Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the first human-helmed lunar landing, and suffice it to say, there will be, no doubt, a great many books and television shows dedicated to this spaceflight milestone. The anniversary season kicks off on October 12th, with the release of the movie First Man. The film, based upon James R. Hansen’s officially-sanctioned Neil Armstrong biography, has already been critically well-received, and stars Oscar-nominated actor Ryan Gosling as the enigmatic Armstrong. Since the release of the movie’s trailers and preliminary viewings at two film festivals, the spaceflight community has been awash with talk about “what Neil would’ve wanted” with regard to the film. Thus far, early reviews have shown that First Man has been faithful to the book, the man, and his family.
That is not the case, however, with other books discussing Armstrong’s achievements and life. Meet Rocket Men, written by Craig Nelson, which was published around Apollo 11’s 40th anniversary. (This volume is not to be confused with the recently released book also called Rocket Men, written by Robert Kurson, which discusses Apollo 8’s mission.) According to the author’s website, this book fulfilled a need never before addressed in publishing history: “For the first time, an award-winning historian tells the full, epic story of the Space and Missile Race and its dramatic conclusion: the first moment when humankind set foot on another planet.” I guess Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon wasn’t shit then? There had been a great many fine books about the Space Race and ensuing Apollo missions published prior to this one, but I digress.
Full disclosure: I own a copy of Rocket Men, but I bought it for about a dollar at Borders many years ago, and I haven’t read it. Apparently I didn’t miss much, because the book is rife with errors that would send even the most casual space enthusiast over the edge. According to a Space Review article published shortly after the book’s release, the book was a trove of “howlers.” Writer Thomas J. Frieling detailed, “Nelson states that the X-15 was ‘aerotowed’ like a sailplane (p. 54) and that Neil Armstrong logged ‘over four thousand hours in the X-15’ (p. 53). The famous X-plane flew a total of one hundred ninety nine times with a typical flight lasting nine or ten minutes. Do the math, and the only way that claim works out is if Armstrong lived in the thing. Then there’s his assertion that the United States stationed ‘one hundred sixty Atlas ICBMs in Europe’ (p.139). In fact, no Atlas was ever deployed outside of the US.” This poor research does create an interesting opportunity though: if First Man had been done more recklessly, the whole movie would’ve consisted of Neil Armstrong just chillin’ in the X-15. The whole movie could have just been Gosling, squinting through his faceplate at the horizon, on a loop, over and over and over again.
Speaking of loops, the book also alleges that the Saturn V – which had a great success rate during its short history – was capable of some CRAZY behavior. Frieling continued, “… Nelson really reaches his apogee of mistakes with his over-the-top account of the first Saturn V launch (p. 194); where he writes: ‘Two F-1 rockets abruptly quit during liftoff, at which the stack pulled a U-turn and headed screaming back at the ground. But the guidance system righted the vehicle…’ The very next sentence goes on to describe the equally trouble-filled Apollo 5 launch in which two engines on the ‘three stage rocket died.’” I was not aware the Saturn V was able to loop around just like I loop around in my Nissan Sentra to make a turn when I miss the taco stand. Did Nelson get his account of these launches confused with the Apollo 6 launch, which did encounter problems (but still managed to be a partial success, carrying out an alternate mission)? Did he simply make this up? Who knows, only the author does. I’m a little surprised, however, the book made it past the fact-checking and editing stages without these things being addressed.
According to a July 2009 thread on collectSPACE, around the time of Rocket Men’s release, Nelson made an appearance on C-SPAN discussing his tome. A user called mdmyer recounted:
Mr. Nelson started off telling how Armstrong was shy or a recluse, even while he was an astronaut. He explained that was why other astronauts often called him the ‘Icy Commander.” [Note: Alan Shepard was actually the Icy Commander.] Then he explained how Buzz Aldrin has recently legally changed his name to Buzz and advised the people in attendance that they should not call him Eugene any more.Then he explained why the manned missions splashed down in the oceans instead of landing on the Earth. He said that NASA did not have the ability to accurately land the returning spacecraft on the Earth. As an example he asked what would happen if NASA aimed for the desert of the American southwest but instead had the spaceship land in Albuquerque. That, he explained, was why NASA used the oceans.Then he told of a launch of an X-15 rocket plane. He explained that Armstrong was piloting a B-29 with an X-15 strapped to one of its wings. He explained how one of the B-29 engines was going bad and the prop was coming loose. Armstrong told the pilot of the X-15 that he needed to drop him. The pilot reported that he was not ready but Armstrong explained that he needed to drop him anyway. Armstrong released him and then the prop fell off the B-29 and it took out two other engines. Armstrong was able to land the B-29 on the one remaining engine. The whole time he was telling this story the slide showed a B-29 and a rocket plane but it was not an X-15.Later Mr. Nelson detailed the crash of the LLTV that Armstrong was piloting. He said the LLTV was actually a prototype lunar lander and that it crashed because of wind shear.
There’s more in the thread and I’ll stop here, but damn, I hope the B-29 sequence makes it to First Man! I really want to see shirtless, chiseled Ryan Gosling in this crazy insane B-29/X-15 goulash scene, playing the Neil Armstrong
of my fantasies that Nelson envisioned.
Somehow Rocket Men has almost four stars on Amazon, and despite its glaring conceptual errors, has received “glowing reviews” – but not from people who would know the difference between a Titan II and a Saturn V. This book seemed to be marketed to a general audience who might not have much passing knowledge about spaceflight, which is why it probably was published. It’s nice to see non-experts attempting to tackle spaceflight, but sometimes they just don’t know what they don’t know. This also illuminates the problem with reviews on Amazon – you’re never sure about the reviewer on the other end.
Hopefully, in 2019, we’ll see a spate of better edited efforts with heart that will do justice to Apollo’s – and Armstrong’s – legacy.