“Are you out of your mind?” he yelled into the phone. “You’re putting the agency and the whole program at risk!” The ‘he’ above would be NASA Administrator James E. Webb. On the receiving end of his tirade were his deputy at NASA, Thomas Paine, and the director of the Apollo Manned Lunar Landing Program, Air Force General Samuel Phillips. Webb indignantly listed all the reasons why they shouldn’t even consider the plan that Paine and Phillips had just outlined for him, but the one thing he didn’t say was, “NO!” The next day, Webb called them back from the conference he was attending in Vienna and reiterated all the reasons why he should say no, but he also could not deny the potential of the risky mission he was being asked to green light. Webb finally agreed, but under the proviso that he would not sign off on the proposed Apollo 8 mission until the successful completion of the Apollo 7 mission slated for September of 1968. Thus began an extraordinary journey that no one inside or outside of NASA could have envisioned only a few weeks before. Not even the Russians would take the mission seriously until it happened.
In his newest book ROCKET MEN – The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon (Random House 2018), author Robert Kurson takes us behind the scenes of the Apollo 8 mission. In ROCKET MEN, he tells the tale of the men who planned, executed and flew this mission. Kurson digs much deeper than the Life Magazine features that the astronauts were paid to be profiled in during the heyday of the 1960’s NASA manned space program. The Life pieces were heavy on the “All-American family men/heroes” stories with little subtext about what was really happening in President John F. Kennedy’s program to reach the Moon before the end of the 1960s decade. Kurson covers the inception of the program and parallels the story with what it meant to the astronauts and their families. The first Moon landing by Apollo 11 and the nearly fatal disaster of Apollo 13 may be the flights remembered by the general public, but those inside the lunar program family bluntly state that NASA’s most daring and trail blazing mission was Apollo 8.
The typical NASA mission profile involved testing, training, analysis of the testing and training data followed by more of the same. The training schedule for any one mission was usually a year and a half and the Apollo program to send men to the Moon was to follow a similar arc once flights began. Unfortunately, a full dress rehearsal of the Apollo 1 spacecraft resulted in a tragic fire that swept through the capsule, taking the lives of the first Apollo crew (Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee). Fellow astronaut Frank Borman was asked to head the investigative team that was charged with taking apart the stricken Apollo 1 capsule piece by piece to get to the root of the problem. By the time Borman gave his testimony to Congress, it was clear that from the top down that NASA had been infected with ‘Go Fever’. In their narrow focus to reach Kennedy’s goal of landing on the Moon by the end of the decade, they had ignored warning signs and settled for substandard hardware in their new space ship. The NBC evening news summarized the report saying. “There’s reason to believe that establishing a deadline of 1970 for the Moon flight contributed to their deaths.”
Borman’s pitbull like determination to get things right was illustrated shortly after the Apollo 1 accident when Ed White’s widow Pat informed Borman that a higher up at NASA had overruled Ed’s wishes to be buried at West Point in favor of having all three astronauts laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Borman considered Ed White the brother he never had and his wife Susan was Pat White’s best friend. Borman called the entrenched administrator and told him in no uncertain terms that Ed White would be buried at West Point and Borman was prepared to take the issue all the way to President Johnson if he had to. Ed White was buried according to his last wishes and Borman had demonstrated why he was the best man to head the investigation of the Apollo 1 tragedy. When Borman appeared before Congress to answer questions about the final accident report in April of 1967, his testimony was instrumental in saving the Apollo Moon Program from the dustbin of history.
The investigation showed that the Apollo 1 capsule was filled with materials that in hindsight made no sense in a spacecraft pressurized with a pure oxygen environment. The toxic gases generated by the flash fire sparked by a frayed wire killed the astronauts before they could get the hatch open. The hatch had been designed to open inward making it an impossible task when the interior pressure of the capsule rose dramatically during the fire. The findings spurred Borman to become intimately involved in the redesign of the new Apollo spacecraft. By November of 1967, testing of the new capsule and the new Saturn V rocket resumed with the unmanned flight designated Apollo 4 (the Apollo 2 and 3 designations were skipped over when the program was reorganized). Similar test flights followed with Apollo 5 in January of 1968 and Apollo 6 in April. Apollos 4 and 5 were both classified “successful” but Apollo 6 displayed several problems that could prove to be show stoppers.
