Rocket Men

Rocket Men by Craig Nelson, true to its subtitle is, “The epic story of the first men on the moon.” This is one of the most well written books, cover to cover, I have read in quite some time. With so much data and historical time line to communicate, Nelson could have easily turned an epic story into a wade through slow drying concrete as many historical writers are prone to do. In Rocket Men, Nelson has truly captured the epic nature of Apollo 11 and reflected the pure genre of history in communicating the event in a very human story.

The book is a great documentation of the Apollo 11 mission. For those who enjoy techie Nelson provides a steady diet of stats and NASA acronyms. Yet the tech is not cumbersome nor detached. Nelson feeds the techie craving in such a way that it helps immerse even the novice tech reader into the moment. I now know who CAPCOM is and that try as I may, my Altima will never reach escape velocity. Nelson’s method of immersing the reader into the distant planet of NASA is what makes the book unique. The reader is not merely pealing through a manual, but hearing conversations, watching events, and feeling the various tensions between the people involved. History is not about events, history is about humans. Humans are inspiring and awful. Apollo 11 was birthed from the same cloth of humanity. We went to the moon out of fear of the Russians, but it was this fear that called for us to unleash our new generation of explorers. Our greatest rocket scientists were Nazis. Some of the science of NASA was born in the slavery of concentration camps. Yet landing on the moon made the whole world proud. Inspiring and awful seems to be our own cocoon of human atmosphere, an atmosphere we cannot escape with any measure of velocity. Nelson was honest about this journey. I was surprised by this part of the story. Even at this moment I am not sure what to make of it.

It has taken forty years to answer the question, “What does it feel like to go to the moon?” Nelson has unearthed what journalists in 1969 so desperately wanted to know but the astronauts could not find the words to answer. “How do you feel?” The lingo of engineers does not allow for one to communicate the subtleties of human sensation and emotion. This unemotional techie jargon annoyed the journalists. The journalists in their inconsiderate prying annoyed the astronauts and their families. To quell the symbiotic frustration Life magazine became the envoy between humans and astronauts. By documenting the families' recollections Nelson reveals that the world Life magazine printed was a fabrication. The astronauts were perceived as super human, perfect fathers, model men. They were superb in their accomplishments, but they were not super. Their families suffered for space. The cost of going to the moon was in the billions for the American taxpayer. The price of going to the moon for those involved was estranged children, privately suffering women, and strained marriages. Going to the moon is a precarious risk of life. Returning from the moon is a precarious risk of family. Apollo 11 made a difference in the world, but for the astronauts and their families it made a once familiar world different, almost alien. They were smothered by popularity, Buzz Aldrin was plagued by the demon of being second, and none of them were able to adequately answer the question, “What now?” Rocket Men is not simply an astronaut story, but a portal. The reader is able to get some sense of what it may be like for your dad, your husband, or if you were able to get a seat on a rocket, for you to go to the moon.

The final 20 or so pages were sermonic for me. As a preacher I always want to know, what’s the point? The closing essay is an issued challenge. It is inspiring and introspective. What is my dream? What am I working desperately to do with my life, or am I hopelessly complacent? Am I willing to overcome the human instinct to quit? What are we doing as a nation? Will we go back to the moon, or will we go further? If we go, what impact will that event have on me, my family and the way I view the world, my faith, and the universe as a whole? Apollo 11 was a worldview in a rocket.

In telling the story of Apollo 11 Nelson revealed to me that I am bored. I am bored with athletes, actors, and classless morons being our most inspiring voices. People can do truly great things that cannot be measured in statistics. There are great things happening in this world that are not reported on the talking head media, ESPN, or E. I am bored with a world that makes the words “entertaining” and “great” synonymous. I am ready for someone to do something truly great. I would like to be involved in something great. My generation craves great but cannot stomach the sacrifice. Apollo 11 was birthed in the circumstances of an odd world in an odd time. As a result men went to the moon. Right now the world is weird. We are ripe for something great.


Craig Nelson said…
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Craig Nelson said…
Brian, I'm so humbled by your praise. Your essay is everything that any writer hopes to hear. Thank you so much. -Craig Nelson

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