The Event that Saved 1968
"We got millions of telegrams after we landed, but the one I remember most was, 'Congratulations to the crew of Apollo 8. You saved 1968.' We didn't save it [ourselves] — but a lot of the people who made Apollo work saved it."
— Frank Borman, Apollo 8 astronaut
Newsman Walter Cronkite remembers the year of Apollo 8: "The whole 1960s really culminating in 1968 were the most terrible decade, undoubtedly, of the twentieth century and very possibly our entire history, even including the decade of the Civil War. America was divided as it never had been since the Civil War and by the Vietnam War, by the civil rights fight.
"Everything seemed to come to a head in '68. There were the assassinations of two of the leaders of the more liberal causes. Bobby Kennedy, shortly after winning that election in California that probably would have put him over the top as the presidential candidate that year, and Martin Luther King, of course, in Memphis, was a terrible blow to the entire cause of civil rights. By the summer of '68 the Democratic convention turned out to be a terrible shambles of violence and counter-violence by the Chicago police... By December the country was pretty far down."
In other parts of the world, violence escalated. The year had begun with the Tet offensive, and the American death toll in Vietnam would surpass fourteen thousand by year's end. Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia prompted President Lyndon Johnson to cancel arms treaty negotiations with the U.S.S.R. Student protests in Paris escalated into a battle between unions and the de Gaulle government. Hundreds of students were killed in Mexico, just weeks before the Olympic Games in which African Americans raised their black-gloved fists in protest against American racism.
Working in a Cocoon
Meanwhile, NASA was working under a deadline. President John F. Kennedy had set a goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. The pace at which this task was accomplished demanded a certain amount of insularity. Historian Andrew Chaikin recounts, "Inside NASA, they were almost in a cocoon of focus and determination and just the absolute all-out effort to get to the moon by the end of the decade. They really couldn't afford to be too distracted by what was happening in the rest of the country. It wasn't out of a callousness; it was just that that's what the program demanded of them, that kind of total focus. I remember [Apollo 12 commander] Pete Conrad telling me that even though all of these things were happening, he never had time to read a book or magazine for seven years; he barely knew what was going on in Vietnam at all because his mind was so totally focused on the program."
Safer in the Space Program
The astronauts' families had more contact with the news. But for the wives of fighter pilots, 1968 was a good year to have your husband in the Apollo program, even with all the risks involved. Valerie Anders, wife of astronaut Bill Anders, recalled that life in 1968 consisted of "mostly Vietnam and how bad that was. That was the worst. We had a lot of friends over there that I wondered if I'd ever see them again. Some of them didn't come back; some of them were POWs."
In the End, a Triumph
The decision to make Apollo 8 a lunar orbit mission seemed hasty to some, but the success of the mission in December of 1968 was an untarnished triumph that the nation — and the world — could appreciate. Valerie Anders: "I thought this was a very positive thing happening in a year of really negative things. And to me it was something to show the world; that we could do something besides go to war; we could do something positive with our technology. We could explore a new frontier. And so I thought that's why the risk was all worth it."