It was a tumultuous year full of tragedy, outrage and deep divisions, but it ended triumphantly.
That’s not how 2018 can be summed up just yet. But that was the case 50 years ago.
On Dec. 21, 1968, a rocket took off from the Kennedy Space Center that transformed human history. It was the launch of Apollo 8.
The story of that astonishing mission to the moon is the subject of the new book “Rocket Men” by Chicago-based writer Robert Kurson. Earlier this year, the author and the crew of Apollo 8 gathered at the Museum of Science and Industry to recount their incredible mission.
Video: “Rocket Men” author Robert Kurson speaks with Apollo 8 astronauts William Anders, James Lovell and Frank Borman at the Museum of Science and Industry.
Note: This story first aired on “Chicago Tonight” on April 9, 2018.
Below, an excerpt from the book.
Chapter One: DO YOU WANT TO GO TO THE MOON?
August 3, 1968—Four months earlier
AS HE SAT ON A BEACH IN THE CARIBBEAN, A QUIET ENGINEER named George Low ran his ﬁngers through the sand and wondered whether he should risk everything to win the Space Race and help save the world.
At forty-one, Low was already a top manager and one of the most important people at NASA, in charge of making sure the Apollo spacecraft was ﬂightworthy.
Apollo had a single goal, perhaps the greatest and most audacious ever conceived: to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy had committed the United States to achieving this goal by the end of the decade. Never had a more inspiring promise been made to the American people—or one that could be so easily veriﬁed.
Now, Kennedy’s end-of-decade deadline was in jeopardy. Design and engineering problems with the lunar module—the spidery landing craft that would move astronauts from their orbiting ship to the lunar surface and back again—threatened to stall the Apollo program and put Kennedy’s deadline, just sixteen months away, out of reach. And that led to another problem. Every day that Apollo languished, the Soviet Union moved closer to landing its own crew on the Moon. And that mattered. The nation that landed the ﬁrst men on the Moon would score the ultimate victory in the years-long Space Race between the two superpowers, one from which the second-place ﬁnisher might never recover.
For months, NASA’s best minds had worked around the clock to ﬁx the issues with the lunar module, but the temperamental and complex landing craft only fell further and further behind schedule. By summer, many at the space agency had abandoned hope of making a manned lunar landing by the end of the decade.
And then Low had an idea.
It had come to him just a few weeks before he’d arrived at this beach, and it was wild, an epiphany, a dream. It was also dangerous, risky beyond anything NASA had ever attempted. But the more Low thought about it, the more he believed it could keep the Apollo program moving and save Kennedy’s deadline—and maybe even beat the Soviets to the Moon.
Low inhaled the fresh, salty air and tried to push space travel out of his thoughts. At home, his mind burned nonstop with ideas, formulae, trajectories. Now he needed a break, and it should have been easy to ﬁnd one in this tropical paradise. About the only reminder of America was the local newspaper, which told of the Newport Pop Festival in Costa Mesa, California, where more than a hundred thousand music fans were expected, and brought word of potential protests at the coming Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It had been an explosive year already, with assassinations, riots, and violence. A quiet beach was just where a man like Low needed to be.
But Low could not relax. He walked the beach, looking out over the ocean toward Moscow and the Moon, thinking, imagining, America and the world on ﬁre behind him.
Five days after Low returned from vacation, a serious man with an oversized head went to work inside a giant assembly plant in Downey, California. His mission: to build a machine from the future that would help make the world safe for democracy.
Over and over, astronaut Frank Borman opened and closed the hatch on the Apollo command module, a cone-shaped capsule made to ﬂy a three-man crew to the Moon. He’d already certiﬁed that the hatch worked, then certiﬁed it again, but he would not stop pushing on it, making sure it opened, no matter what.
Nearby, Borman’s two crewmates, Jim Lovell and rookie Bill Anders, got ready to test the hundreds of dials, switches, levers, lights, and gauges that made the command module work. The spacecraft was small, measuring just eleven feet tall and thirteen feet wide at its base, but every inch of it had been designed by Borman and others to be impervious to a galaxy of deadly forces.
A nearby transistor radio played Top 40 music, which caught Borman’s ear.
“That’s a pretty slick song,” Borman said. “Who’s the fella singing it?”
“That’s the Beatles, Frank,” Lovell said, laughing.
