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The question with a book like Rocket Men is not only why it contains so many errors, but also why so few reviews noticed them.

Don’t know much about history: setting the record straight on Rocket Men


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Two books covering two signal events of the twentieth century were published in the past year, books that had one thing in common: both received glowing reviews in the mainstream press as well as in the publishing and library trade press. But upon further examination by knowledgeable readers, both were found to be error-riddled failed attempts at history. The books were Rocket Men by Craig Nelson, published to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing, and Last Train from Hiroshima by Charles Pellegrino, an account of the atomic bombing that ended World War II.

That both books turned out to be fatally flawed raises serious questions about how the publishing industry vets manuscripts and, perhaps, even more seriously, raises the question of what has gone wrong with the process of book reviewing.

I’ll leave the Pellegrino book to the World War II experts, but even a cursory examination of Rocket Men leaves any informed student of space history wondering how such a manuscript passed muster to reach publication and why so many reviewers gave it good reviews.

The trouble starts on page one, where Nelson repeats the urban legend that the VAB is so big that it needs a huge air conditioning system or otherwise clouds would form inside and it would rain. That’s a great story, but it has long been debunked as a myth (see, for example, the caption on page 109 of the NASA publication Apollo Expeditions to the Moon, edited by Edgar Cortright).

Nelson really reaches his apogee of mistakes with his over-the-top account of the first Saturn V launch.

Perhaps the reader can give that one a pass, it being more of a tall tale than a misrepresentation of fact. But as one plows on through the book, the errors—both Space Geek nitpicks and major howlers alike—begin to snowball: 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.

But 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.”

There is so much wrong concentrated into these two sentences that it's hard to know where to start to untangle the mess and inaccuracy the author packs in here: First, the initial Saturn V launch was virtually flawless. Two of its F-1 engines did not quit (no F-1 engine ever failed in any Saturn V launch—65 engines launched, 65 flawless performances over thirteen Saturn V launches).

Second, no Saturn V could have made a “U-turn” in flight and come “screaming back” at the ground. If it had, the vehicle would have broken up under the aerodynamic stresses of doing a loop-de-loop.

Finally, Apollo 5 was also a perfect launch: it was a two-stage Saturn 1B launch that placed an unmanned LEM into low Earth orbit for testing. It was not, as the author states, a three-stage vehicle, on which “two of its engines died… which would have carried the craft to the moon.” In fact, Apollo 5 was intended to test the LEM in low Earth orbit, not the Moon, and it did so as planned.

What the author is tangling up here is the story of Apollo 6, the second test of the Saturn V in April 1968. On that troubled flight, the Saturn V did indeed lose two engines. But they were two J-2 engines on the second stage, not first stage F-1 engines. Even then the guidance system worked—the vehicle did not make a “U-turn” but headed successfully into orbit. The third stage J-2 engine failed to re-ignite, but even so, the CSM payload was not intended to go to the moon and was successfully recovered.

By this point in Nelson’s narrative, the accumulation of factual errors and non sequiturs (such as the nonsensical description that “the Saturn V’s F-1 engines produced a thrust that was four times the speed of sound” on page 83 or the equally confused account of the Lunar Orbit Insertion burn on page 225) has rendered nil his credibility.

But, sadly, bad books are published all the time and the field of space history is unfortunately replete with examples—For All Mankind by Harry Hurt, the notoriously inaccurate 1990 edition of the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Space, and David Reynolds’ Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon, to name just three.

The real scandal here is that so many reviewers gave unwarranted positive reviews to a book that was so fatally flawed.

When one writes a history of any subject, it is not sufficient for the author to present the reader with good prose. It is imperative that the author get the facts straight first and foremost.

In contrast, many informed reviewers posting on Amazon.com saw the book for the train wreck that it is, but that begs the question of why the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, National Public Radio, and so many others could not find an informed expert on the subject of Apollo to give the book a proper review. It is not an impossible task to do so: W. Patrick McCray, University of California, Santa Barbara, writing in the March 2010 issue of the Journal of American History does make note of the book’s numerous errors and observes that the author’s over reliance on long blocks of quotes “suggest at times that the book was not so much written as assembled.” (p. 1245–6) (Editor’s Note: Rocket Men was reviewed here last year as well, focusing less on the book’s errors than its general style.)

Some reviewers on Amazon gave the book a pass because Nelson’s writing was so well crafted. But when one writes a history of any subject, it is not sufficient for the author to present the reader with good prose. It is imperative that the author get the facts straight first and foremost, an elemental test that both Nelson and Pellegrino failed, yet their flawed books still got rave reviews.

It is not that hard in this Internet age to locate subject experts to review books. Why didn’t the mainstream press seek out the advice of, say, a James Oberg or an Andrew Chaikin to vet this book?

These are questions that should be addressed to ensure the integrity of the historical record. As Apollo recedes further into history and the number of experts who lived through the era inevitably dwindles to zero, it becomes ever more important to get the facts straight.

Perhaps the final insult to the historical record here is that Nelson’s book was recently released in a paperback edition. That edition has several minor corrections (like fixing the typo that had Apollo 8 being launched in 1948), but all the major errors and distortions remain (this in contrast to Pellegrino’s book, which was pulled off the market by publisher Henry Holt and Co. after its flaws came to light).

Book reviewers have an obligation to seek the truth and report on falsehoods, misrepresentations, and distortions of the historical record.

While it’s impossible to know just how many customers bought these books, it is a certainty that both of them will reside on library shelves for many years to come, duping unsuspecting readers and perpetuating the misinformation they contain. A check of the WorldCat database indicates that over sixteen hundred copies of Rocket Men are held by public and academic libraries (with over eight hundred twenty copies of Last Train From Hiroshima held). By space history standards, that makes Rocket Men a best seller, certainly a dubious distinction in this case.

Nearly four centuries ago, the poet John Milton, writing about Truth, said: “Let her [truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”

Book reviewers should perhaps remember Milton when they pass judgment on publications. They have an obligation to seek the truth and report on falsehoods, misrepresentations, and distortions of the historical record, a circumstance that did not happen with so many reviewers of Rocket Men.

Should Milton be living at this hour, I’d like to think he’d be out there blogging away in service of the truth. Or at least posting book reviews on Amazon.com.


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