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Rocket Men: The Story of Apollo 8 with Author Robert Kurson.

Find out more about Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon with Author Robert Kurson.



Deep Space


Robert Kurson is the author of Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon. Find out what inspired him to document the lives of Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders.

You can learn more about Robert Kurson’s novels on his website.

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[MUSIC] Welcome to T-Minus Deep Space from N2K Networks.

I'm Maria Farmazes, host of the T-Minus Space Daily Podcast.

And Deep Space includes extended interviews and bonus content for a deeper look into some of the stories that we cover on our daily program.

[MUSIC] When we think about firsts in space history, we often think of the rocket launches by Robert Goddard, or Yuri Gagarin being the first man in space.

Or of course Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's first steps on the moon.

But what about Apollo 8?

The story of the first journey for mankind away from our home planet is retold in the book Rocket Men, the daring odyssey of Apollo 8 and the astronauts who made man's first journey to the moon.

I had the incredible pleasure of speaking to author Robert Kersen about capturing the story of astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders.

[MUSIC] >> I'm Robert Kersen.

I am a Chicago based book author.

I've been a writer for about 25 years.

I've written for New York Times bestsellers.

Before going into writing, I was an attorney, but was not good at that job and did not like that job.

So that's how I kind of found my way into writing.

>> I know many lawyers, ex lawyers, who can relate to that story.

But it's a career path that a lot of people have chosen.

And then they go, no, no, thanks.

Robert, thanks so much for joining me today.

I greatly appreciate it.

And one of the reasons we reached out is your book Rocket Men, which is a book that I have had the pleasure of reading.

It's quite an amazing read, to be honest with you.

The Apollo 8 story on its own is compelling, but the way that you tell that story, it's clear how much work and love went into that.

Trying to think of where to start with my questions here because it is such a fantastic read.

I think I want to ask a little bit about the interviews that you did with the astronauts to get the story together.

Because I feel like it really informs the work in such a beautiful and unique way.

And I'd love to hear a bit about that.

>> Thank you, Maria.

For me, any story is really first and foremost about the people involved.

And even though this was, in my opinion, one of the greatest stories in the history of mankind, and I'm not trying to be overblown about it or anything, but I truly think it is.

Even then, getting to the personal stories of the people involved was really the most important thing to me.

And it was my great, great fortune that all three of the crew of Apollo 8 were living when I undertook this project and were eager to participate with me.

And even more than that, they welcomed me into their homes and families and made me feel like I was part of the story.

I mean, they took me back 50 years with them and kind of put me in the command module with them.

But not just in the command module, but in their homes.

And the opportunity to get to know them truly as human beings, even before I got to know them as astronauts.

And just as importantly, to know their families, their wives and their children, really made the story come to life for me and filled in every bit of what is, as I said, I think one of the greatest stories in our history.

That humanity is so compelling in the book.

To me, I've looked at the body of your work and so much of it focuses on these extraordinary stories.

And in the case of Rocket Men, you do find the truly human in them.

And also in their wives, the story of their wives woven throughout, not a lot of attention is paid to those relationships and how they often inform these extraordinary people.

And I really love how much you brought in the wives' experiences.

I know that they're not the stars of the show and we talk about Apollo 8 necessarily, but it informs so much of how much I personally connected with the story.

Just I can relate a lot more to the wives than I can to these extraordinary men who've been around the moon.

[LAUGH] And I just love how much color that gave the story.

I'm sorry, I'm fangirling a little bit, but I just, I found that really just amazing that you got to know them over so much time.

And that just must have been incredible.

>> Well, thanks Maria.

The interesting thing, I'm kind of embarrassed to say that when I first went into the project, I was so excited about the idea of this journey, which was really humankind's first ever journey away from home.

And our first arrival at a new world, our most ancient companion, the moon.

I was so taken with that, that I didn't really pay much attention to the idea of the wives and the children.

But as soon as I met the astronauts, not one of the three could describe the success of his mission or the success of his life without constantly referring to his wife.

And I found it fascinating early on to discover that the crew of Apollo 8 was the only Apollo crew or Gemini crew where all the marriages survived.

Because being an astronaut was very, very hard on marriages.

And yet here was this crew of three who remained, as I interviewed them, 50 years after the mission, completely in love with their wives.

