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Books / Media, Technology

Rocket Men, An Out of This World Listen

I just finished listening to “Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon”.

Written by Craig Nelson and read by Richard McGonagle the audible.com edition was published just in time for the 40th anniversary of our first moon landing. It is by far my favorite audible book of the many I’ve “read”.

Rocket Men

The book contains massive amounts of detailed behind-the-scenes information about the manned space program; its history, politics, science and engineering. We get detailed oral accounts in the astronauts’ and mission controllers’ own words. The narrative takes us into the spacecraft on the journey to the moon and the descent to the lunar surface.

To put everything into context, critical design decisions are described by the managers involved. For example, how do you decide the quality level required of the suppliers who will deliver the (literally) millions of parts that made up the spacecraft? Even with a 99.9% quality requirement there would still be thousands of parts expected to fail on the mission itself.

During the actual mission the narrative makes you feel like you are sitting with the astronauts, inside Columbia and then the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) as Armstrong and Aldrin descend to the moon’s surface; while Collins orbits the moon waiting their return. Because they missed the intended landing zone by about 20 miles Armstrong had to take over manual control of the landing and finally put it down with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining.

Starting with the end of WWII and the ‘recruitment’ of German rocket scientists by the USA and Russia, the book follows the development of the US and Russian space programs and how they symbolically ‘fought‘ many battles during the Cold War.

The book finishes with an account of NASA after-the-manned-missions. How the public became blase (at best) about manned spaceflight and NASA lost its way without the tremendous focus of the lunar program. It presages the threat that the US is on the way to losing our leadership position in science and engineering as we move into the 21st Century.

One haunting image painted by Nelson is the possibility of a Chinese or Indian team of astronauts returning to Tranquility Base, taking down the American Flag and putting up their own national flag.

Some final notes.

  • This book is a fantastic listen partly because of the subject matter and partly because Richard McGonagle does an outstanding reading. Therefore I highly recommend the audible.com version of the book over the printed or Kindle edition.
  • If you did engineering work during the time frame of the book you will enjoy it even more than the average reader, because it will remind you of what the field was like then, as compared to now.
  • If you’ve ever used a slide-rule, programmed in Fortran or were awestruck with the first hand-held electronic calculator, then you must listen to this book.


Go forth and Multitask!




  1. Pingback: Two Great India Reads « Not A Mystery - September 22, 2009

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