Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Where Is Our Apollo 8 Moment?

As I write this on election day in 2018, our country is fractured. People disagree over everything, even minutiae, and, some would say, especially minutiae. Politics has descended into a mixed marital arts fight, with each side trying to destroy the other. Truth and decency do not matter. Forgiveness and redemption seem to be lost concepts. We do not dream big anymore or live big dreams. Shame on both sides. 

Our country has been through similar times before. My mind has recently drifted back many times to 1968. I turned 11 in 1968, so it may seem odd that I actually remember those times. Then again, a friend from years back commented that I was born 35. A funny comment, but I do remember.

1968 was, by and large, an awful year. The country was tearing itself apart over the Vietnam war. Young men were being drafted and sent off to fight and some to die. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Then Robert Kennedy. There were riots in the streets at the 1968 Democrat convention in Chicago. National pride and unity seemed to be lost causes.

In the background, the Cold War was still raging. Like many of my generation, I can remember the "duck and cover" drills--as if hiding under your school desk would help. 

The hottest part of the Cold War, however, was the space race, and it was at full tilt. The U.S. had started far behind. The Soviets had launched Sputnik, the first satellite in October 1957. They followed that up with multiple firsts, including the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, in April 1961, the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963, and the first space walk, by Alexei Leonov in 1965. 

The Soviet success in space was a huge blow to national pride and also created doubts about national security. In May 1962, President Kennedy issued this call and challenge to Congress: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."

Despite being behind, the U.S. made steady progress. Alan Shepard made a suborbital flight in a Mercury space capsule in 1961. John Glenn made an orbital flight in January 1962. From 1964-1966, Project Gemini flew two-man crews on a series of missions designed to create a bridge to the Moon. Project Gemini proved that spacecraft could rendezvous and dock, which would be essential for landing on the Moon in Project Apollo.

Project Apollo was massive, involving hundreds of thousands working for NASA and civilian contractors. The Apollo spacecraft was designed for three men in the primary command module, with a separate spindly lunar module (LM) to ferry two of the men to the surface of the Moon and back. Apollo was to be proven out in a series of incremental flights, progressing from low Earth orbit to high Earth orbit, then a trip around the Moon, and finally a lunar landing.

The entire space program was dealt a severe blow in February 1967, when Apollo 1 caught fire on the pad during testing, killing astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. The fire resulted in extensive, and necessary, modifications to the command module, as well as delay.

Apollo did not fly a manned crew until Apollo 7 in October 1968, a low Earth orbit mission by Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham. Apollo 7 flew into orbit on a Saturn IB rocket, not the much larger Saturn V that would be needed to take men to the Moon.

Apollo 8 was to be another orbital mission. But the LM had fallen behind schedule and was not ready for testing. There were also rumors that the Soviets planned to fly a mission around the Moon before the end of 1968. In August 1968, NASA administrator George Low conceived the rather audacious idea of changing Apollo 8's mission to fly to the Moon in December 1968. Somewhat surprisingly, given the prior incremental plan, the NASA brass approved the change.

I'm not sure that the public understood--either at the time or in subsequent years--just how radical the Apollo 8 mission change was. First, it would be the initial manned flight using the Saturn V booster. The most recent unmanned test of that booster had significant problems. Second, the mission involved minute and precise planning that had never been done before. Third, it was only the second flight of the Apollo command module. Fourth, the trip would be made without the LM, which could have served as a "life boat," as it subsequently did on Apollo 13. Fifth, the mission would be flown with only four months training, a relatively short period, and one that was made shorter by the fact that the mission plan was being created on the fly.

Despite the many challenges and unknowns, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders agreed to go. Because of the "launch window" needed for the mission, they would, if all went according to plan, launch on December 21, and be orbiting the Moon on Christmas Eve and Christmas. That is exactly what happened.

The launch was perfect, and the power of the Saturn V astonishing. Other than a bout of space sickness by Borman, the flight was also perfect. True to the plan, Apollo 8 was orbiting the Moon on Christmas Eve, with a broadcast from the Moon planned.

Along with others in our Nation and around the globe, my family and I gathered on Christmas Eve, watching every minute of the mission we could. This was truly astonishing. In less than eight years, we had gone from a single man making a 15 minute suborbital flight to visiting another heavenly body--a place where no person had gone before. It could have been science fiction, but it was better. It was real. As part of the broadcast, the crew sent "all the people back on Earth" a message, reading from the creation story in the Book of Genesis. A recording of this remarkable broadcast is readily available. The crew returned safely to Earth.

The effect of the Apollo 8 mission was extraordinary. For at least one shining moment, the country, at least for the most part, put aside its differences and stood in awe of this remarkable achievement. "Earthrise," a photo taken by Bill Anders became one of the most memorable of all time. The sight of our shining blue planet above the Moon's cratered and lifeless surface put our small, but unique, place in the universe in perspective.

Time Magazine named the astronauts their men of the year. As of this writing, all of the astronauts are still alive, with Borman and Lovell each 90 years old. Time put together a nice retrospective on the mission a few years ago, which is well worth watching.

Nearly 50 years later, and in an equally fractious and turbulent year, I wonder if we will have our own Apollo 8 moment. It seems very far away. NASA is out of the dream business and cannot even put a man in low Earth orbit without hitching a ride on a Soviet rocket (ironically, of the same vintage as Apollo). But, for some of us, we have the memory. And, for all of us, we have the history.

If you would like to learn more about this incredible journey, I recommend Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon, by Jeffrey Kluger and Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon, by Robert Kurson. There are also some good interviews of the astronauts available on You Tube.