To Boldly Go
Sending Apollo 8 to the moon was a risky mix of cold war politics, bravery, and the faith of one man, George Low, in his engineers.
- By Michael Klesius
- AirSpaceMag.com, December 19, 2008
(Page 2 of 2)
On August 7, having learned that the lunar module test in Earth orbit might have to slip until March 1969, Low wrote, “I asked Chris Kraft [director of flight operations] to look into the feasibility of a lunar orbit mission on AS 503 [the next available Saturn V booster].”
Two days later, Low met with Bob Gilruth, the director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Johnson Space Center) in Houston. At 8:45 a.m., according to his notes, Low told Gilruth he’d been considering the possibility of a lunar orbit mission with Saturn number AS 503, and got a very enthusiastic response. Fifteen minutes later, Kraft indicated that his preliminary studies showed a lunar orbit mission was feasible. With that, Low called a meeting of Gilruth, Kraft, and, representing the astronaut office, Deke Slayton. “After considerable discussion, we agreed that this mission should certainly be given serious consideration,” he wrote, “and that we saw no reason at the present time why it should not be done. We immediately decided that it was important to get both von Braun and [Sam] Phillips [the Apollo program director at NASA headquarters in Washington] on board in order to obtain their endorsement and enthusiastic support.” The men made a flurry of calls, and an in-person meeting was arranged.
By that afternoon, Friday, August 9, a dozen of the top decision makers in the Apollo program had flown from Florida, Texas, and Washington to Huntsville. They convened in von Braun’s office at 2:30. Low ran the meeting, selling the group immediately on his idea to send astronauts to orbit the moon within four months. The meeting ended with high morale, and with an agreement to get together in Washington on August 14.
In the days that followed, Kraft worked out the best available window for a daylight launch, which fell between December 20 and 26. Slayton visited Borman on Saturday, August 10, and asked if he’d like to take the mission. He got an enthusiastic yes. Other technical issues, such as how to make up for the weight of the missing lunar lander on the Saturn rocket (it wouldn’t be needed for an orbital mission), were raised and solved.
At the August 14 meeting in Washington, NASA Deputy Administrator Tom Paine pressed the Apollo managers as to whether they’d really considered all the risks of a lunar orbital mission. In his notes, Low recorded the comments around the table. Speaking for the rocket team, Von Braun said, “Once a decision has been made to fly a man on [Saturn number] 503, it doesn’t matter to the launch vehicle how far we go.” Slayton said, “This is the only chance to get to the moon before the end of 1969. It is a natural thing to do.” Kraft thought: “Probably the flight operations people have the most difficult job in this…. But I have every confidence in our doing it.” Low himself concluded with “The question is not whether we can afford to do it; it should be can we afford not to do it.”
There was still one obstacle—convincing Administrator Webb and George Mueller, Deputy Administrator for Manned Space Flight, who were in Vienna at a space conference. That proved trickier than the technical hurdles. On the 13th, Phillips had called Mueller in Vienna and gotten a very cool response to the plan, while Webb, he recalled later, “was clearly shaken by the abrupt proposal and by the consequences of possible failure.” But with two more days of negotiating by phone, the team of managers led by Low convinced Webb and Mueller, via Phillips, of the plan’s technical and political benefits. They promised that it would go forward only if Apollo 7 (a critical October checkout of the redesigned command module) was successful. It flew a virtually flawless mission, October 11 through 22, marred only by a round of head colds that afflicted the crew.
The Soviets were keeping pace, barely. The unmanned Zond 5, another Soyuz-borne test craft capable of carrying cosmonauts, launched on September 15. It became the first vehicle to fly past the moon and return to Earth. Though it fell short of Soviet territory, landing in the Indian Ocean, the Soviets recovered it, and found its cargo of turtles, flies, worms, and plants alive and healthy. This was followed on October 22 by cosmonaut Georgi Beregovoi’s flight on Soyuz 2, the first Soviet manned shot in a year and a half. During four days in Earth orbit, he maneuvered close to a Soyuz target vehicle, and returned safely.
On November 12, Paine, by then the new NASA administrator, announced to the world that Apollo 8’s mission had changed, and that it would take Borman, Lovell, and Anders into orbit around the moon on Christmas Eve. The announcement was made two days after the launch of Zond 6, another unmanned lunar orbital flight. The Soviets surprised the West by announcing the Zond 6 flight before it was over. But due to a faulty rubber O-ring gasket, the capsule depressurized on its way home. It crashed onto Soviet soil, ending any hope of sending humans to the moon a few weeks later.
The Soviets never managed to send humans beyond Earth orbit. Despite the Zond missions’ reentry problems, plenty of cosmonauts were eager to go. In the ensuing years, Bill Anders would hear about it first-hand. “I met a lot of them later, in various capacities,” he recalled at the Newseum event. “One of them in particular was Alexei Leonov, who claimed, and I didn’t have any reason to doubt it, that he was the cosmonaut selected to fly on the flight that the Russians didn’t approve that would have beat us around the moon.
“He was very unhappy that they didn’t let him go.”