For the United States, 1968 was a year of disasters. The war in Vietnam appeared unwinnable after the bloody Tet Offensive. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. American cities burned with race riots. And the Democratic convention in Chicago descended into wild street violence.
Looming over everything was America's Cold War with the Soviet Union, which was played out, in large part, through the fierce technological competition called the Space Race. But President John F. Kennedy's 1961 promise to put a man on the moon by 1970 seemed dim indeed in 1968, especially after the tragic January 1967 loss of three astronauts — Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee — in a space capsule fire during a test.
Then, in September 1968, the Soviet Union sent up their Zond 5 spacecraft with a cargo of animals, whipped it around the moon and brought it back to Earth in an Indian Ocean splashdown. The animals survived.
Jeffrey Kluger, author of nine books, including Apollo 13 (2000), co-authored with astronaut Jim Lovell, and The Sibling Effect (2012), informs us in vivid, crisply written prose exactly how the United States recovered from its despairing doldrums and regained national pride.
Kluger writes that the turnaround in America's space program began with Deke Slayton, head of NASA's astronaut office, coming up with the radical idea to discard the agency's seemingly plodding schedule of Earth orbits in early 1968 and to jump straight to a moon shot — perhaps even a repeated lunar orbit — in 1968. To Slayton, the Earth orbital flights seemed unnecessary, especially with the Soviet Union breathing down America's neck.
Slayton's idea at first seemed reckless to NASA higher-ups, but was eventually convincing to Chris Kraft, the agency's gruff director of flight operations, who gave a qualified go-ahead.
The three astronauts picked for the first flight to the moon were Frank Borman, who would be the commander, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders. Borman was a West Pointer and Air Force fighter pilot who considered the moon flight to be a "battlefield assignment" in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, writes Kluger.
Navy pilot Lovell, an "easygoing, uncomplicated" Annapolis grad, could "get along with anyone." Also a naval academy graduate was Anders, who earned his wings at the Air Force Academy and an advanced engineering degree from the Air Force Institute of Technology.
In August 1968, NASA set the moon launch of Apollo 8 for Dec. 21. The New Saturn V rocket, "sixty feet taller than the Statue of Liberty … gulped three tons of kerosene and liquid oxygen fuel per second," states Kluger. But tests showed the rocket to be unstable and deadly dangerous.
If they survived the launch, the astronauts could face additional problems: They could wind up in eternal lunar orbit or, upon re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, be killed by intense gravitational forces or bounce off the edge of the atmosphere "and ricochet into the void forever."
Concerned about the safety of the mission, Susan Borman, Frank's wife, asked Kraft to level with her about the astronauts' chances of coming home.
"How's fifty-fifty?" he answered.
Relying upon extensive interviews with all three astronauts and former NASA officials, agency documents and the mission audio archive, the author paints an unforgettable picture of the dramatic, wildly successful lunar mission. He describes how in the predawn hours of Christmas Eve 1968, "America awoke slowly to the news that three of its countrymen were in orbit around the moon."
Television networks all over Western Europe were broadcasting the news, and Londoners crowded pubs, drinking Guinness at 9:50 a.m. The famous astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell declared the event "one of the most historic developments in the history of the human race." Even the Soviet Union faithfully reported the news.
From Apollo 8 the astronauts could clearly see what "not a single earthly eye had ever seen," the far side of the moon. Anders positioned his TV camera at the window and telecast, starkly close up, the scrolling lunar surface — its austere craters and cliffs and slopes — a "scant 60 nautical miles below." There, too, in the distance beyond the moon, was the serene Earth as it had never been seen before.
After 10 lunar orbits, Apollo 8 splashed down safely into the Pacific on Dec. 27, 1968.
Revealing and alive, Kluger's Apollo 8 is a wonderful, fascinating read.