Craig Nelson has searched NASA history for stories of the astronauts, engineers and grunts who accomplished one of humanity's greatest feats: the first landing of men on the moon. • He may have found too many. Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, which coincides with the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, begins on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, but feels like it's not going to take off. Nelson weaves so many first-person interviews into the start of the book that its point of view keeps shifting, and the narrative just doesn't catch fire.
He goes from a NASA manager's progress notes, to a remembered exchange between Apollo 11 astronauts, to a reminiscence from a later astronaut, to a list of NASA jargon in the disjointed opening chapters. But as Nelson's subtitle points out, the moon landing is an epic story. When he decides to tell the tale himself, his book gains velocity.
For me, that happened about a third of the way through the book, when Nelson began describing Wernher von Braun, the visionary German rocket scientist who went from Nazi party member to American space pioneer. Von Braun became a public icon, writing inspiring articles on space travel and appearing on a popular Disney television program about space. Whoever said there are no second acts in American politics was forgetting von Braun.
Nelson also does a good job explaining the Cold War backdrop, and the American drive — or mania — to catch up to the Soviets' remarkable progress in launching the first satellite, first man and first woman into space.
By the time Nelson describes the actual journey to the moon, he has found his voice and the book is hard to put down. Here the snippets of interviews help him, as he gives us insight into Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they landed on the moon, and Michael Collins as he orbited around it. It is especially bittersweet to read how this great human accomplishment almost overwhelmed the humans who did it.
Rocket Men reminds us this journey was bigger than three astronauts; it was bigger than NASA; it was almost too big to grasp.
Nelson quotes Apollo communications chief Ed Fendell, who sits down in a coffee shop at the time of the moon mission and overhears two mechanics talking about it. One of them says that even though he landed at Normandy on D-day in World War II and fought all the way through France and Germany, "Yesterday was the day that I felt the proudest to be American."
Fendell recalls: "I lost it. It all of a sudden hit me as to what we had done, you know. And I just threw my money down, grabbed my paper, and walked out and got in the car and started to cry."
Curtis Krueger writes about space, criminal justice and other issues for the Times.