And unable to describe their own success or the success of the mission without reference to the incredibly important and vital role that their wives played in supporting them, in encouraging them, in having faith in them, and in handling all the other pressures that come with being the wife of an astronaut.

And you could write books and people have about just how difficult that was and how challenging it was for the women.

>> It was unexpected when I was reading it, how much I, I didn't know what I was expecting when I was going into it.

But I've read a lot of books about various Apollo programs and missions and you get a sort of a sense of okay, it's gonna be sort of these important people at NASA and these are their travails and these are the things that they overcome.

And of course, the story includes those important points.

But as I said, I'm fangirling a little bit because your approach is so interesting to me.

It really reads like a thriller.

There's so much momentum in it.

And I just was, I know how the story goes.

We all know how the story goes, but I couldn't stop turning the page.

The sense of urgency in there really comes through.

And again, for me, I was able to, my window in was through the wives, because I can relate to them more than I can to extraordinary men like the crew.

But it was just truly amazing.

Also the context that you gave not only to each of the crews own lives, but also the historical context.

I'm jumping around a little bit here, but I wanted to say how much, I think that was a very important choice to really set 1968 and also the lead up to 1968.

And why Apollo 8, how things changed and what the urgency was.

Can you talk a little bit about how you decided to do that?


Again, when I first discovered the story, and I discovered it by accident, I was wandering around the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, which is my home.

And I was showing friends a U-boat there.

That is the exact model of a U-boat I wrote about my first book, Shadow Divers.

So I wasn't there to see anything space related.

I was there to see a submarine.

But it's very, very difficult to find your way out of this glorious museum of science and industry in Chicago.

And I took a wrong turn at you and found myself in the Henry Crown Space Center.

And there was this spacecraft.

And I looked at it and it said, this is the command module Apollo 8, which made mankind's first journey to the moon.

And that thrilled me so much.

I just couldn't believe that I'd never heard of Apollo 8.

You know, I knew about Apollo 11, like everyone in Apollo 13, because I'd watched the movie.

But I thought, if this is true, this is perhaps the best story of them all.

And I raced home and did my research.

I was so thrilled, Maria, and I couldn't get over this idea.

But as I started to get into the story, I realized that the year that this mission took place, 1968, was a character all of its own and story all its own.

And as I read further and reflected on it, I realized that one could make a very serious argument that 1968 was the single worst year in American history.

You could probably pull some Civil War years and some other war years.

But in terms of what was going on in this country, it might not have a parallel.

You had the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

You had racial strife and social strife all over the place.

There were terrible class divisions.

There were riots in the streets.

It seemed when Apollo 8 was ready to launch that nothing could bring this country together, that it was irretrievably and maybe even fatally torn apart.

And that is the backdrop for this incredible mission and not just a mission that flew on any random time in 1968, but flew in the very last days of 1968 and had as its plan to orbit the moon on Christmas Eve.

And so that alone started to make me think, "My gosh, what a backdrop to this incredibly exciting story."

As if it weren't exciting enough just on its own terms.

Here they were going to go, and probably, not probably, on the by far the most dangerous space mission of them all.

A great, great risk to these three astronauts and to the space program in general, and perhaps to our part in the space race in the Cold War.

So much was at stake, but the year and the country itself were at stake too.

And so this exciting story, this idea that sent me speeding home from the museum just kept getting layered and layered with a bigger and more dramatic foundation.

I can just imagine that moment in my head.

I can absolutely see that.

And I think it's such an interesting point that you mentioned that a lot of people don't know about Apollo 8.

It seems like a shame, and I'm especially after all this work you've done writing this incredible book, why do you think that is that Apollo 8 isn't more well known?

Well, I think that certainly Apollo 11 overshadowed it.

So I was born in 1963, so I'm too young to remember Apollo 8, but I do remember the later Apollo missions because in grade school, they would wheel in these small, black and white TVs and we would watch.

And the whole idea was you walked on the moon and you had these images of the men hopping in very low gravity.

And it was so romantic to see, and everything seemed to be about who stepped on the moon.

We all knew the names Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Yet very few people, especially kids, knew the name Mike Collins.

So it really was about setting foot on the moon.

And then later on, of course, there was such a drama in the Apollo 13 mission, followed by this very fantastic and dramatic film, that that brought Apollo 13 to wider attention.

But you have to remember that in 1968, there was no bigger story in the world than Apollo 8.

