Breathing life into history is a speciality of Robert Kurson’s.
From telling the tale of the two Americans who discovered a World War II German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey (“Shadow Divers”) to the reads-like-a-thriller true life story of two men risking fame and fortune in a quest to find the wreck of the 17th-century pirate ship Golden Fleece (“Pirate Hunters”), Kurson never allows his exhaustive research to get in the way of the story, crafting remarkable nonfiction adventures that put readers at the center of the action.
The veteran author’s newest offering does that and more. Not only are readers at the center of the story, but at what feels like the center of the universe as Kurson narrates the journey of man’s first trip to the moon.
Crafted from interviews with those who were there and deep research of the space program itself, “Rocket Men: The daring odyssey of Apollo 8 and the astronauts who made man’s first journey to the moon” (Random House), not only fulfills the mission of achieving the full story of Apollo 8, but the stories behind that story — of the wives and children, lives and careers, sacrifices and scares, politics and panic that built America’s bridge to the moon.
Kurson recently agreed to answer a few questions about “Rocket Men” for Mountain Times. His answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Tom: With so many stories about Earth’s undiscovered world, the oceans and two successful works centered on a pair of those discoveries, what caught your interest enough to turn from the sea to space?
Robert: The idea I love about the sea is that so much of it remains unexplored and undiscovered, and I’ve long been fascinated by those rare individuals who are willing to risk the dangers of the deep in order to find the ships and souls who’ve disappeared from the surface world. It seemed only natural, then, to look skyward to that other great unexplored ocean, outer space. I’ve loved astronauts and NASA since I was a kid, but my greatest revelation came in learning the story of Apollo 8, which is the first time mankind ever left its home planet, and the first time mankind ever arrived at a new world (the Moon). When I realized how undertold this story was, and what a daring and historic and dangerous and miraculous journey Apollo 8 made, I felt like I’d found a story I’d been searching for my entire life.
Tom: You had remarkable access to those personally involved in Apollo 8. Would you talk about how that came about, and, although you go into detail in the book, your research for “Rocket Men?”
Robert: I got two lucky breaks when I first set out to write “Rocket Men.” The first is that Jim Lovell, one of the Apollo 8 crew (and later the commander of Apollo 13) lives just about 15 minutes from me. The second is that he was a fan of my first book, “Shadow Divers.” That helped give me in-person access to him, and I found him to be a prince of a guy. Soon after, he introduced me to his Apollo 8 crewmates, Frank Borman and Bill Anders, each of whom was every bit the insightful, kind and accommodating gentleman Lovell was. From there, I spent a lot of time in person with the astronauts, as well as immersing myself in mountains of books, NASA papers and other documents. I also interviewed several other Apollo astronauts and NASA personnel, as well as various experts and historians on space travel and the space program. Almost every moment of it was thrilling for me — I just kept thinking, “After millions of years of human longing, this is how we finally reached the Moon.”
Tom: What things you uncovered in that research surprised you?
Robert: Apollo 8 was rushed to the launchpad in just four months, not the usual 12-18 months NASA usually required for its missions. Doing that entailed enormous risk and embrace of the unknown — The dangers were incredible! — but NASA did it for two basic reasons: first, to help keep President Kennedy’s promise to the nation, made in 1961, that the United States would land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade; and second, to beat the Soviet Union in the race to get the first men to the Moon. Even today, many of the remaining Apollo astronauts will tell you that Apollo 8 was among the most daring and dangerous missions ever run by NASA — and they’re right!
Tom: Of all the stories you tell about astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and their families, did one resonant more than the others with you?
Robert: The thing that has stayed with me the most is the devotion and love each of the men had — and continues to have — to his wife. Apollo 8 was the only crew from the Gemini or Apollo program in which all the marriages survived (being an astronaut was notoriously difficult on family life). Borman and Lovell married their childhood sweethearts, while Anders didn’t meet his wife until the ripe old age of about 18. Each of the men spent hours telling me how important his wife was to his life and his mission — then and now — but, in ways they didn’t need to say a word. I spent time with each man in the company of his wife and I could see it and feel it every time.
Tom: This year will be the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8. What parallels do you see between the climate of today’s space program and that of Apollo 8’s 1968 mission?
Robert: Much of the excitement in today’s space program comes from the private sector. Watching SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket carry a payload into space — and then its two side boosters landing themselves perfectly on twin pads back on Earth — was a good reminder of what it feels like to watch something happen for the first time, something that once seemed like science fiction. The same feeling — amplified a hundredfold — occurred for millions of people who watched the launch of Apollo 8 in 1968. That time, it wasn’t just a test launch to prove technology — it was a real mission with three human beings aboard going to a place no human had ever gone — the Moon. I don’t know if there will ever be another moment like the launch of Apollo 8.
Tom: Beyond the space program, you make a strong argument that Apollo 8 “saved 1968” in terms of generating a common hope and pride throughout America that countered a year of violence, conflict and partisanship. What comment does that make about the cultural and political climate of 2018?
Robert: The parallels between 1968 and 2018 are stark and real. Then and now, the nation seemed hopelessly divided along political lines, between age groups, by geography, even within families. Large swaths of the population openly distrusted each other, citizens questioned the patriotism of other citizens, trust in government shrunk to frightening levels. One big difference is that 1968 had Apollo 8, which brought the country together in the final week of that terrible year. And, I think that’s good news for America in 2018 – knowing it’s possible that there might emerge heroes, and a heroic event, that can unite us all, even if we don’t yet know the names of those heroes or the details of how they’ll arrive.