Borman preferred the standards. As a kid, he’d memorized the lyrics to all the great Western songs played on the radio in Arizona. He could still sing “Cowboy Jack”—a ditty that dated to the nineteenth century—but didn’t dare start, because he knew Lovell and Anders would insist that he sing it to the end.
Borman stuck to classic ﬁlms, too. Alone among astronauts, it seemed, he hadn’t bothered to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, the new Stanley Kubrick ﬁlm released in April that showed men ﬂying to the Moon. That stuﬀ was science ﬁction, Borman told his colleagues; America had real people to get to the Moon.
Borman and his crewmates knew that the lunar module was troubled and behind schedule. But until designers and engineers could make the ﬁxes, these astronauts could do little more than make certain that the command module was perfect. So they climbed inside their spacecraft and began testing it, pushing the command module mercilessly, because that’s what outer space would do to it, too.
And then the phone rang.
Smart people knew better than to bother Borman at work. But the man on the line went back a long way with Borman. And he said it was urgent.
Donald Kent “Deke” Slayton was in charge of managing astronaut training and choosing crews for manned space missions. If an astronaut ﬂew on board a NASA spacecraft, it was because Slayton had chosen him to go.
When Borman heard who was calling, he wriggled out of the capsule and grabbed an extension.
“Deke, I’m in the middle of a big test here,” he said. “Frank, I need you back in Houston.”
“Talk to me now.”
“No, I can’t talk over the phone. It’s gotta be in person. Grab an airplane and get to Houston. On the double.”
Borman grimaced—America did not have time for nonsense and delays—but Slayton was in charge, and NASA, no matter its oﬃcial designation as a civilian organization, was a military operation to Borman, so he took his orders. Poking his head back inside the spacecraft, he told his partners, “You guys are stuck with the module. I’ve gotta go back to Houston.”
Borman grabbed his rental car, drove to Los Angeles International Airport, and hopped into a T-38 Talon, a two-seat twin-engine supersonic jet used by astronauts for training, commuting, and even some fun, and pointed it toward Texas. At forty, he still looked every bit the West Point cadet: sandy blond near-crewcut, square jaw and chin set for combat, arched eyebrows that seemed a radar for anything askew. Even his head was military issue, all right angles and slightly larger than life, a feature that had earned him the childhood nickname Squarehead.
Borman couldn’t imagine why he was needed in Houston, and so suddenly. He was commander of Apollo 9, the third of four manned test ﬂights NASA planned before it would attempt to land on the Moon. Apollo 9 was to be a basic mission—orbit Earth, test the spacecraft, come home. It wasn’t scheduled to launch for another six months. Still, Borman knew he hadn’t been summoned for nothing. The last time he’d received a “drop everything” call had been the darkest day in NASA’s history.
It had happened about a year and half earlier, on January 27, 1967, when a ﬁre broke out in the spacecraft during a simulated countdown on the launchpad in Florida. The Apollo 1 rehearsal should have been safe and routine for the three astronauts inside, who were preparing for the actual ﬂight about four weeks later. But a spark occurred in the electrical system and the men were trapped as the sudden ﬁre spread in pure oxygen. Even Ed White, the strongest of all NASA’s astronauts, couldn’t muscle open the command module’s hatch as ﬂames spread through the spacecraft.
Borman had been enjoying a rare break with his family at a lakeside cottage near Houston, where they lived, when Slayton’s call came in that day.
“Frank, we’ve had a bad ﬁre on Pad Thirty-four and we’ve got three astronauts dead—Gus Grissom, Ed White, and one of the new boys, Roger Chaﬀee. Get to the Cape as quick as you can; you’ve been appointed to the investigative committee.”
The news stunned Borman, who considered Ed White the brother he’d never had. And it devastated Borman’s wife, Susan, who counted Pat White among her best friends. Borman told Slayton he’d ﬂy to Florida right away but ﬁrst needed to stop at the Whites’ home in Houston.
When he and Susan arrived, Pat was hysterical. She was the mother of two children, ages ten and thirteen, who suddenly had no father. Even in her raw grief, just hours after receiving the news, a Washington bureaucrat had informed her that despite Ed’s wishes to be buried at West Point, the three fallen astronauts would all be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
“Give me the guy’s name,” Borman said.
He had the man on the phone a minute later.
“It’s already been decided in Washington,” the man insisted.
