as contrast to the astronaut being discussed. Still, glad I read it. Vicarious travel to the moon, CHECK!
Profile Image for Linden.
1,529 reviews1 follower
January 30, 2018
John F. Kennedy had promised to put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960’s and after his assassination, Lyndon Johnson supported this unlikely goal. The USA had a tremendous desire to win the space race, however, and against all odds, Apollo 8 was conceived and implemented, some said too quickly. Astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders went on the historic Christmas 1968 mission to orbit the moon, and after a terrible year of riots, carnage in Vietnam, and assassinations of two beloved leaders, some felt that Apollo 8 was the only thing that “saved 1968.” I found this book to be thoroughly researched; the author achieves an excellent balance between technical mission information and biographical background on the astronauts and their families which anyone with an interest in history, not just NASA history, should enjoy reading.
February 11, 2019
This book has been one of the most thrilling reads of my life. Kurson managed to draw me into the command module and make me feel like I was there together with Borman, Lovell and Anders. The narrative extensively treats the context of the mission in relation to the tensions that were troubling the United States in 1968. Since I was born over three decades after the events, this greatly helped in explaining the motives behind taking the gigantic risks involved with the mission. The story conveys the experience and effects of the mission on both a personal and collective level. Ultimately, I believe that this book does justice to the achievements of all the people involved in leaving our own world and reaching another for the first time in history.
Profile Image for Janine.
619 reviews12 followers
February 19, 2019
So incredible! Much like with Shadow Divers and Pirate Hunters, I became fully immersed in the world of Rocket Men. Kurson has made me interested in topics I would have otherwise ignored: deep sea diving, the Golden Age of piracy, and NASA. The writing is stunning and the Epilogue left me weeping—his Author’s Note at the end is one of my favorites ever. Now....I wish he’d pen a tale about lesser-known women :)
424 reviews
February 17, 2018
This is an excellent read and I think most with an interest in anything space will really enjoy it. For me, perhaps it's because I've read SO much about the space program, I found it it to be somewhat pedestrian. I didn't find too much here that I didn't already know something about and didn't think this telling brought that much new to the story.
Profile Image for Therese.
337 reviews16 followers
August 4, 2019
This is the amazing account of Apollo 8, its crew, their wives, key personnel and the life and times of 1968. Listening to how they pulled off this flawless mission resulting in the first men to leave this Earth and orbit the moon is nothing short of incredible.
Profile Image for Melodi.
699 reviews30 followers
June 26, 2023
Wow! This nonfiction book made me feel like I was there and in person when Apollo 8 was lifting off into space, attempting to circle the moon! Would they make it? YES! Would they return to earth unharmed? Also YES!

1968 was a chaotic year for America with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and John F. Kennedy, along with the divisive Vietnam war, our country was consistently fighting amongst ourselves. This Apollo 8 mission brought us back together!

NASA with the support of the government was in the space race to get to the moon first with Russia hot on our heels. It took NASA 4 months of planning, building and training to get Apollo 8 up into the atmosphere with what would become an epic and very successful mission.

I absolutely loved listening to the details of the astronauts lives about their backgrounds, their families and what they did after retiring as astronauts. The book was perfectly written for all of us laymen, non-astronaut peoples to understand enough of the rocket talk. There were some MAJOR risks but also HUGE rewards with this mission. They say that this should be considered the bigger win over actually landing on the moon...
Profile Image for Jessie.
87 reviews
December 10, 2020
5 stars easy. I couldn’t put it down, and when I did, I couldn’t stop thinking about it! The author does such a good job making you feel like you are there in mission control, on the ship, and at the astronauts’ homes with their families. This book covered history, politics at that time, and a personal look into the astronauts’ lives and backgrounds. I did not feel like any details were spared, yet it was never boring or dry. I somewhat follow American politics, and this year has felt like doom and gloom for our future. I did not expect this, but the book left me with a sense of hope for the upcoming years of America. As someone who doesn’t know much about history, I was surprised to learn that the 60’s, specifically 1968, was a year of similar turmoil and divisiveness that we are experiencing now. People wondered what was coming of America and if it would survive (spoiler alert: it did). I am thankful for the reminder that we have a lot to be proud of as Americans, and hopefully a lot to look forward to. I felt every emotion while reading and highly recommend to all. I wish we were ending 2020 with a Christmas mission to the moon.
Profile Image for Fer.
9 reviews
July 19, 2020
Me encantó! No sé cómo pude tardar taanto en poder terminarlo siendo un libro tan bueno! El autor te introduce perfectamente con los personajes, les otorga su espacio por igual y logras conectar de alguna u otra forma con todos. La historia en sí es digna de admirar y terminas con muchos aprendizajes.
Profile Image for Ellie 9218.
506 reviews
April 12, 2020
Read while sheltering at home during a national pandemic. I absolutely loved this beautifully written account of Apollo 8 and the three Astronauts who made Mans first Journey to the moon.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,246 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.