In fact, when Apollo 8 launched, Time magazine, they launched on December 21st.

At that point, Time magazine had already decided on the dissenter as its man of the year, the dissenter.

That tells you what's going on in the country.

By the time Apollo 8 splashed down six and a half days later, they had changed to the crew of Apollo 8.

That is an honor that Time magazine did not even bestow on the crew of Apollo 11.

So we knew back then what Apollo 8 meant.

But it somehow seemed to get lost in the adventure of Apollo 11 and then Apollo 13.

When I started work on the book, I kept telling myself, I might be crazy, but I think this is not just the greatest space story of them all.

I think this is one of the greatest exploration stories ever.

To me, it was Homeric in its scope.

It was an odyssey for our time.

But I kept thinking, well, maybe I just have a big imagination.

Maybe I'm blowing it out of proportion.

But then I started to watch interviews with the other Apollo astronauts, the non-Apollo 8 astronauts.

And almost to a man, they described Apollo 8 as the greatest and most daring and most important mission of them all.

And they watched interviews with Neil Armstrong, who was on the backup crew for Apollo 8.

And he confirms it.

I spoke to Mike Collins, and he confirms.

And so the risk, the danger, they were the true pioneers.

As Neil Armstrong said, everything we needed to know about going to the moon and landing on the moon was known by the time we went save for the landing itself.

But when Apollo 8 went, nobody knew anything.

It was rushed to the launch pad.

They planned this mission in four months.

It was crazy.

[MUSIC PLAYING] We'll be right back after this quick break.

[MUSIC PLAYING] Your book drives that home so well.

It's one of those things that one can understand intellectually.

But when you read it, especially as you've laid it out, it really-- it's just crazy how fast that was.

Yeah, it would take NASA normally dedicated 12 to 18 months to plan for a mission.

This was done in four months.

Frank Borman, the commander of Apollo 8, told me that, normally, it would take several months to work out a flight plan.

They were under such duress to get to the launch pad in late 1968.

And remember, this is all about beating the Soviets to the moon.

That's everything.

That's a key that will win the space race.

And it's a key to going on and winning the Cold War.

So they have to get there and they have to beat the Soviets.

So he tells me, normally, we iron out a flight plan in months.

They went into a room and in one day made the flight plan for Apollo 8.

And remember this, Maria, at this point, they're going to fly on the Saturn V.

The Saturn V rocket, the only rocket powerful enough to launch a crew into orbit and on the way to the moon.

But when Apollo 8 was on the launch pad, the Saturn V had only flown twice before, both times in unmanned tests, the second of which had failed catastrophically.

So now they're strapping three human beings who have wives and children onto this 363-foot tall rocket.

That's never flown with humans aboard.

It's only flown twice anyway, the second time from a catastrophic failure.

By the way, the Saturn V remains as you and I speak right now.

In 2024, the most powerful machine ever built.

And yet it was virtually untested.

And here they go.

And a flight plan worked out in a day and a mission worked out in just four months.

It just sounds crazy when we look back on it that they managed it, that they pulled it off, and how brave these men were.

Knowing all the risks and they did it anyway, of course they did.

They did their mission.

They did their duty.

But at the same time, like my god, it really is-- it's quite amazing.

Oh my gosh.

I have to ask the obligatory, what surprised you, question?

When you were going on your own quest to write this book, not an easy thing to tackle, this story.

I imagine there were a lot of things that during your own journey writing it that came up, you go, I didn't expect that.

Can you share anything like that with me?

Well, the part about the families and the wives really was something that was completely unexpected for me.

Shortly after meeting the astronauts, I understood that they were very nice kind gentlemen.

You couldn't meet three nicer guys than Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders.

So it made sense to me that they had wonderful wives.

And the wives were so sweet.

And although Susan Borman at the time was in an advanced stage of Alzheimer's, so I didn't get to know her, but Valerie Anders and Jim Lovell's wife were just so kind to me and so welcoming.

And that really opened up a window into how they grew up.

And that was a big part of it to me.

The other part was just how many risks NASA took in flying this mission.

I always thought that NASA was about redundancy and preparation.

And of course, they were.

But when you find out that they needed to beat the Soviets to the moon-- and they found out in the summer of 1968, the CIA gave a top secret memo to NASA indicating that the Russians were ready to go, Soviets were ready to go, at the end of 1968.

