Three Apollo 8 astronauts relive historic day

December 21, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Frank Borman, James Lovell Jr. and William Anders stood on a ramp overlooking the Apollo 8 command module on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

A news reporter conducted an interview as visitors to the museum's Henry Crown Space Center gazed up at them and murmured in awe.

Mr. Anders broke away and walked down the ramp, then back up, then down again, staring intently at the spacecraft. After 25 years, he was still intrigued with the 9-by-13-foot capsule whose white-and-rust mottled exterior bore silent testimony to the demanding role it had played in the history of humanity, and also in the lives of three men.

On Dec. 21, 1968, Messrs. Borman, Lovell and Anders strapped themselves into the spacecraft perched atop a Saturn 5 rocket ** filled with 531,000 gallons of kerosene and liquid oxygen, capable of generating as much energy as a small atomic bomb, and were blasted into history.

They were the first humans to break free of the Earth's gravitational influence. They were the first to see the far side of the moon. They were the first to see an "earthrise" over the moon.

They orbited the moon 10 times, at times flying as close as 69.5 miles to the surface. On Christmas Eve, they took turns reading from the book of Genesis as millions of people they had left behind watched and listened on television and radio.

Six days after they blasted off, they hurtled back in the spacecraft at nearly 25,000 miles an hour -- the fastest speed mankind had ever achieved -- through 5,000-degree heat.

The command module, which brought the astronauts together last week for a 25th reunion, appeared considerably worse for wear than its one-time passengers.

Even in business suits, they looked like pilots -- lean, fit and far more than casually interested in the old spacecraft.

Mr. Anders took umbrage at the sight of what looked like flakes of paint trapped inside a window. "I don't know what that stuff is," he grumbled, eyeing it. "I'd like to take a vacuum to it."

The astronauts said that when they were strapped into their seats in the tiny module on top of the rocket they were well aware of the extraordinary nature, and the risks, of their mission.

"You knew you were on something different," Mr. Anders said. "Maybe on a one-way trip."

He shrugged. "But I've done more dangerous things. These guys have too."

Indeed, Mr. Lovell, who had orbited the Earth with Mr. Borman in Gemini 7 in a 1965 space rendezvous mission, and had spacewalked during Gemini 12 in 1966, went on to serve as commander of the troubled Apollo 13 mission.

That 1970 moon landing mission was aborted when an oxygen tank exploded, cutting off the astronauts' oxygen and electrical power.

They crawled into the lunar module and headed the crippled craft back to Earth while the world watched the tense drama on television.

It was an incident that, if it had happened on Apollo 8, would have killed the astronauts. Apollo 8 had no lunar module in which to escape.

Despite such setbacks, and even the deaths associated with the space program, humanity is destined to continue to explore space, the astronauts said.

"Space travel, hopefully, will become more regular," Mr. Anders said.

"What do you think the next stop should be, Mars?" Mr. Borman asked him.

"I would think back to the moon, again, as a steppingstone," Mr. Anders said as Mr. Borman nodded. "Mars is a big undertaking. You've got radiation problems. We ought to get familiar with transplanetary flight first. Let's get people up there, living, and not make it into a big Apollo-like event."

The astronauts wandered through the Henry Crown Space Center, where various artifacts from their mission are displayed: Mr. Borman's space suit, which he could fit into today, as he

weighs exactly as much as he did 25 years ago; the flight plan open to the text of Genesis; the nylon and Teflon jumpsuit Mr. Lovell wore inside the spacecraft.

There is also a small bottle of Coronet VSQ brandy, encased in a fireproof container, that went with them.

"We didn't know it was there," Mr. Anders said. "Somebody else put it on board. I think it was Deke Slayton. It was strictly against regulations. Frank wouldn't let us drink it."

Mr. Borman, the mission's commander, laughed and defended himself. "I figured if [the space capsule] would have blown up, people would have said it was because we drank the brandy," he said.

They talked about what they saw in space -- a desolate, colorless moon, and a brilliant, eerily small Earth.

"You put your hand up to the window, and you could put the Earth behind your thumb," said Mr. Lovell, the command module pilot. "It gives you a humble feeling, that everything you've ever known is behind your thumb."

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