Book: Rocket Men
Jul 6, 2020
“Two minutes remained until the spacecraft, now moving at 5,125 miles per hour, went behind the Moon. Since lift-off, Apollo 8 had traveled 240,000 miles, and the Moon had traveled 150,000 miles, to make this rendezvous. “One minute to LOS [loss of signal],” Carr radioed to Apollo 8. “All systems Go.” “We’ll see you on the other side,” Lovell said. Outside Anders’s window, any trace of sunlight had disappeared, and as his eyes adapted to the intense darkness he began to see stars, it seemed like a million of them, so many he couldn’t even pick out constellations. The sight took his breath away. He looked to his right, through the window beside him, hungry for more, but suddenly there were no stars anymore—all of them had gone dark. There was just a giant black hole, as if part of the universe had vanished. The hair on the back of Anders’s neck stood up, and for a moment it felt as if his heart had stopped, until he realized that he wasn’t looking at a missing piece of the universe at all. He was looking at the Moon. A few seconds after that, Apollo 8 disappeared behind it.”
This is a truly American book—one which showcases the power of a nation to accomplish a near-impossible task within a few months when fueled by pride, adventure, and a fear of embarrassment. While I am not old enough to remember the Apollo missions, those I know who do recall, with nostalgia, how they brought America together. While it is clear that no feet of engineering has since inspired so many Americans and that the Apollo missions feel like the glory days compared to today, there are clear parallels between the state of affairs in 1968 and those in 2020. In 1968, Frank Borman, William Anders, and James Lovell saved Christmas. Who will save us this year?
Read this book if you are looking to feel inspired, want to understand the societal impact of the Apollo missions, or, like me, just really like rockets. You won’t be disappointed.
Vapors begin to spew from around the base of the giant rocket. Less than a minute remains before lift-off. When the five first-stage engines ignite, they will deliver a combined 160 million horsepower. In the final few seconds, a typhoon of flames unfurls to either side. Beneath the astronauts, it is not just the launchpad that begins to shake, but the entire world.
Sometimes he’d invite Valerie out to a dusty crossroads and put on a private airshow for her, flying too low, testing to see how much vertical pull-up he could endure before blacking out from loss of oxygen to the brain caused by high g-forces, seeing if he could wake up before the plane went down.
Urinating was a straightforward, if inelegant, process. It began with a kind of open-ended condom for which the astronauts had been fitted during training. (The devices came in small, medium, and large sizes, but astronauts assigned a more scientific nomenclature to the fittings: “extra-large,” “immense,” and “unbelievable.”)
Even when urine was expelled properly from the spacecraft, the crew couldn’t quite be done worrying about it. Just the tiny force necessary to vent the liquid—which turned to gleaming ice crystals in the sunlit cold of space—could have a profound effect on the spacecraft’s trajectory and would have to be accounted for as the ship continued its journey.
As they mulled over how to proceed, Borman radioed Houston. He was supposed to be sleeping but, in the excitement of the flight, couldn’t make it happen.
“Apollo 8, Houston. Five minutes…all systems Go. Over,” Carr radioed to the crew. “Thank you. Houston, Apollo 8,” Borman replied. “Roger, Frank,” Carr said. “The custard is in the oven at three fifty. Over.”
Two minutes remained until the spacecraft, now moving at 5,125 miles per hour, went behind the Moon. Since lift-off, Apollo 8 had traveled 240,000 miles, and the Moon had traveled 150,000 miles, to make this rendezvous. “One minute to LOS [loss of signal],” Carr radioed to Apollo 8. “All systems Go.” “We’ll see you on the other side,” Lovell said. Outside Anders’s window, any trace of sunlight had disappeared, and as his eyes adapted to the intense darkness he began to see stars, it seemed like a million of them, so many he couldn’t even pick out constellations. The sight took his breath away. He looked to his right, through the window beside him, hungry for more, but suddenly there were no stars anymore—all of them had gone dark. There was just a giant black hole, as if part of the universe had vanished. The hair on the back of Anders’s neck stood up, and for a moment it felt as if his heart had stopped, until he realized that he wasn’t looking at a missing piece of the universe at all. He was looking at the Moon. A few seconds after that, Apollo 8 disappeared behind it.
the Moon is one-quarter the size of Earth,
The Moon’s gravitational pull on Earth is equally important; without it, Earth would wobble on its axis and lose its moderate climate.
