In the early morning hours of December 21, 1968, three astronauts strapped themselves into a tiny capsule perched atop the most powerful rocket ever built. They were about to attempt the most daring, dangerous mission in the history of exploration: a journey from the earth to the moon. If they succeeded, they would realize a dream that had captured people's imaginations since time began. If they failed, the United States would be forced to cede technological dominance to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. The three men were the crew of Apollo 8 -- the first manned mission to the moon.
American Experience presents Race to the Moon, an hour-long documentary from filmmaker Kevin Michael Kertscher. The program features first-hand recollections of the three former fighter pilots whose single-minded determination and remarkable bravery united a nation divided by the war in Vietnam and racial strife at home. Also interviewed are the astronauts' wives; Walter Cronkite, who covered the event for CBS News; staff from mission control in Houston; Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov; Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon; and John Logsdon, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
"Apollo 8 is arguably America's riskiest and most important space mission," says series executive producer Mark Samels. "We've heard a lot about Apollo 11 and 13, but without the success of Apollo 8, the entire history of the U.S. space program would have been altered."
The crew was led by Frank Borman, 40, a West Point graduate and Air Force colonel. Joining him were James Lovell, 40, and Bill Anders, 35, both graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy. A Navy captain, Lovell had spent more time in space than any other human being. (In 1965, Borman and Lovell flew an endurance test on Gemini 7, orbiting the earth for two weeks in a capsule the size of a sports car.) Anders had flown fighter jets out of Iceland for the Air Force, often facing down Soviet MiGs above the North Sea, and later trained with Neil Armstrong on the lunar lander. The Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik in October 1957 touched off a space race that peaked in 1968, when the CIA reported that the Soviets were preparing to have a pair of cosmonauts fly around the moon before year's end. In response, George Low, manager of the Apollo program in Houston, proposed sending their second manned flight -- Apollo 8 -- on a groundbreaking, 500,000-mile journey to orbit the moon. With only four months to train the astronauts and the flight team, the project was riddled with risks and unknowns, but the intrepid pilots looked past the danger.
Apollo 8 launched from Cape Canaveral at 7:51 a.m. on December 21, 1968. Eight minutes into the flight, the module raced along at 17,000 miles per hour, and soon was orbiting 115 miles above the earth. Two days later, Apollo 8 brought the first human beings beyond earth's gravitational hold -- 200,000 miles from home, and just 40,000 miles from the moon. The crew's families waited in Houston with a combination of excitement and worry. Susan Borman recalls asking NASA flight operations director Christopher Kraft, "I really want to know what you think their chances are of getting home. He said, 'How's fifty-fifty?' I said, 'That suits me fine.'" Her brave words masked tremendous doubts: "I really didn't think they'd get him back. I just didn't see how they could."
Three days later, Apollo 8 entered the critical "loss of signal" phase. As the capsule slipped behind the moon, tension mounted at mission control, and for 36 minutes, only static filled the air. "When we heard from the crew, it was one of the happiest moments of my life," recalls flight guidance officer Jerry Bostick. "We had been working for six or seven years to accomplish this. And there we were in lunar orbit!"
Apollo 8 would orbit the moon ten times over the next 20 hours. "We had our noses pressed against the glass," recalls Lovell. "We were looking at those craters go by. It was a really amazing sight." The largest audience in television history tuned in for a Christmas Eve broadcast as the astronauts catalogued lunar mountains and craters. But more captivating than the moon's stark, forbidding surface was the unprecedented view of their home planet. Anders' photograph of earth rising over the moon's horizon would become one of the most famous images of the century. But before the mission could be deemed a success, Apollo 8 had to get through reentry, in many ways the most dangerous part of the flight. The module hit the earth's atmosphere traveling seven and a half miles per second, subjecting the capsule to searing heat and the crew to brutal G-forces. Finally, in the predawn darkness of December 27, Apollo 8 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, just 5,000 yards from the waiting carrier U.S.S. Yorktown.
In Houston the excitement was irrepressible. "It took a lot of guts, a lot of nerve, a lot of confidence," says Kraft in the film. "Apollo 8 showed the guts of this country, the real capability of this country, the real willingness of this country to do some things that were forward-reaching."
"The Apollo program was one of the great accomplishments of our American civilization," Borman reflects. "The people, the country, were able to accomplish what to me still seems like an impossible dream." Apollo 8 changed space missions from militaristic, scientific endeavors to spiritual, emotional experiences. Not only did Americans celebrate getting to the moon, they also experienced for the first time the sight of the earth from space, and gained a new perspective on the fragility and interconnectedness of life on this planet.