Space still holds the collective imagination, but it feels like the province of billionaires now.
In this era of often cited but less often experienced American greatness, one approaches Jeffrey Kluger’s Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon as one might approach a fairy tale. There is the impulse to harken for a simpler time when the nation, frightened by Sputnik and Soviet threats from above, took up President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. The problem that exists with such presumptions is that decade was as tumultuous as our current time and a poor era for magical thinking.
The Vietnam War, the assassinations of political leaders (including Kennedy) and riots in major cities like Detroit and Los Angeles created the illustration of a fractured country far from capable of a unifying project. Yet the pursuit of space flight acted as an antidote to the turmoil, giving America a glimpse of the future with every successful launch. Project Mercury put men into orbit around the Earth. The Gemini Project acted as a dress rehearsal for lunar exploration, expanding the flight crew to two and practicing space walks and orbital rendezvous between manned crafts. The astronauts on these projects achieved a level of celebrity unheard of for military men, but it was the Apollo program and its mandate for the moon that captured the imagination of a nation drunk with space.
In this overarching, decade-long story of innovation, failure, tragedy and glory, Kluger needed a protagonist, and he centers the story on Frank Borman, the eventual commander of Apollo 8. Borman is not the flashy sort like some of his fellow astronauts, nor does he put on an air of gruffness and superiority. The term “striver” is one that suits him best. When he set his mind to something, he usually achieved it, and the first direction he wanted for his life was a military career as a pilot. West Point led to the Air Force, but Borman blew out his eardrum while practicing maneuvers with a head cold. He missed the Korean War and was on the verge of permanent grounding. He sought out some experimental treatment while stationed in the Philippines that partially repaired the ear and got himself in the air again. He didn’t make the first round of applicants into the astronaut program, but he was chosen when Mercury expanded into Gemini.
That the Mercury astronauts did not like sharing the spotlight and their lucrative contracts with Life magazine offers some of the detailing that makes Apollo 8 such an enjoyable read. By tethering the perspective to Borman for the most part, Kluger tells a very human story of an extraordinary endeavor. Borman is the hero who overcomes his own bad decisions and the misfortunes that fall upon him. Bumped from a plum assignment of Gemini 1, he found himself in command of Gemini 7, a two-week endurance mission orbiting the earth where the medics back home monitored the physical effects of such an extended stay in space. Teamed with Jim Lovell, future commander of Apollo 13 and eventual co-author with Kluger of the account of that famous mission, every design flaw of the Gemini spacecraft was exposed during that flight.
Borman, Lovell and Bill Anders lifted off on Apollo 8 on December 21, 1968 and became the first human beings to ever leave low Earth orbit. The flight occurs about two-thirds of the way into the book. The remainder deals with the aftereffects on the world. A billion people watched or listened to the three astronauts when they broadcast a greeting from deep space. That number equals a third of the population of the planet at that time, and Kluger beautifully details the bootleg riggings used in Eastern Bloc nations to witness this height of human capability. The Cold War was simmering and America was seemingly losing space to the Soviets after the tragic explosion of Apollo 1 some 18 months earlier. But Americans were about to orbit the moon, and seven months later Neil Armstrong would take his giant leap for mankind.
Before the flight of Gemini 7, Kluger whimsically outlines the things no one tells an astronaut, like how the gigantic booster rockets sway in the Florida wind or how slowly time moves for the helmeted astronauts strapped to their chairs. But the underlying theme of the book is also something people rarely speak of: the fragility of the endeavor to put men in space. A plastic cover no larger than a quarter and thinner than that coin could prevent an engine from firing. A faulty wire could cause a tragic outcome. All-in-all, eight astronauts had died by the time Borman, Lovell and Anders began their fateful mission. Politically, the program competed with the growing quagmire in Vietnam for resources, its funding never a certainty. But Lyndon Johnson believed in it and made the necessary apportionments in the waning days of his presidency. Kennedy is most often remembered for the space program, but reaching the moon is another one of his aspirations that Johnson made reality, and Kluger gives the big Texan his due.
Space still holds the collective imagination, but it feels like the province of billionaires now. With Bezos, Branson and Musk competing for the orbital tourist trade, space has become another area that’s been polluted and corporatized. But then, there’s the Mars rover and that August night in 2012 when all the theoretical planning and engineering worked and Curiosity began sending home images of the alien landscape. Most of us grew up with space shuttles launching with regularity and were never treated to a sight like the one on the NASA livestream when Curiosity landed. We witnessed joy and tears, a celebration of genius and expertise. It is nearly impossible to fully imagine what the world was like before manned space flight or the sense of disbelief when it was achieved and anything suddenly seemed possible. When addressing Congress after Apollo 8, Borman told those assembled: “Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit, and I hope we will never forget that.” It would seem that we did for a time, but we are again looking to the stars and yearning to achieve.