(there were no women’s restrooms at Mission Control in 1968 because there were no women
One article in The New York Times focused solely on the fact that each crewman was an only child.
Around the time Apollo 8 disappeared behind the Moon (about three o’clock in Houston), a message lit up on one of Mission Control’s large data panels. In red, white, and blue letters, it read MERRY CHRISTMAS APOLLO 8.
Just eight and a half hours remained before Trans Earth Injection. On board Apollo 8, Anders secretly hoped something would go wrong—nothing catastrophic, of course, just enough that he could show Houston, and his crewmates, how beautifully he’d mastered the spacecraft and its systems.
“I want you to get your ass in bed! Right now! No, get to bed! Go to bed! Hurry up! I’m not kidding you, get to bed!” It was a conversation many would be having in their own households this night, Christmas Eve.
In sixty-four countries, a billion people—more than one-quarter of the world’s population—joined them, pushing close to their own televisions and radios, waiting to hear what the first men at the Moon would say on Christmas Eve.
In 1961, Kraft had been the flight controller on Mercury-Redstone 2, the first planned launch of a hominid into space. The passenger was a chimpanzee named Ham, and Kraft had become attached to him.
Then, over the static and hiss of the radio connection, a voice came through to Mission Control. “Houston, Apollo 8, over.” The voice was Lovell’s. “Hello, Apollo 8,” Mattingly answered. “Loud and clear.” “Roger,” Lovell said. “Please be informed—there is a Santa Claus.”
Some had compared NASA’s challenge in finding the entry corridor to throwing a paper airplane into a public mailbox slot—from a distance of four miles. There was almost no margin for error.
For his part, Anders was in no shape for an inspection. As part of his plan to avoid defecating in space, he’d asked NASA doctors to prescribe a low-residue diet before and during the flight, and his plan had worked so well that he hadn’t had a bowel movement during the entire mission. Now he needed to find a toilet.
Other than some stiff legs—and Lovell’s lingering tendency to let go of things in midair and expect them to float—everyone checked out fine.
At the Flintlock, John Aaron and Rod Loe, who’d worked with Anders to write mission rules and procedures, stood at the bottom of the stairs, not yet ready to go up and join the party. “What are you guys doing?” a friend asked. “Why aren’t you upstairs?” Loe thought it over for a moment. “We’re just standing here thinking how proud we are to be Americans,” he said.
Even the Soviet Union could not hide its admiration. Apollo 8, the nation said, “goes beyond the limits of a national achievement and marks a stage in the development of the universal culture of Earthmen.” In a congratulatory note, several Soviet cosmonauts lauded their counterparts for “the precision of your joint work and your courage.”
Mascons—the anomalies in lunar gravity
At Columbia University in New York, he was pelted by marshmallows, then overrun onstage by students dressed in gorilla costumes.
Although Borman had considered the Soviet Union an enemy, he liked the Russian people and held the cosmonauts in the highest regard—no westerner better understood the rigors of their training, or the great risks they took for their country.
Some suggested it was Apollo 8 itself—man’s first look at his home planet, and at its thin, fragile atmosphere—that launched the environmental movement.
NASA made four more manned trips to the Moon after Apollo 13, all of which successfully landed crews on the surface.
In all, twelve Americans walked on the Moon between 1969 and 1972.
From the moment she showed symptoms, Frank refused to leave her side, and has remained committed to her care ever since. Even at age ninety, he awakens at 5:30 A.M. to exercise, not for his own benefit, but to make sure he stays alive long enough to take care of Susan until the end of her days.
There was one significant difference between 1968 and modern-day America, however. In 1968, there was Apollo 8. When Borman, Lovell, and Anders returned from the Moon, few could argue—no matter their age or political leaning or background—that they hadn’t seen something important and beautiful happen, that these three men had helped the country, and the world, to heal. So far, there has been no Apollo 8 for our time.
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