When my producing partner Mike Hill was doing research for a film on Apollo 11 in the early 90s, he kept hearing the same thing from NASA veterans and others in the space community: "For us, Apollo 8 was the mission. Someone should do a film on that." When I first heard about this film (airing October 31 on PBS) my reaction was the same that I've heard countless times in the years since: "Apollo 8, which one was that?"
What I encountered in producing "Race to the Moon" echoed what William Styron wrote about Apollo 8 at the time: "It was a moment that was depthless and inexpressible."
We interviewed Styron to learn how the mission was perceived in 1968. "You cannot overstate the impact of that flight on the nation," he told us. He had been at a party at Leonard Bernstein's house on Christmas Eve, and only reluctantly did Bernstein allow the TV to be turned on for Apollo 8's primetime broadcast from the moon. Many at the party were opposed to the space program because of its cost, he said, but by the end of the astronauts' Genesis reading, there was a sense of awe in the room. There was something transformative in the experience.
In his interview for the film, Walter Cronkite recalled the impact of the images the astronauts brought home that showed a surprisingly small earth, rising over the lunar horizon. "That blue disk out there in space...brought to mind all of the wonders of our life here," Cronkite said. He remembered that when he first heard the crew reading from the Book of Genesis he thought, "Oh no, this is corny," but by the end of the reading he was struggling to hold back tears.
There were tears in Mission Control that Christmas Eve too, Retrofire Officer Jerry Bostick told us. For the documentary, we set up our camera in the old control room and interviewed Bostick, Flight Director Glynn Lunney, and Apollo Program Director Christopher Kraft. Each one said the mission was phenomenally risky by today's standards, but each gave the sense that they would gladly put on the headsets and tackle a challenge like that again--if they could have the same kind of support from the country and the same group of colleagues around them.
William Anders, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and their wives-- all interviewed in the film--spoke of the risks of Apollo 8. Susan Borman said that she had cornered Kraft at a party one evening and asked for a straight assessment of the chances for getting the crew home safely. After careful consideration, Kraft responded, "How's 50-50?" Susan said she was relieved--those were better odds than she had calculated.
Anders told us he figured there was a 33% chance of dying on the mission. But he added, "as a pilot, and a patriot, and a military officer, I thought those were pretty good odds." Valerie Anders noted "there were other wives, in other parts of our country at that time, who were wives of people missing in action in Vietnam, who were wives of fighter pilots fighting in Vietnam, and that's what our role would have been, had it not been this."
I don't like to apply the term hero to people who are simply doing their jobs, but in the case of Apollo 8 there were choices made and risks taken that move the venture into the realm of the heroic. The astronauts didn't have to accept assignment on the new mission (in fact the first crew offered the flight turned it down). George Low, Chris Kraft and others in Mission Control didn't have to put their careers on the line to get the Apollo program back on track. In 1968, we could have played it safe, like the Soviets, but we didn't because a few bold personalities at the center of the Apollo program felt the risks of Apollo 8 were worth the reward.
Apollo 8 was a shared moment of exploration that forever altered the way we see ourselves and instilled a sense of confidence that resonates today. As Frank Borman said in his address to Congress, "Exploration really is the essence of the human spirit, and to pause, to falter, to turn our back on the quest for knowledge, is to perish."
Producer Kevin Michael Kertscher has 20 years experience in film and television including work on documentaries with Ken Burns and the Boston Red Sox.
NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.
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More on American Experience's "Race to the Moon" can be found at www.pbs.org/amex/moon