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Apollo 8: Mankind’s Most Epic Journey

In 1968, both the United States and the Russians were engaged in the space race - and the Soviets had a big edge.  The U.S. needed its best soldiers and scientists to fight a new kind of battle.

In Frank Borman, they had both.

Borman was an Air Force Fighter pilot, who had a master’s in aeronautical engineering.  In short: the perfect candidate for America’s astronaut program.

“I’ll be honest with you,” says Borman, now 90 years old.  “I wasn’t interested in walking on the moon or picking up rocks.  I didn’t join [NASA] because I’m an explorer or an adventurer.  My views, [the Space Race] was a serious operation akin to combat, and I was there for that reason.”

But by the middle of 1968, NASA was behind schedule.  All manned flights had been grounded after a fatal fire killed three astronauts.  Meanwhile, the Soviets had plans to send men around the moon by the end of the year.

America had to act – and act fast.

And so in the course of one afternoon, NASA outlined the basic parameters of the mission they were calling “Apollo 8.”  At a time when man had flown no further than 853 miles away from the earth, the Apollo 8 crew was now scheduled to circumnavigate the moon – nearly 240,000 miles away.

For All Mankind: Apollo 8's Remarkable Mission at the Moon

Frank Borman was named commander; astronauts Jim Lovell and Bill Anders rounded out the crew.  The date was set: liftoff on December 21st, 1968 – giving everyone only a few weeks to train for NASA’s riskiest mission.

In fact, Anders later told his wife he thought there was a 33 percent chance of a successful mission, a 33 percent chance the mission would fail, and a 33 percent chance the crew wouldn’t return at all.

One member of the NASA team brought up a point no one else had considered.  Apollo 8 was scheduled to reach the moon on December 24th.  If they failed, Christmas would be ruined – one final blow in a year filled with its fair share of them.

So on December 20th, 1968, at around T-minus twelve hours until liftoff, frank borman knelt down by his bedside to pray.

“I prayed of course, the Lord’s Prayer, as I’ve done every night of my life,” Borman remembers.  But I also prayed that the crew would do a good job.  Because we hadn’t had a lot of time to train, and i didn’t want anybody to make a mistake that would endanger the mission.”

After a sleepless night, Frank and his fellow astronauts boarded the massive Saturn-V rocket – the largest machine ever built by man.  And with three brave men thirty-six stories in the air, the world watched the final countdown to a mission that few believed would even get off the ground.

“It was just business,” says Frank, who, along with Jim Lovell, had spent fourteen consecutive days in space during NASA’s Gemini 7 mission.  “I’d like to say that we did some heroic job and that we saved – actually, everything worked well.”

At 7:51 AM, the ignition sequence started.  And for the first time in history, man was headed to the moon.

“I don’t think our G’s got up to more than 5.5 or 6,” Frank said.  “All in all, the saturn was a wonderful ride.”

Within a few minutes after liftoff, the Apollo 8 crew was in orbit – and had gone higher than anyone had ever gone before.  By the fifty-five hour marker of the flight, Apollo 8 crossed a spot known as the “equigravisphere” – the point where the the pull from the moon’s gravity was greater than that of the earth.  The crew was now falling upwards towards the lunar surface – as the first humans to cross the boundaries into an alien world.

Shortly thereafter, they reached the most harrowing part of their mission.

In order to enter lunar orbit, the astronauts had to hit a narrow point just 69 miles above the lunar surface.  If the calculations were off just a fraction of a degree, the crew crash right into the moon – or be lost in space forever.  To make matters more complicated, this had to happen when the crew was on the “far side” of the moon, and as such, there would be no communication with the team back at Mission Control.

Before loss of signal, NASA passed on a message from Frank’s wife Susan, who wanted him to know “the custard’s in the oven at 350”.

“Susan and I had always kidded about that – you do the custard, i’ll do the flying,” Frank says.  “She wanted to reassure me that everything at home was okay.”

