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“Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon” by Robert Kurson, Random House, 372 pages, $28.

Robert Kurson is a writer with the ability to use historical facts to build a suspenseful narrative. His first book, “Shadow Divers,” the 2005 nonfiction Book of the Year, remains one of this reviewer’s all-time favorites.

His newest effort, “Rocket Men” celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 Christmas voyage around the moon by astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, which made Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first step upon the moon’s surface possible.

Unquestionably the trip was a calculated risk by NASA, enabling the U.S. to leapfrog a Russian space program poised to reach the moon first. Using an untested Saturn V rocket which had failed in a previous unmanned test, the director of flight operations at NASA estimated the mission’s odds of success as 50-50.

The book will bring long-deserved attention to a mission that has been overshadowed by the later Apollo 11 moon landing and by the aborted Apollo 13 flight documented in Ron Howard’s popular movie in which Tom Hanks played Jim Lovell. The Apollo 8 mission was the riskiest of those three missions since no men previously had been able to leave Earth’s gravitational pull.

Readers discouraged by our present contentious society need to read Kurson’s chapter summarizing the tumultuous events of 1968. He makes a valid point that Apollo 8’s success not only salvaged the space program but also managed to relieve the pessimism regarding the future into which the country had plunged.

After reading Kurson’s author’s notes, the reader cannot miss the admiration he feels toward his three subjects, all of whom have survived into their 80s and 90s. Their humility, resolve and ability to willingly accept death as a necessary part of their chosen occupations are refreshing when contrasted with many of today’s newsmakers.

The reader will be comforted to find that these men have all lived long and successful lives following their historic mission and that their character traits should not be considered unique among our fellow citizens.

J. Kemper Campbell M.D. is a retired Lincoln ophthalmologist who recalls 1968 as clearly as yesterday.


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