“I don’t give a good goddamn what’s been decided,” Borman said. “Ed wanted to be buried at West Point and that’s what’s going to happen, and I’ll go all the way to President Johnson to make sure it happens, so you better fucking well do it.”
Four days later, White was buried at West Point. Borman and Lovell were among the pallbearers. Anders also attended.
After the funeral, Borman began his work on the investigative committee convened by NASA. He was the only astronaut on the panel, a sign that NASA considered him to be among its best. His ﬁrst job was to help supervise the disassembly of the Apollo 1 spacecraft at Cape Kennedy in order to determine the cause of the ﬁre. Days later, he became the ﬁrst astronaut to enter the cabin. He found a burned-out nightmare. Rows of equipment and panels had been charred and covered in soot, debris was scattered everywhere. Hoses connecting the astronauts to their life support systems were melted. No matter where he looked, Borman could see no color, only grays and blacks.
That night, he joined Slayton and others at a restaurant in Cocoa Beach called The Mousetrap, a NASA haunt. Borman seldom drank to excess, but the smell of the scorched spacecraft needed bleaching, and he started in early. He raised toasts to his fallen brothers, then threw his glass into the ﬁreplace. White was among the straightest arrows Borman had ever known—honest to a fault, a true patriot, and a man who didn’t mess around with the sports cars or fast women so readily available to astronauts. For both men, family came ﬁrst. The Bormans and Whites often shared a house on a lake near Houston for ﬁshing trips. Borman couldn’t remember missing someone as much as he missed Ed White that night.
Borman spent the next two months inside the burned spacecraft, studying the design, searching for ﬂaws, making ﬁxes in his mind. In April 1967, Congress held hearings into the cause of the ﬁre, and Borman was called to testify.
Much of the questioning was aggressive and antagonistic, full of second-guesses and should-haves and pointed ﬁngers, but Borman held ﬁrm, hiding nothing and acknowledging NASA’s responsibility, but never allowing congressmen to kick the agency just because it was down. He still ached for the loss of his friend, Ed White, but never allowed those emotions to spill into his report. Near the end of the hearings, he oﬀered some of its most memorable testimony.
“We are trying to tell you that we are conﬁdent in our management, and in our engineering, and in ourselves,” Borman said. “I think the question is really: Are you conﬁdent in us?” A few days later, he told lawmakers, “Let’s stop the witch hunt and get on with it.” At NASA, it seemed there wasn’t a person, from the administrator to the janitors, who didn’t cheer him on. In the end, Congress took his advice and NASA continued on its mission to land men on the Moon.
Having survived the inquest, NASA approached Borman with an extraordinary oﬀer: Take temporary leave from the astronaut program to head up the team tasked with implementing design changes to the command module. He accepted on the spot. He and others worked to make the new version of the capsule the most advanced, and safest, spacecraft ever built.
Borman could only hope there hadn’t been another tragedy as he landed his jet at Ellington Air Force Base and made his way to Slayton’s oﬃce. He suspected something unusual was afoot when he was asked to close the door behind him. Slayton addressed him without even sitting down:
“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 idea startled Borman. Apollo 8 was meant to ﬂy in December, just four months from now, but certainly not to the Moon. Apollo 8 was a conservative mission designed for low Earth orbit, perhaps at 125 miles altitude. It was one of several essential steps leading up to a manned lunar landing, hopefully before the end of 1969. Everything went in steps at NASA. Everything.
But Slayton meant exactly what he said. He wanted Borman to change missions and ﬂy to the Moon. At a distance of 240,000 miles. In just sixteen weeks. Slayton didn’t discuss the fact that the lunar module couldn’t possibly be ready by then. He didn’t discuss any of the other myriad reasons NASA couldn’t be ready to ﬂy men to the Moon by year’s end. In fact, Slayton gave very few additional details. He didn’t even ask if Borman cared to talk things over with his wife or crew.
Borman would have been justiﬁed in taking days, if not weeks, to consider such a proposition. And yet Slayton needed an answer, and he needed it now. Borman understood the urgency. If the Soviet Union sent men to the Moon ﬁrst—even if those men didn’t land—it would score a major victory in the Space Race and deal a devastating blow in the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union. The mission Slayton was proposing would be exquisitely dangerous. But it also had the power to change history. Now, suddenly, it all depended on the decision of Frank Borman and his crew.