As Susan Borman waited by the squawkbox, the crew was 240,000 miles away.  There, alone and upside-down, the astronauts became the first men to ever lay eyes on the barren landscape of the far side of the moon.  The time: a few minutes before 5:00 AM on December 24th.

Christmas Eve.

“We looked down and the lunar surface was just different shades of gray and black and white,” Frank says.  At the time, Anders added that it looked like a sand pile that his kids played in.

Shortly after spotting the moon, the crew executed a burn to make sure they weren’t going too fast – or too slow – for lunar orbit.  Four months of planning came down to this – but the math was spot-on.  A half-hour later, right on its schedule time, Mission Control regained contact with the ship.

For hours upon hours, the astronauts photographed the Moon’s arid terrain.  While Frank only wanted to go around the moon once, NASA insisted they make ten laps to scout out potential landing sites for future missions.  

And on the fourth pass around the Moon, across the arc of the lunar horizon, Bill Anders spotted something that changed the world.

“We looked up, and there in the background was the only object in the entire universe that had any color,” Frank said.  “And here we are, a long way from home, and this beautiful blue marble is floating back there, 240,000 miles away.”

That blue marble, was, of course, the Earth.  Against the vastness of space, everything the astronauts had ever cared about was located back on that tiny orb.

“This was the christmas season.  I was nostalgic.  I missed my family,” Borman said.  Later, Anders added that the crew had gone all the way to the moon – and wound up discovering the Earth.

At that moment, Anders captured a photo that has since been called “Earthrise.”  Time magazine later said that photo captured the beauty – and fragility – of our home planet; the picture has even been credited with kick-starting the environmental movement.

Back on Earth, families were gathered around to celebrate Christmas Eve – and watch apollo’s progress.  It’s estimated that a billion people were tuned in to Apollo 8’s Christmas Eve broadcast.  And to the largest audience in human history, the astronauts had a message for all mankind.

“When we were told we’d have the largest audience, Jim and Bill and I tried to focus on what was appropriate,” Borman said.  “And we came up with all kinds of different things...  Some of them kind of silly here about Christmas, and it was very difficult.”

“So I asked a friend of mine, and he couldn’t come up with anything,” Borman continued.  “So we had a friend that he trusted; he spent one whole night and had nothing but crumpled-up notepaper.  He couldn’t figure out anything either.”

“And it was about 3:30 or 4:00, his wife came walking downstairs and said ‘Why don’t you start in the beginning?’  And he said, ‘what do you mean?’  And she said, ‘Genesis.’”

So at the end of the most-watched TV broadcast, the astronauts read the first ten verses from Genesis – straight from the creation story.

I think we were trying to convey the fact that it wasn’t just all happenstance, that it there was a power behind the world and behind life that gave it meaning,” Borman remembers.  “It was a very rewarding feeling for me, because here we were in a country that felt that day.  Now can you imagine that happening today?  Or can you imagine if that had been a Russian up there – and we’d have heard about Lenin and Stalin and communism – all they told us was to do something appropriate.”

Christmas Day arrived a few hours later, and with it, time to come home.  As the astronauts reflected on the holiday at the moon, Anders deadpanned he hoped he wouldn’t be spending New Year’s there as well.  

The concern was real – if the engines failed to fire, the crew would be stuck in lunar orbit forever.  

Meanwhile, Susan began writing her husband’s eulogy. And as she sat at her kitchen table, the Apollo 8 crew was in radio silence.

The minutes came and went.

Finally, at 12:25 AM, Christmas morning...  Jim Lovell’s voice crackled through the speakers – and told those listening in that there was, in fact, a “Santa Claus.”

At long last, Apollo 8 was on its way home – a final quarter-million miles to conclude history’s longest holiday trip.  And before long, to the garbled tune of ‘O Holy Night’, the sleepy crew was getting ready for re-entry.