That put everything into absolute overdrive after burners to get there first.

And to do that, as we discussed, they had to compress everything.

Nothing was ready.

The simulator wasn't built yet.

They hadn't calculated trajectories.

I mean, everything that should have taken a year to a year and a half at best is compressed into four months.

Frank Borman told me that he went into a meeting to discuss the trajectories.

And everything has to be just so.

And he came out of that meeting during this four-month period.

And he went home and took out a piece of paper and wrote down the names and the ages of the trajectory specialists who were responsible for getting that spacecraft into lunar orbit.

And he calculated that the average age of these men was 24.

Everybody is young.

They're rushing.

Everything is at stake.

Another thing I didn't understand when I started, Maria, was just what this meant to NASA's future.

Because if you go back to January of 1967, we have a disaster on the launch pad.

The Apollo 1 crew is in there for a communications test.

And there is a fire.

And it costs the lives of the three astronauts.

And that very nearly ended the space program right there.

And in fact, there's a good argument to be made that Frank Borman was a key figure in rescuing the space program.

He testified before Congress and said, let's stop the witch hunt and get on with this.

We cannot just be blaming everybody and be afraid.

We must go forward.

And so NASA kind of just survived that.

But here, you have a situation where if you rush to the moon in four months instead of the usual 12 to 18, and you're doing everything for the first time, and you're flying an unproven rocket at that point, and you go up to the moon, and you get there, and you lose these three men, that very well could be the end of the American space program.

Several people pointed out, it might not just be the end of the space program.

If you have three men, family men with wives and children, who die at the moon on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, nobody will ever look at the moon or at Christmas the same way again.

There was a kind of stakes that I never dreamed of when I first rushed home from the museum, just inspired by the idea that this was the first journey ever for humans to leave home and the first for us to arrive at a new world.

So all these layers came later.

And they were all surprising to me, which is always a sign that you have a really, really good story.

It is such a gripping read.

I hope I've made that case clear enough to the listeners, but I heartily recommend this book.

I have to ask one last book question.

I hope this is not too book nerdy.

The epilogue of books, often I find intriguing what authors choose to include.

There's a lot in there.

To me, when I was reading the book, it has on its own just an epic tale.

And often when we're wrapping up the details of a story, we have to resist the temptation to just put a neat bow on things.

But reality was very complicated after Apollo 8.

And I think it was shocking to me how much it wasn't the rosy picture that one might think, if you reflect on just the Apollo 13 mission on the Heroes Welcome sort of thing.

The Apollo 8 crew did not have a universally rosy experience when they got back.

I did not know about Mormon and Carl Sagan, for example.

That's just one of the examples from your epilogue that I remember reading.

Life was very complicated.

And I just really appreciate that you included a very full picture of that in the epilogue.

Well, yeah, thank you for appreciating that.

I was shocked by that also.

Here the astronauts came home.

By the way, they were greeted as conquering heroes by most of American society.

There were ticker tape parades all over the country, including in my hometown of Chicago, where more than a million people greeted them.

And that was true in New York and Houston all over the place.

But there were pockets where they were not so welcome.

And one of those was on college campuses, where they were viewed as military men.

And they were military men.

NASA did their best to frame them as civilians rather than military.

But they were military veterans and really top flight military veterans.

And Carl Sagan, who had anti-Vietnam War views, had Mormon on campus and then kind of set him up for terrible attacks and criticism.

And so that was absolutely shocking to me, given how they were greeted by the rest of society.

And in fact, Frank Borman traveled to Russia and was greeted as a total hero.

I could totally see that.


Even though they had won the space race, and the Soviets were so, so disappointed, especially the cosmonauts, who really believed they were going to do it and beat the Americans.

Nonetheless, that was a surprising part of it for me.

The other part that I really wanted to include in the epilogue, and I think I ended with, was the relationship between the astronauts and their wives, which survived to that day.

And sadly, Frank Borman lost his wife to Alzheimer's.

And only a couple months ago, we lost Frank Borman himself.

And I had lunch with Frank maybe five or six weeks before he died out in Montana, where he lived.

And he remained as sharp and funny and curious and humble as I'd ever met him.

And one of the wonderful things about this crew was that they were such friends later in life.

They loved each other.

They could finish each other's sentences.

And I wanted to communicate that in the book also.

And that's what, you know, that they had that experience, Maria, they were the first three humans ever to look back on Earth as a whole and to see us as one.

