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Race to the Moon | Article

The Crew of Apollo 8

"I don't know that I could spend a month on a desert island with Frank [Borman]; we might tear each other apart before it was over. I might get two weeks in with [Jim] Lovell though."
— Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on his crewmates


When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration prepared to select seven astronauts for the Mercury program in the late 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower directed the agency to choose them from the pool of active duty military test pilots. This limited the program to white men in their twenties and thirties. The next nine came from a similar background, with extensive test pilot experience and engineering degrees. The third cohort of astronauts included Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, a Ph.D. in Astronautics from MIT, and Roger Chafee, one of the pilots who had monitored the Soviet missile battery during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Physically, the men were all superficially similar, all about five feet nine inches tall (plus or minus two inches) to fit inside the spacecraft, and physically fit. They were not reckless, but understood the risks involved in their profession and worked to minimize those risks to an acceptable standard.

Veteran Pilots
As test pilots, the men all had quick reflexes and analytical minds -- and physical stamina. Frank Borman, commander of Apollo 8, wrote in his autobiography, "The NASA of more recent years got the idea that you could put almost any highly intelligent person into a spacecraft and qualify him as an astronaut pilot. Wrong. We took into those simulators the accumulated knowledge, experience, and seat-of-the-pants instincts derived from flying aircraft that could be even more temperamental and treacherous than a spacecraft. We were veteran pilots before we became rookie astronauts, and that made the difference." Their pedigree wasn't always on display when things went right, but was certainly evident when things went wrong, as on Gemini 8 when Neil Armstrong pulled his craft out of a spin that would have rendered an untrained man unconscious.

Frank Borman. NASA

Many Duties
The duties of the astronauts involved more than their individual missions. They needed to understand every aspect of the systems that their lives depended on. Each man was assigned to become an expert on one component -- the environmental control system, say, or the spacecraft's instrument displays -- and brief the other astronauts on that equipment. They were assigned to explain ongoing missions to the families of the astronauts in space. And when an astronaut was killed, they were the ones who had to inform widows of the deaths of their husbands.

Astronauts at Mission Control
Astronauts filled supportive roles at NASA as well. The position of Capcom, the only person in mission control who communicated directly with the spacecraft during a flight, was manned by astronauts who knew how to translate and filter all the information from mission control into the data the men in space required. Capcom communications often had that dry, competitive astronaut humor.

Army vs. Navy
Most of the astronauts had graduated from either West Point or the Naval Academy and retained loyalties. During Apollo 8, Capcom Mike Collins relayed news and sports scores to the astronauts during their flight, including one that had been played weeks earlier: "Navy, fourteen; Army, twenty-one." Jim Lovell, a Navy man, responded "You're very garbled, Houston. I am unable to read and will call you back next year." Both Lovell and Collins knew only too well that Apollo 8's commander, Frank Borman, was an Army man, having graduated from West Point. One of the first messages between spacecraft consisted of a hand drawn sign posted in the window of Gemini 6, piloted by Naval Academy grads Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford, as it rendezvoused with Borman and Lovell inside Gemini 7. It said, "BEAT ARMY."

Jim Lovell. NASA.

Borman: Mission as Battle
Frank Borman was a Cold Warrior, a commander focused on his mission. "I was there mainly because of the Cold War -- the Apollo program was a battle in the Cold War. That's why it was funded. That's why it was started, and of course it had a lot of other virtues, but it was a battle in the Cold War, and we won. That was my main interest. ... I didn't go into the NASA program to pick up rocks or to go the moon or anything else. I went in there because I was a military officer and that was the next notch in my profession." Jim Lovell said, "I think Frank was more anxious about seeing how we could get back home safely and accomplish the mission."

Lovell: Stargazer in Space
Lovell, like Borman, was a military man. He was also a longtime stargazer, well suited for his role as navigator on Apollo 8. During their courtship Marilyn Lovell recalled, "one of the things that [Lovell] would like to do, we'd climb up to the roof and watch the stars and he would point things out to me, you know, the constellations and what have you." Frank Borman said, "You know, Lovell was all interested in going to the moon. He had been a great fan of Jules Verne and rockets, and I never had any interest in that at all." Lovell was also more of an extrovert, with a sense of humor that sometimes masked his seriousness. Originally Lovell had been assigned to the Apollo 8 backup crew. But when Mike Collins had to drop out for surgery on his spine, Lovell was reunited with his Gemini commander, Borman, for Apollo 8. During his time in lunar orbit, Lovell scouted future Apollo landing sites.

Bill Anders. NASA

Anders: An Explorer
The third member of their crew, William Anders, was as intense as Borman but with the love of exploration that Lovell had. "When I was a kid, I was an explorer scout. And even before then, always interested in exploration; read books about Lewis and Clark and John Weley Powell and the climbing of this mountain or that. ... I was always willing to go ... see what was on the other side of the mountain. And so Apollo in general, represented a massive opportunity to explore. And my main motivation was exploration. It was not so much the flying or the patriotism. Those were big elements but the main thing was the exploration."

Anders had been trained as Apollo 8's Lunar Module pilot but delays in developing that spacecraft led to the change in Apollo 8's mission. Anders' job shifted to photographer and geologic observer, scrutinizing the surface of the moon for scientists on Earth. "I really hoped, not only to be able to go around the moon, but be able to walk on it someday. At least I got fifty percent of that."

Moon crew logo.jpg

Last Mission for Borman
Apollo 8's lunar orbit mission went exceedingly well and set the stage for Apollo 11 and future lunar landings. It was Frank Borman's last flight. "After Apollo 11 for me the program was basically over because I was there because it was the battle of the Cold War. I would have never volunteered as Jim Lovell did to go back on Apollo 13." Borman briefly advised President Richard Nixon on space policy before joining Eastern Airlines and serving as its president and chief operating officer.

Astronauts Turned Executives
Lovell commanded Apollo 13. On that mission, the explosion of an onboard oxygen tank almost cost Lovell and his crewmates their lives. Quick thinking, in space and in mission control, was required to return the crew safely to earth. Until the long-duration flights aboard U.S. and Soviet space stations, Lovell held the record for cumulative time in space. Following his service with NASA, Lovell served as president and chief executive officer of Bay-Houston Towing Company in Houston, Texas, and later as president of Fisk Telephone Systems, and an executive vice president of Centel Corporation.

Earth Bound
William Anders did not return to the moon, although he did take one of history's most famous photographs of the Earth rising over the lunar horizon. He left NASA to serve on a number of federal agencies: the National Aeronautics and Space Council, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He also served as ambassador to Norway. Anders later went to work in the private sector for General Electric and as chief executive officer of General Dynamics.

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