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.

Apollo 8 crew in training (NASA)

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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.”

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