A Bold Course of Action
The situation was not favorable for the American space program in early 1968. It looked like President John Kennedy's goal of putting a man on the moon within the decade was slipping out of reach -- and at the same time, the Soviets continued to advance their own efforts in space. Then NASA managers decided on a bold course of action.
"That Apollo 8 flight, I think, was the most important flight of this program. It was the first time men had left the confines of the earth; the first time that they were captured by another body and this was the first real exploration into space." — Jim Lovell
Technical and Logistical Problems
The effects of the tragic Apollo 1 fire still reverberated through the halls of NASA. On the second unmanned test flight of the Saturn 5 rocket that was to launch the Apollo spacecraft toward the moon, there were serious problems. The booster's first stage had developed a troubling up-and-down vibration known as "pogo." And two of the second stage engines shut down prematurely. These problems would have to be solved before the Saturn 5 could carry men. Meanwhile, the Apollo Lunar Module (L.M.) under construction at Grumman was not yet ready for its first manned flight. And the computers and software for the L.M., being created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, hadn't been finished.
According to historian Andrew Chaikin, "NASA's plan was 'don't take any huge steps too quickly, just keep going step by step. Build on what you've learned and do it incrementally.' That was the whole philosophy behind the Apollo program." ... "Well, in the spring of '68 it became clear that they had to come up with an alternate plan because the lander [L.M.] was just not going to be ready in time. And the guy who really saved it was George Low. And he was just one of the geniuses inside NASA, one of the architects of the Apollo program; very soft-spoken, the kind of man who, if you were in a crowded room you might not pick him out among all the others, but he really was so respected in the program and his engineering knowledge was top-drawer.
George Low made a gutsy decision that shocked everyone. "Low very quietly reviewed the situation," says Chaikin, "and came up with this brilliant idea to take the second Apollo flight, and instead of sending it into Earth orbit with a lunar lander that wasn't going to be ready, send it to the moon without a lander. Just do the part that says we're going to go from the Earth to the moon, go into orbit around the moon, test out the communications, the navigation, all of those things that you're going to have to do anyway later on for a landing.
"The riskiest thing about Apollo 8 was the fact that they were not going to have the lunar lander along to serve as a lifeboat. The plan had always been, that in case you have an engine problem on the command ship, that you have a whole other spacecraft there to get you out of trouble. You could use its engine to get home. In fact, that's what they did on Apollo 13. But on Apollo 8 they were going to take that lifeboat option and throw it out the window."
Low's suggestion was kept secret as various managers figured out if their part of the operation would be ready. Each came back with the same assessment: the plan was daring, difficult, and brilliant.
A Chance to Collect Data
Chris Kraft, flight operations manager, had a further suggestion from engineers Bill Tindall and John Mayer. "If we're going all the way to the moon," Mayer said, "let's go into lunar orbit and put the guys into the same orbit as we're going to fly on the landing missions. That'll give us a good measure of the orbit, an empirical measure, not a math model."
Let's Do It
The Retrofire officer on Apollo 8, Jerry Bostick: "The first time I heard about going to the moon on Apollo 8, I thought it was crazy, but as I went to the people who had to do certain things associated with the mission, we all took the attitude, well, let's figure out how to do this, you know, and we did."
Soviet Lunar Plans
Astronaut Frank Borman remembered Deke Slayton calling him into his office and telling him, "'Look, the CIA has got hard evidence that the Soviets are going to try a manned circumlunar flight before the end of the year. Your Lunar Module has slipped. It isn't going to be ready until February at the earliest. Can you get ready -- this was August -- and change the Apollo 8 flight and go to the moon?'
All Wanted to Go
"And I said certainly, we can do that. We won't be the long pole in the tent. We'll make it happen. People have said, well, you didn't even, you were arbitrating, you didn't even consult with Lovell and Anders. Well, I didn't have to consult with Lovell and Anders. We all wanted to go to the moon very badly. So, when I went back and told them, they were overjoyed. ... "And I wasn't going to consult with them anyway. That was not their prerogative."
Chaikin: "[Deputy NASA administrator Tom] Paine told me that after it was all over, he had a conversation with Jim Webb and Webb said to him, 'You know, do you realize what would have happened if those guys had not come back from the moon? I mean, the impact it would have had, you know lovers would never have been able to look at the moon the same way again, knowing that three people were stranded in orbit around the moon, that they had died there. It would have ruined the moon.' I mean, that kind of responsibility, I can't imagine what that was like for Webb to shoulder."
"We're Going to Win"
In the end, Apollo 8 was an unqualified success and led directly to men walking on the moon. Chaikin offers a sports analogy: "Apollo 8 ... leapfrogged over so many unknowns, or it actually solved so many unknowns ... it must have been like being a wide receiver in a football game and suddenly realizing that you've broken free of the pack and that there is nobody on your heels and you can finally make it across ... the goal line. I think that feeling they must have had when they finished Apollo 8 must have been, 'Yeah, we're going to cross the goal line now. We're going to win the game.'"
Flight Director Chris Kraft sums up the many advances made by Apollo 8:
"It was the first time we had a man on a Saturn 5 [rocket];
"It was the first time that we had left the gravitational field of the earth with a man;
"It was the first time we had ever used the deep-space network to do a free return trajectory to and from the moon;
"It was the first time we'd tried to hit an exact location of altitude around the moon of sixty miles;
"It was the first time we had been in orbit around the moon with a man; it was the first time we had a look at the moon with man's own naked eye;
"It was the first time we had ever used the S.P.S. [rocket engine] to get out of orbit from the moon;
"It was the first time we had reentered at 35,000 feet per second in a manned spacecraft; "It was the first time we had ever skipped out and then came back in again, which was a very gutsy thing to do for the first time in a manned flight.
Every one of those were things we had never done before. That's a lot of firsts."
In his book Flight and in conversation, Kraft points out that the entire Apollo program has had a direct impact on the lives of all Americans. "The real payoff from space comes from the way we were catalyzing private industry into producing high-technology hardware, software, and services. The Space Race was changing the way American companies did business, and even we insiders couldn't predict the long-term benefits. But those benefits are there."
Communications and Medical Advances
One of the tangible advances was the communications network set up to connect tracking stations around the world. Another was in medical care. "The ability to remotely monitor a man's health would become standard in hospitals. If we could use telemetry to watch John Glenn's heartbeat in space, a nurses' station could do the same thing for the patient down the hall," he explains.
Apollo also catalyzed a giant leap in computing power. "We were the people driving the requirements for computers," says Kraft. "There was no capacity requirement like that in the world. We hadn't come up with the communications networks that were involved in today's communications systems and computer systems. So, the point I'm trying to make is that we drove the computer industry. The Apollo program drove almost every industry in this country."
Space Race Winners
Kraft acknowledges that there were also intangible benefits to Apollo's success. "On the other side of the coin is the inspirational push to the nation's psyche. Space had given America a new kind of pride in itself."