Rocket Men tells the story of Apollo 8 through science, history, and exploration
1960’s America was a period of massive social and political transition. The civil rights movement, Vietnam, the assassination of several national leaders, and huge cultural shifts gave those who lived through the decade a feeling that the country was coming apart at the seems. In the midst of the historic upheaval, America challenged itself to the greatest scientific undertaking in history: putting a man on the Moon. It’s easy to understate the challenge of the Space Race in an age of smartphones and artificial intelligence. But Robert Kurson’s new book, Rocket Men, tells the fascinating, long-shot story of Apollo 8, a daring mission planned in just a few months, that brought the first humans in orbit around the Moon.
By 1968, America was losing the Space Race. If the Russians reached the Moon first, it would be a blow to both national moral and national security. What Apollo 8 was undertaking was an order of magnitude more challenging than anything NASA had ever attempted. Just a year earlier, a fire in the Apollo 1 command module took the lives of 3 astronauts during a launch rehearsal. The crew of Apollo 8, Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman, all knew they were was a good chance they would not return home. It was an adventure was so improbable and awe-inspiring, its hard to believe it wasn’t fiction. But despite the odds and dangers, the men and women of the Apollo 8 mission rose to the challenge of taking one big step forward in making humans an interplanetary species.
Rocket Men tells the story of Apollo 8 and gives insight to the scientific and engineering challenges it took to send the first humans to the Moon and back. But the historical context for the science is what really sets the work apart. In the same year Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were murdered and the 1968 Democratic National Convention devolved into madness, three Americans risked their lives to give their country the scientific edge in the Space Race, and, perhaps more importantly, give their country a reason to believe in themselves again.
I had the chance to sit down the with author Robert Kurson to get his thoughts on teaching science and history together and how teachers can inspire the next generation of interplanetary explorers.
Chris Anderson: One of my favorite parts of the book was the historical context given to the science. The escalation of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and massive political unrest are all in the background as the US tries to take the lead in the space race. How do you think teachers could use this book to weave together science and history?
Robert Kurson: I think it would be compelling for teachers to note that, often, history and science are inextricably linked, though it’s not always obvious at first glance. In the case of Apollo 8, it was not just science (picking up Moon rocks or developing technologies) that pushed NASA to the Moon, but also history and current events such as JFK’s promise to the country in 1961 to land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade; and the existential implications of the Cold War and Space Race against the Soviets. Similarly, I think it’s fascinating to note that the magnificent scientific achievement of Apollo 8 profoundly impacted the American social structure in 1968, doing much to bring together a country deeply divided by the Vietnam war, distrust in government, and violence in the streets. As one telegram sent to the astronauts read: “Thanks. You saved 1968.”
Rocket Men takes off from the first page. (Photo Credit: Robert Kurson)CA: Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the Moon, was an order of magnitude more complicated than anything NASA had ever attempted. In your discussions with both the astronauts and engineers, what do you think was the biggest engineering challenge of the mission?
RK: It’s impossible to select a single engineering challenge that stood above the rest. I’d rather note the time frame in which so many technical challenges had to be overcome. Unlike other missions, which required 12-18 months of preparation, Apollo 8 had to be planned, trained for, and executed in just four months, a near-unthinkable proposition. Software had to be written, trajectories calculated, astronauts and controllers trained, simulators brought up to speed, the deep space communication network perfected, and so much more. The Saturn V rocket, the only one capable of delivering humans to the Moon, had to be made flight-worthy after just two unmanned tests (the second of which failed catastrophically). Any of these challenges was immense; to master them all in sixteen weeks still boggles the mind.
CA: All three men of the Apollo 8 mission, Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman, were all experienced pilots, but they also had advanced knowledge of science and math. What do think are the most essential skills students need to be prepared for the new era of space exploration?
RK: I think it depends on what role a person will play on a space flight. Some jobs will require more technical expertise than others. It’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be a place for those who know computers, engineering, and physics. But I also think there will be plentiful opportunity for scientists to conduct experiments in space, so there should be room for biologists, chemists, geologists, astronomers, and others. And maybe even writers and poets.
CA: How can teachers build those skills with their students?
I’ve always learned best when shown how certain skills transfer to the real world. As a student, I loved learning how science made its way into a spacecraft bound for the Moon – so much more compelling than learning facts or theory alone.
CA: So many of today’s astronauts were inspired by the Apollo program. Where do you think today’s kids could look for the same scientific and exploratory inspiration?
It’s been thrilling to watch the private space entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos push into space. Recently, Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket launched on live television. It was breathtaking to watch – a massive rocket fly into space (carrying a Tesla automobile) and two retro-rockets land themselves back on the launchpad with pinpoint accuracy. It was like watching a Hollywood science fiction film but with better special effects – and it was all real.
Suggestions for teachers:
Read the whole book: Rocket Men is really tailor-made for cross-curricular instruction. Students who are learning about modern American history and physics would get a lot from putting the science in historical context. The book is probably best read in its entirety for 11th and 12th graders, but if teachers need to make cuts, the personal relationships the astronauts have with their families, though fascinating and heartfelt, could be skipped for the sake of time. That said, reading the whole book would easily inspire students to join in the effort to explore our Solar System.
Reading part of the book: Students younger than 11th or 12th grade would have a hard time reading the entire book on their own. While the book reads more like a novel than historical nonfiction, scaffolding would be needed to support students in digesting the science and the history.
- Chapter 4: Are you out of your minds? and Chapter 6: Just four months: Reading these chapters together would give students an understanding of the colossal undertaking that was Apollo 8. There were scientific, engineering, manufacturing, and bureaucratic challenges. For kids who live in an age were you can video chat someone across the world in real time, it would give great perspective to what NASA was trying to accomplish with the mission.
- Chapter 13: A deeply troubled year: It’s hard to believe all that happened in 1968 and this chapter is particularly useful for grasping what it was like to live in America at the time. The entire book gives the historical background to the times, but this chapter lays everything out in detail. Would be a great assignment to read in history class while students address other parts of the book in science.
- Chapter 19 Earthrise and Chapter: 21 Aiming for home: From scouting useful landing sites to the complicated orbital maneuvers, Apollo 8 pioneered the technologies and methods for the subsequent manned lunar landings. The stakes were high; if mistakes of miscalculations were made, the astronauts would never again return to Earth. The biggest challenge was the Trans-Earth Injection, by which the Apollo 8 crew reentered Earth’s gravitation field. Simply reading the transcripts between Mission Control and the astronauts will get your heart pounding.