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The 'Rocket Men' of Apollo 8


Nineteen-sixty-eight was a turbulent year for America, as highlighted in Robert Kurson's book "Rocket Men". The Tet Offensive, the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, violent riots, and Richard Nixon winning the presidency - a huge chunk of important American history events all bottled into one, traumatic year. And amid all of the unrest was a little government agency named NASA, toiling away on a risky Christmas present to bookend the year - Apollo 8.

I love how Kurson takes us through the swift decision making that led to the radical change in Apollo 8's planned trajectory, no longer would this be a test mission in low Earth orbit - it was going all the way to the moon. And if you have ever been involved with government decision making you know the usual process is anything but "swift". But 1968 was a different time, with different enemies and competition. Kurson lays the ground work for the decision by discussing the fear of a Russian lunar mission in early December - a time when the orbital mechanics would line up. And he continues by describing the explosive decision to send Apollo 8 all the way to lunar orbit, made just months before launch.

There is a lot of publicity surrounding the first lunar landing, Apollo 11, but in my opinion Apollo 8 was the most dangerous and envelope-pushing mission of the program. There were so many unknowns and so many firsts and so many edge-of-the-seat moments. Apollo 8 was the first manned mission launched with the three stage Saturn V rocket, the first time humans traveled beyond low Earth orbit and entered the gravity pull of another celestial body. The crew were the first humans to see the far side of the moon and enter lunar orbit, the first humans to see the whole Earth at once, the first to pass through the Van Allen radiation belts. All of their technology - designed and built to keep them safe in deep space - had never actually been tested there; most notably the singular engine that would burn to slow them down, into orbit around the moon, and which would also burn to send them back towards Earth. Even the heat shield, designed to protect the spacecraft and her occupants during reentry, had never been tested at the entry speed Apollo 8 would be travelling at. The risk and unknowns and fortitude and courage this mission entailed is absolutely mind boggling.

Similar Apollo story tellers sometimes come off as aloof, too technical and dull. But Kurson is able to tell this physically far-away story in an incredibly down-to-Earth fashion. His words span the generations since the event and resonate even with those of us who weren't around when Saturn V launches were on the manifest. His ability to intertwine the technical specifications of an extremely complicated mission with the simplicity of human relationship and interactions and family dynamics brings this story to a wider audience - even those who may not be self-proclaimed space nerds. 


Yesterday I had a few minutes between meetings and was hoping to check in on the Apollo Flight Control Room renovation progress, but the room and viewing room are closed right now. So, I took a stroll down to one of our alternate control rooms - currently used for simulations. I tried to imagine for a second the culture that existed here back in 1968 - a group of engineers and test pilots scared of the Russians reaching the moon first - scared enough to send 3 men a quarter of a million miles away, on Christmas, with unproven hardware and deep space unknowns. The mission was most definitely outside the box from the very inception. These halls I had walked through would have been filled with young men and the smoke from their cigarettes - their wives and children probably frustrated they were working so many long hours during the holidays. I'm sure there was food - as there always is near the holidays in mission control. Maybe sugar cookies in the gumdrop shape of the command module, who knows. 

These men saw the Earth, whole, for the first time with human eyes. They gave us the famous "Earthrise" photo and inspired 'Earth day' to be named in 1970. I love this quote from Anders, "We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth." And beyond all the technical achievements and political polish, the crew, the mission, and NASA were credited with "saving 1968". 

From left: Anders, Borman and Lovell, photographed on Oct. 6, 2018 at the Chicago museum where their Apollo 8 spacecraft is displayed
. Picture from Time.
Thank you Robert Kurson for you dedication in retelling a story that is often eclipsed by it's Apollo 11 big brother!

"And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas - and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth."

Merry Christmas blog readers <3

Comments

  1. I will never ever forget Apollo 8. I was 11 and I was in the car at liftoff. I watched every minute I could on TV and when I heard them read Genesis as they circled the moon I was awe struck. Thanks for the awesome memory.

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