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rocket men

6 august 2009

I absolutely love books about the American space program. I was ten years old when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin hopped off the LEM onto the moon. My formative years were spent re-enacting American manned space flights with small plastic models of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft. If they survive, my old models lie undecayed in landfills somewhere, but I rescued one tiny model from the diaspora, and it's here on my desk as I type this: Apollo command and service modules, stacked atop a segment of the booster – in effect, a kind of shed – that houses the LEM, ready to zoom down to Tranquility Base.

So Craig Nelson's Rocket Men was a no-thinker addition to my armful when I passed it in the public library last week. I would have read it through no matter how exasperating it turned out to be, so perhaps my unqualified love of the book should be taken with a grain of Tang. But it's really a terrific read, and a thoughtful meditation on what happens when dreams are not just deferred but outright abandoned.

Rocket Men is part technological history, like Charles Murray & Catherine Cox's Apollo: The Race to the Moon (1989). It's part political history, like Walter McDougall's . . . the Heavens and the Earth (1985). And it's part oral history / aggregated memoir, resembling (and perhaps drawing from) books like Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kruger's Lost Moon (1994), Eugene Cernan's Last Man on the Moon (1999), and Gene Kranz's Failure is Not an Option (2000).

Most of Nelson's Rocket Men is focused tightly on Apollo 11, to the extent that the other Apollo missions, with the exception of Apollo 8, are barely mentioned at all. It's not a history of the Apollo program, but of a specific mission. Hence I was a little disappointed when Nelson took a step backward and traced the history of rocketry from Goddard and Tsiolkovsky through Wernher Von Braun and Sputnik and the Right Stuff era. Rocket Men mixes long shots and closeups with no medium shots at all. But it's all well-told, and my minimal dismay at its choices of scope didn't stop me reading for an instant.

Most valuable, and newest, in Rocket Men are the stories of the individuals most closely associated with Apollo 11. That means the astronauts (Armstrong, Aldrin, and Mike Collins) and their wives, as well as some of the key Mission Control folk like Kranz, "CapCom" Charlie Duke, and Dick Koos, the fearsome "Sim Sup" who programmed the simulator training that is credited by many with saving the mission in real life.

Nelson is in love with space and in love with science. He writes, as many of the Apollo veterans themselves write and talk, of the joy of a community enterprise untroubled by profit concerns – untroubled, in the big picture, even by the "Space Race" and the necessity to beat the Russians to the moon. Mission Control didn't know or see any Russians; the competition was all but notional to them. They just wanted to do a perfect job, and they did. Twelve men walked on the moon; another two were supposed to but had to be rescued in that remarkable feat of improvised engineering, Apollo 13.

For the next few decades, a catchphrase across America was "if they can put a man on the moon, why can't they" . . . cure cancer, get me from New York to LA in less than a day, make a breakfast pastry that holds butter securely in its private recesses, whatever. The phrase persisted until it became ruefully clear that they can't put a man on the moon anymore.

Technology is not the issue. Apollo was achieved with 1960s technology, after all. The Apollo Guidance Computer famously had 2KB of memory and a speed of about 1MHz. To put that in perspective, the piece of junk I'm typing this review on has 504MB of memory and a speed of 3GHz – in other words, my desktop computer is several thousand times more powerful than you'd need for a moon mission.

This is fascinating when you consider that my desktop can barely cope with the demands of creating these little <10K text files I write and post here. How can a machine that's slower than a Selectric be thousands of times more powerful than a moon-mission computer? Of course, NASA didn't get its computers out of a mail-order box, and Bill Gates wasn't around in 1969 to make sure that the software on those Apollo machines was loaded with pawing dogs and winking paperclips. When Houston fired up the AGC in the morning, it didn't ask them "Where do you want to go today?" They were going to the Moon, stupid.

No, the reason we can't go to the Moon today is a lack of willingness to pay for it. The nay-sayers who objected to all that money being spent on space when it could have been spent back on Earth won out; except that none of the money got spent back on Earth, either. In fact the United States has pretty much decided that it wants to spend little enough on basic parochial needs, much less on sublime universal aspirations. Meanwhile, as Nelson notes in alarm, most of the money spent on space in the 2000s is spent by the Pentagon.

Apollo was in many ways a big old can of corn, in cultural terms. Nelson isn't immune to the corn, but he doesn't ladle it on, either. Apollo was about steely, clean-cut men with their airbrushed wives, machismo mixed with Sunday-school platitudes, the Right Stuff with a dash of Mister Rogers. But for all its corn, it was shockingly utopian. In a way it's not surprising that space travel was what the command economy of the Soviet Union ultimately did best: space travel, and ballet, and Olympic pole vaulting, all the sublimely beautiful, frivolous things that generate no ROI. In a way it's surprising that the United States also did space travel so well: one almost expected Congressmen to echo Casablanca's Signor Ferrari and say, while appropriating funds for Apollo, "why, I do not know, because it cannot possibly profit me."

The book's epigraph recounts a wonderfully stirring exchange over the Fermilab particle colliders in 1969. Senator John Pastore asked physicist Robert Wilson how a new collider would contribute to national security. Not at all, Wilson answered. Not at all? Wilson replied,

It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture . . . It has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending. (ix)

Congress eventually made America less worth defending. The world's state-of-the-art supercolliders are now all on European soil. And we haven't gone anywhere near the moon since 1972.

Nelson, Craig. Rocket Men: The epic story of the first men on the moon. New York: Viking, 2009.