BBC – Future – NASA's mission to one billion people



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It is December 21, 1968, 7:50 am in Cape Kennedy, Florida. The Apollo 8 crew – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders – are tethered on their couches, about 110 meters above ground at the top of the first manned rocket Saturn 5 – the most powerful machine ever built. When the final seconds are released, there is little to say and little else they can do. About four million liters of fuel are about to light beneath them. They are, as the BBC TV commentator noted, "sitting on the equivalent of a huge bomb."

There is every reason to worry. During the previous unmanned test of Saturn 5, a few months earlier, strong vibrations and g forces shortly after launch would probably kill anyone on board. Although the rocket has been modified since then, Borman's wife has been quietly warned by NASA that her husband has about a 50% chance of surviving the mission.

The performance of the Saturn 5 rocket is not the only thing that worries Nasa's management. Apollo 8 is a firsts mission – a gigantic leap forward in the race to land a man on the moon. It will be the first manned spacecraft to emerge from Earth's orbit, the first to orbit the Moon and the first to return to Earth at an astonishing 40,000 km / h (25,000 mph). The mission is a calculated bet from the space agency to defeat the Soviet Union in our nearest neighbor.

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"It was a very, very bold decision," says Teasel Muir-Harmony, Apollo's curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. "Everyone within the agency knew that it was an extraordinarily risky mission and there were many criticisms, most notably by the British astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell, of the United States endangering human life."

In fact, Apollo 8 never intended to be so ambitious. It was originally planned as the first test of the Apollo lander in Earth orbit, but the lander's production was delayed. In addition, the CIA warned that intelligence suggested that the Soviets were about to attempt their own manned flight around the Moon (you can read how close they really were here.

"Everyone forgets that the Apollo program was not a journey of exploration or scientific discovery, it was a battle in the Cold War," says Borman, "and we were Cold War warriors."

Despite the scruples of his bosses, and after only four months of intensive training, Borman, a former military fighter pilot, says he never doubted the mission would succeed.

"We were forced to change the mission to land on the moon before the end of the decade, which President Kennedy had promised," says Borman. "In my view, the mission was extremely important not only to the US, but to free people everywhere."

With the engines lit and counting down to zero, Saturn 5 slowly lifts off the cushion and accelerates into the clear blue sky of Florida. "I felt like we were at the point of a needle," says Borman. "The noise gave the impression of enormous power – I had the feeling of being together for the ride, rather than being in control of anything."

We looked down and there was the Moon – Frank Borman

"It's very difficult to breathe, almost impossible to move and your eyes flatten so you have tunnel vision," he recalls, "it's an unusual feeling."

About eight minutes later, they are in orbit. After an hour and a half of orbit, they trigger the engine of the third stage of the rocket and move away from Earth toward the Moon. Then, two days and 402,000 kilometers (250,000 miles) later, at 8.55 GMT on Christmas Eve , Borman performs crucial engine firing on the Apollo service module that will put the spacecraft in orbit around the Moon.

"I think we started the engine in about four minutes to slow down enough to get into lunar orbit," Borman recalls. "I got about three-quarters of the way and we looked down and there was the moon."

The crew was the first man to see the far side of the Moon with their own eyes. "I do not think anything I studied has prepared me for the really problematic nature of the lunar surface – it was too confusing," says Borman. "It was terribly distressed with holes, craters, volcanic wastes, so it was a very interesting first glimpse of a different world."

And it's not just the moon's view that catches them by surprise. About 75 hours and 48 minutes into the mission, Anders sees the Earth's blue marble rising above the lunar horizon and vying for colored film to capture the moment.

"The contrast between the distressed Moon and the beautiful blue Earth was remarkable, the Earth was the only thing in the whole Universe that had any color," says Borman. "You could see the white clouds, the pinkish brown continents … we are very lucky to live on this planet."

A mission that was conceived as a risky test of human technological ingenuity and astronaut bravery is being transformed into an unexpectedly emotional experience for those involved. The Earthrise image would not be published until Apollo 8 returned to Earth, but by Christmas 1968 the crew had another gift for the planet.

"Before the flight, NASA's public relations officer told Borman that they expected about one billion people – a quarter of the world's population – to come into line with the Christmas Eve broadcast of the lunar orbit," says Muir- Harmony. "More humans would be listening to his transmission than any other human voice in history and he was told to say something appropriate."

The three of us and our wives tried to find out – we could not – Frank Borman

"This is one of the most striking moments in a free country," says Borman. "You can imagine if the Soviets were standing, we would be talking about Lenin and Stalin and told us to do something appropriate."

But the emergence of "something appropriate" proved far from easy. "The three of us and our wives try to figure it out," says Borman. "We could not."

He turned to a friend of his, who in turn asked veteran war correspondent Joe Layton. "From what I understand, he was sitting all night playing crumpled paper when his wife passed, and his wife was a former French resistance fighter, she suggested why do not you start at the beginning?"

With the TV cameras rolling, and as the spacecraft approached the lunar sunrise on Christmas Eve, the team began to read the Book of Genesis. "At first …" Anders begins. Borman concluded the broadcast with "Good evening, good luck, a merry Christmas and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth."

"We were pretty convinced it was the most appropriate thing to do, because there is a sense of wonder on my part, at least, that the Universe is bigger than all of us," says Borman. "It's very organized and it's too huge not to have some kind of divine creation."

But the mission is far from over. On Christmas Day, Borman fires the engine again to get out of lunar orbit. "The burning of the Earth's orbit was carried out on the far side of the Moon, out of reach of the ground – if it had failed, I would still be circling the Moon."

"Please be informed, there is a Santa!" Exclaims Lovell, as he re-establishes contact with the ground. And Santa even delivered it. Covered by specially designed fireproof ribbon, the crew unwraps their gift of mission control: a turkey dinner with gravy.

"[Our boss] Deke Slayton also smuggled three doses of brandy on board, but we did not drink it, "says Borman. "I did not want to be blamed for anything that went wrong, so we brought it home."

It has extended the limits of human experience, affected the way we enjoy Earth and our place in the Universe – Teasel Muir-Harmony

"I do not know what happened to mine," he adds. "It's probably worth a lot of money now."

On December 27, the crew returned to Earth – falling so close to their target in the Pacific Ocean that the recovery ship had to get out of the way. It was the perfect end to a perfect mission, the ultimate proof that the bet to fly to the moon will be worth it.

"Apollo 8 was not just a great scientific and engineering achievement," says Muir-Harmony, "it has extended the limits of human experience, affected the way we enjoy Earth and our place in the Universe."

For Colonel Borman, at 90, still a formidable Cold War warrior, the great achievement of his final mission was to bring the United States closer to the Moon.

"I'll be honest with you, I really do not think about the legacy of Apollo 8," he tells me. "Frankly, after Apollo 11 was successful [in landing men on the Moon], I was no longer interested in the program. I joined to help fight a battle in the Cold War and we won. "

To hear more of Frank Borman, Apollo 8 and astronauts talking about Genesis and their own religious experiences, listen to the radio program Radio 3 broadcast on December 22: Message from the Moon

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