First, the entire rocket began to “pogo”. The whole rocket stack was shaking violently forward and backward while it accelerated toward the point in the flight where the first stage would be jettisoned and the second stage would continue driving the rocket toward orbit. Despite the pogoing, the rocket limped into orbit. More significantly, the third stage that would be used to eventually boost the rocket from Earth orbit toward the Moon failed to relight. Apollo 6 was supposed to push the capsule to a higher orbit so NASA could test the high speed reentry that redesigned capsule would endure returning from the Moon. This, of course, could not happen when the third stage engine failed to reignite, thus preventing the capsule from obtaining a high enough orbit to test the high speed reentry profile. Kennedy’s end of the decade Moon shot would not happen unless these problems were fixed by the Apollo 7 test flight scheduled for September of 1968.
As the Apollo program struggled along, the Soviet space program was telegraphing its own intentions. Having already taken the early lead in the Space Race by launching the first satellite, the first manned flight, and the first woman astronaut, the Soviets watched the rapid development of the US manned program with some trepidation. They intensified their work with their own plans to send men to orbit the Moon, not wanting to cede their lead in the Space Race. Their Zond probes with biological samples (like turtles and fruit flies) as passengers were tracked in orbits that took them within a thousand miles of the Moon. Zond 5 surprised everyone when it seemed to be sending voice messages from cosmonauts on board, but in reality, they were ground transmissions being relayed from the Earth to “test the communications network on the capsule” as Roscosmos explained it. It became clear that the USSR was planning its own manned lunar mission by the end of 1968.
In early August of 1968, NASA engineer George Low was on vacation in the Caribbean. As he sat on the beach, the man in charge of making sure the Apollo spacecraft would be flightworthy,
pondered how the agency was going to get past a host of problems that were hobbling NASA’s timeline to get to the Moon before the Russians. NASA’s schedule planned to test the Command and Service Modules (CSM) in low Earth orbit (Apollo 7) and then the full CSM and Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) pairing in low and high Earth orbits (Apollo 8 and 9). By mid 1969, Apollo 10 would practice the entire flight including a partial descent to the lunar surface by the LEM without an actual landing and the subsequent rendezvous and docking of the CSM and LEM in lunar orbit. If all went according to plan, this left the last half of 1969 for Apollo 11 to perform the actual lunar landing mission. Low knew what the Russians were up to and he had a radical idea of how to keep them from beating the United States to the Moon. Low shared his beach revelations quietly to a chosen few when he got back. He made it clear that this would be discussed on a ‘need to know basis only’ before it was taken up the chain of command to NASA Director Webb.
Five days after he returned from his vacation, Low had Deke Slayton (the former Mercury astronaut who now selected the flight crews) summon Frank Borman to Houston for a meeting. Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were in California helping test systems in the new Apollo capsule. The process had become Borman’s baby in the wake of the Apollo 1 fire and he was irritated that this important work was being interrupted by an unscheduled trip back to Houston. The trio were the primary crew assigned to Apollo 9 and were behind schedule. Borman couldn’t fathom what could be important enough to pull him off his primary duties overseeing the new Apollo capsule.
It didn’t take long for Slayton to cut to the chase: “We just got word from the CIA that the Russians are planning a lunar fly-by before the end of the year. We want to change Apollo 8 from an Earth orbital to a lunar orbital flight. A lot has to come together. And Apollo 7 has to be perfect. But if it happens, Frank, do you want to go to the Moon?” The Lunar Excursion Module was behind schedule and Low’s idea was to skip ahead to a lunar orbital flight to make sure the US beat the Russians to the Moon while buying more time for the LEM to be finished and tested. It also put the Apollo 8 crew in a position to make history. Borman agreed and wondered how the rest of his crew would react to the change in their mission and the tight four month window before launch. Lovell was all in and Anders agreed even though he knew the change would probably move him out of the rotation to be one of the men who would eventually walk on the Moon.
Once the conversation with Webb was over (see the opening paragraph), the astronauts had to hit the ground running even faster than they had been before the flight was given the green light. The first order of business was to convince their families that the mission could be done safely given the short training window. Typically, a flight crew trained for 18 months for a mission. The Apollo 1 accident was a direct result of ‘Go Fever’ – NASA rushing to meet Kennedy’s deadline. The astronaut’s wives voiced their concerns, but came on board when their husbands convinced them that they wouldn’t climb aboard any rocket they didn’t feel was ready to fly. The whole program was so unlike NASA, even the Russians didn’t believe that NASA would actually try and mount a lunar orbiting mission on such short notice.
In part 2, we will take a look at the Apollo 8 mission itself and why it became the boldest step that NASA ever took in the exploration of space. Naturally, administrator Webb was concerned about the potential of losing another set of astronauts. His secondary concern about losing a crew were how it would affect how people would view the Moon in the future should it become a symbol of a fatal Moon shot. The optimum launch window would also have his crew orbiting the Moon during Christmas. This also concerned Webb.
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