This was an awful title for a book about Apollo 8 – because there's a 2010 book Rocket Men that's about Apollo 11 and also tells the Apollo 8 story. And I just read another book on Apollo 8 called Apollo 8, so I thought the notices I was getting for the new Rocket Men about Apollo 8 were mistakes.
But of course I bought it. And read it in less than 24 hours.
The bad thing about Kindle, and to a lesser extent Audible, is that every book looks alike, so I have no memory any longer which book said what. I don't think I liked this book more than Jeffrey Kluger's which I listened to a few months ago (I think – I'm not even sure any more) or the relevant parts of the other Rocket Men – which tells this story as well and which I think I listened to again not long ago, or Chaikin's A Man on the Moon which also tells it. Or the relevant episode of From the Earth to the Moon.
I certainly didn't read anything I didn't like or didn't think was well-done, and I do think I read things I hadn't seen before. But I'd be hard-pressed to tell anyone what the best telling of Apollo 8 is.
The one thing that this book did impress on me – which others had as well, but perhaps it did tell it better – was what an enormous gamble Apollo 8 was, in a desperate attempt to get to the moon before an expected early December 1968 mission by the Soviet Union. Russia had a similarly not completely tested rocket and capsule, and decided against risking a two cosmonaut crew on a translunar mission which would have beat Apollo 8 by a couple of weeks. The author indicates that the historical record supports the conclusion that the USSR did not launch because it couldn't believe Apollo 8 actually would. And for various reason it nearly didn't.
The reason why a failure was particularly horrible to contemplate is something both NASA's director and its commander Frank Borman's wife contemplated. Had it failed, the most likely outcome would have been that on Christmas Day 1968 the nation would have learned that three American astronauts were marooned beyond any hope of rescue in their spacecraft orbiting the Moon. For the next several days the world would have looked up knowing they were there, gradually running out of oxygen, and after they died, the Moon would have been the place their corpses orbited around indefinitely, until their orbit decayed and their CSM crashed onto the surface. And every Christmas Day would have reminded us. Neither the Apollo 1 fire nor the space shuttle disasters – one at launch and one at reentry – would have left such a mark on mankind. Not even 9/11, with its far greater loss of life, left a mark like that. And it would have been precisely because NASA gambled that it could get a mission – unprecedented in so many ways – ready in four months, instead of a year.
Instead, it was Apollo 8 that allowed NASA to absorb the delays in development of the lunar module that were pushing it beyond its 1969 deadline and to fend off a Soviet program that was almost ready to send cosmonauts around the moon and claim victory in the space race. Because while we today see the landing of men on the moon as the actual victory, a successful circumlunar flight by the USSR instead of the US might have resulted in the issue being perceived as at best a tie, and at worst caused the US to dispense with a landing program either at all, or at least one that would have gotten there before the Soviets. History shows that enthusiasm for the program waned quickly after the first landings. Perhaps it would have done so once the Soviets got there.
Anyway, that's why I keep reading anything I can find on the Apollo program. It's patriotism and human achievement rolled into one.