This article was last modified on October 15, 2018.

50 Year Flashback: Apollo 8

(The following was used as an introductory background to the Apollo 8 moon mission for a discussion group.)

Throughout its early years, NASA relied on 100s of engineers brought over from Nazi Germany, most notably Guenther Wendt and Wernher von Braun (who developed the rockets that launch the spacecraft). Gemini / Mercury: 0 fatalities, Apollo failed on first try (January 1967)

May 1961: In response to USSR getting a man in orbit, JFK said he wanted a man on the moon by the end of the decade, a near-impossible task when he proposed it. Soon, Russia’s Zond 5 included two tortoises, mealworms, wine flies, plants, and other lifeforms that orbited the moon and safely returned to Earth. Although not launched until September 1968, NASA caught wind of the plan and knew the race was on.

Apollo 8 and 9 were both scheduled to be only earth orbit. Then in August 1968, NASA moved Frank Borman and his crew from Apollo 9 and put them on Apollo 8, as well as changing the objective: they would circle the moon, and do it before the end of the year. Jim McDivitt had been the crew leader for Apollo 8, but because they had been training on different machinery, the McDivitt crew was moved to Apollo 9 (which tested the lunar module in space).
Michael Collins was originally on Borman’s crew, but he had bone spurs and needed surgery. NASA switched him with Jim Lovell. This medical accident took Lovell off of Apollo 11 and put Collins on, which ultimately became the first moon landing.

The software (called Colossus) had to be perfected quickly, and this task fell to Bill Tindall and a team of 400 engineers at MIT. Another challenge was the mathematical precision of the launch time – the moon had to be the right angle from the Earth, and this had to be coordinated with the rotation of the Earth so that on return the capsule would hit an ocean and not a city. Admiral John McCain II was responsible for fishing the men out of the sea – at this time, he was overseeing the war in Vietnam and his son was a POW.

On October 11, Apollo 7 was launched and was the final “test run” before a full moon journey. Zond 6 was sent on November 10, again orbiting the moon – but with no humans on board. In December, a state dinner was held with the Apollo 8 crew and President Johnson. Another guest was Charles Lindbergh, who spoke with the astronauts about his historic flight 40 years earlier.

Halfway to the moon, Borman got sick (filling the spacecraft with globs of vomit and feces) and Dr. Charles Berry suggested cancelling the mission. They worried it might be radiation poisoning because it took two hours to cross the radioactive VanAllen Belt. Measurements taken on return found the crew absorbed the same amount of radiation as they would over six months on earth. Not a lethal dose, and the crew all lived long lives.

On the way back, Lovell accidentally deleted some of the computer’s memory, which put the module off course. The error was quickly discovered, and after 25 minutes the data was re-entered manually.

Borman later received an anonymous telegram reading, “Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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