Bill Anders took that famous Earthrise photo, which I maintain is the most important photograph ever taken.

It's us looking back on ourselves.

And they continued 50 years later and then some to remember what it meant to view us all as one, not as tribes or as divisions or separate countries or separate, even separate continents, but one tiny small jewel hanging in this infinite blackness of infinity.

And that's what I wanted to remind people that they remembered what it meant for us all to be one and to really in this completely infinite universe to only have each other.

And that's something that meant a lot to me as I put the final pages to the book. - I can tell and on a personal note, Frank and Susan's relationship to me was extremely moving.

I mean, all of those personal details throughout were moving, but Frank and Susan, just to me personally, really spoke to me and their relationship I found was just extraordinarily touching.

So I really, I just greatly appreciated you put that in there.

It humanized these lines of men who have been in my head since as long as I can remember, it really humanized them in a way that I had never experienced before.

And I greatly appreciate knowing that more human side of them.

It's just a really wonderful thing.

And you mentioned Earthrise.

And I think that that might be a great way to sort of close out our discussion.

What was it like talking to them about Earthrise?

And I mean, my goodness, to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. - It was so moving that I had to remind myself to keep paying attention and not to drift away in the beauty and the depth of their language.

And in addition to all their other nice qualities, they're wonderful thinkers and observers.

And I just heard them out.

And one of the things that surprised me was that they weren't prepared for Earthrise.

In this push to get ready and to do so much and to learn so much and to train every day, nobody ever told them to expect to see the Earthrise.

And so wait, it wasn't just the beauty of what each one said that the Earthrise meant to them, which I recorded very carefully in the book on a page.

I didn't want to use my language.

I wanted to use their language.

And I couldn't hope to do justice to anything, any one of the three of them said, it's really worth looking at that page.

But the shocking thing to me and to them was that nobody expected it.

And they were just cruising along, it was on their fourth of 10 orbits of the moon.

And all they saw before them was the grayness of the hills and the craters and the mountains of the moon, gray forever.

And then beyond that, the pitch black infinity of our universe.

And it was a black, they said, unlike any you could experience on Earth.

And that's all there was.

And they looked and they looked and all of a sudden over the horizon, they saw a splash of blue.

Blue, that's how they described it, blue.

And then an arc and then the rise and then they realized this is Earth, this is home.

And nobody told them to expect it.

Nobody told them, this is what's coming.

And they were all rushed for their cameras.

Frank Borman got the first picture, but he had a short lens and black and white film that Anders, who was the photographer for the trip, he had the long lens and the color film.

And he snapped away and captured that first experience of humans looking back on ourselves.

And they described it to me in kind of tones of wonder as if they were seeing it for the first time again.

That's how deep an impression it made on them.

So just for that one day alone that I spent with each of them talking about Earthrise, it was worth everything that I put into this book.

And even into my career. - Robert, I'm really moved hearing that.

That photo, I agree, it's the most important photo ever taken.

It's so stunning.

It just takes my breath away every time I see it, even though I've seen it countless times.

Thank you for letting me in a little bit about what that was like.

I can just only begin to imagine.

You've really taken me there.

I really appreciate your generosity and everything you've told me.

And again, what a fantastic book.

I'm just so glad to be speaking to you about it.

It's such a great read.

Robert, is there anything that you wanna share with our audience before we conclude today?

You've been such a wonderful guest. - Oh, just Maria, I wanna thank you.

This has been such a wonderful interview.

It's truly been a pleasure and a privilege for me.

And my final thought is really to keep watching space because incredible things keep happening.

We see launches all the time now.

We're pushing further.

And it's just a wonderful time to be alive, to see us continue to try to reach new places in new ways. (upbeat music) That's it for T-minus Deep Space for March 2nd, 2024.

We'd love to know what you think of this podcast.

You can email us at space@n2k.com or submit the survey in our show notes.

Your feedback ensures that we deliver the information that keeps you a step ahead in the rapidly changing space industry.

This episode was produced by Alice Carruth, mixing by Elliot Peltzman and Trey Hester, the original music and sound design by Elliot Peltzman.

Our executive producer is Jen Iben.

Our VP is Brandon Karp, and I'm Maria Varmazes.

Thanks so much for listening.

We'll see you next time. (upbeat music) (gentle music) 

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