Back at home in the borman household, presents would have to wait.  Susan refused to open anything until she could do so with her husband.  Instead, she took her boys to church.  There, the reverend prayed – for the benefit of one member of the congregation – that the God of time and space watch over, and protect, the astronauts of our country.

Thousands upon thousands of miles away, Apollo 8 picked up speed.  Soon, they were racing back home ten times faster than a bullet fired from a rifle.  And on the morning of December 27th, the crew was given the go for re-entry.

“First place, you had to relieve an enormous thermal load on the spacecraft,” said Frank, referring to the jettison of the service module.  Now, all that was left of the titanic Saturn-V rocket - which was once 363 feet high - was a 10 foot cone.

In the same way that the astronauts had to be precise when entering lunar orbit, the calculations had to be flawless when it came to Earth re-entry.  If the angle of descent was too shallow, the crew would skip off the Earth like a rock thrown on a river.  Too steep, and they’d be incinerated.

And, like many other parts of this mission, this had never been done before.

“As a matter of fact, I don’t think it really had a successful or complete test of that – even unmanned.  But again, it worked perfectly,” Borman said.

While the earth’s atmosphere would slow the ship down, there was a trade-off:  it would generate heat.  Just outside the spacecraft, a few feet from the astronaut’s faces, temperatures rose to 5,000 degrees – half that of the surface of the sun.

And with the added heat came added pressure.  In this case, six times the weight of gravity.

“When you take those kind of G’s, your eyes flatten out.  So you get tunnel vision.  Looking like this.  It’s hard to breathe.  You feel like you have an elephant sitting on your chest,” said Frank.  “When you pull six G’s for six minutes - it becomes a little more interesting.  So, towards the end of the six minutes I think we were all huffing and puffing.”

At this point, the entire ship was like a manned comet; one Pan Am pilot saw the craft and estimated its fiery tail to be one hundred miles long.

At 40,000 feet, the astronauts were hurtling to the pacific at 680 miles-per-hour... and NASA could only hope the crew was on the right trajectory.

Finally, a parachute deployed, then another, and the ship softly glided down to the ocean, and at exactly 4:51 a.m. local on December 27th, right on its scheduled time and location, the ship splashed down into the ocean.

147 hours after blastoff, the apollo eight crew was back home.

“I’d like to tell you I flew it perfectly because I am the world’s greatest pilot,” Frank joked.  “But nevertheless, it was all on the autopilot.”

Aboard the USS Yorktown, the three astronauts received a hero’s welcome.

“It felt wonderful.  We had done our job.  We were back on earth.  I was going to see my family in a few hours,” Borman said.  “It was a high point of your life, really.”

Minutes after arriving home, Frank borman – who joined NASA to help America fight the Cold War – was getting congratulated by the President of the United States.

“I was extremely proud of the fact that we had done our job, and the mission was successful,” Borman remembers.  “And we beat the Russians.”

For their part, the Russians never reached the moon, and after their defeat in the space race, they stopped trying.  The Soviets said they hoped Apollo Eight would open the door to more cooperation between them and the United States.

That dream came true; even today, Russian cosmonauts and Americans work side-by-side.

“I think we contributed to winning the Cold War,” Frank said.

The reading of Genesis would go down in lore; the pope himself later remarked, “In that moment, the world had peace”.

The Apollo 8 journey proved man could make it to the moon; the following July, Neil Armstrong took mankind’s first steps on the lunar surface.  And when he did so, he left his footprints in the Sea of Tranquillity – an area Bill Anders photographed as a potential landing site on apollo 8.

With Frank’s Cold War complete, he left NASA after Apollo 8, and went on to be the CEO of Eastern Airlines before retiring to a ranch in Montana.  

Still, the Apollo 8 mission is fresh on his mind.

“It was a wonderful demonstration of what this country can do,” he said, “when it finally pulls together in one direction.”

For All Mankind: Apollo 8's Remarkable Mission at the Moon

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