Category Escaping the Bonds of Earth

OUTSIDER

When Bill Anders joined NASA in October 1963, he stood out: among the Fourteen, six astronaut candidates lacked test-piloting credentials, and he was one of these apparent ‘outsiders’. As a child, he had never had aspirations of becoming a test pilot, but rather wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, Arthur Anders, and become a career naval officer. William Alison Anders was born in Hong Kong on 17 October 1933 and, in his youth, was an active Boy Scout, receiving its second-highest rank. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the Naval Academy in 1955, but opted for a commission in the Air Force, serving as a fighter pilot in an all-weather interceptor squadron in Iceland.

Anders’ decision to move away from naval service was made in part by the extraordinary number of fatal accidents he saw as a midshipman: one aircraft, for example, landed on the carrier, missed the arresting net, hit a line of parked jets, careered off the deck and plunged into the sea. Anders accepted the risks of his new­found love of aviation, but preferred to face such risks in air-to-air combat, rather than whilst attempting to land. After Iceland, Anders’ next step, with 1,500 hours in his flight logbook, was to apply for test pilot school. He was rejected, on the basis that the school was ‘‘pushing academics’’ and desired him to earn an advanced degree.

With test pilot school still at the back of his mind, Anders enrolled in the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, graduating with a master’s degree in nuclear engineering in 1962. He had wanted to study astronautical engineering, but places were full, although Anders simulta­neously took night school classes in aeronautics at Ohio State University. Upon receipt of his master’s qualification, Anders again tried for test pilot school, only to learn that it was not recruiting students, and he moved instead to become a T-33 instructor pilot at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The following year, 1963, proved life-changing for Anders. He again applied for test pilot school, only to learn that now, under the new commandant, Chuck Yeager, it was looking for candidates with more flying experience. Unperturbed, he submitted his application and in June, whilst waiting to hear of the outcome, he learned that NASA were recruiting for its new class of astronauts. Test piloting qualifications, it turned out, were no longer mandatory and Anders had everything that the space agency needed: he was younger than 35, had an advanced degree and his logbook had now expanded to more than the 2,000 required hours.

When he was called to interview, Anders stressed his nuclear engineering work, aware that flights to the Moon would surely require an understanding of radiation hazards in cislunar space. That October, he was picked as one of the Fourteen… and, ironically, received a letter rejecting him from test pilot school! In his early years as an astronaut, Anders supervised Apollo’s environmental controls and his performance as the capcom during the Gemini VIII emergency in March 1966 quite possibly contributed to his assignment as Neil Armstrong’s pilot on the Gemini XI backup crew. By the end of that year, Anders had drawn his first actual flight assignment: to Frank Borman’s E mission, during which he hoped to get the opportunity to test-fly the lunar module in high Earth orbit. All that changed in August 1968 when Anders became a part of history: one of the first human explorers to visit the Moon.

FIRST AMONG EQUALS

In a strange kind of way, Neil Armstrong’s work during his first couple of years as an astronaut had helped pave the way for the selection of Dave Scott, his 33-year-old colleague aboard Gemini VIII. Deke Slayton had given Armstrong responsibility for mission operations and training and entrusted him to devise a system which would identify how many astronauts would be needed at any given time. It was this schematic, wrote James Hansen in his biography of Armstrong, that ‘‘allowed Slayton to determine when additional astronauts needed to be brought in. . . culminating in Houston’s announcement in June 1963 that NASA was looking for a new class of astronauts’’.

Slayton’s decision, he recounted, ‘‘was based on planning documents that were starting to arrive from [NASA] Headquarters’’. The 1962 astronaut intake, together with the remaining members of the Mercury Seven who were still on flight status, barely provided enough seats for Project Gemini. Early predictions for Apollo envisaged at least 12 missions in Earth and lunar orbit before a landing on the Moon could be attempted. That required Slayton to accept ‘‘a minimum of ten new astronauts in 1963 and… as many as twenty”. Fourteen newbies duly arrived in Houston in October of that year.

Although the selection criteria changed slightly – a more rigid upper age limit of 34 and the elimination of the need for the new astronauts to be test pilots being the main differences – David Randolph Scott still fitted perfectly into the classic mould of a spacefarer. Tall, athletic and with a middle name honouring the Air Force base on which he was born, it has often been said that it was no accident that Scott was the first of the 1963 group of astronauts to fly into space… and eventually would become the first of his class to command a mission. “In some circles,” noted Andy Chaikin in his book about Project Apollo, “there was a joke that if NASA ever came out with an astronaut recruiting poster, Dave Scott should be on it.” Further, Chaikin added, even astronauts who did not get on with Scott placed him at the top.

Despite the near-disaster which befell it, Gemini VIII marked the only mission in which the entire crew would one day set foot on the Moon; Armstrong as the first man to tread its dusty surface at the Sea of Tranquility and Scott in command of Apollo 15 in July 1971.

Scott was born on Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, on 6 June 1932, the son of an Air Force officer and progeny of a strict, frugal military family who instilled in him the virtues of personal discipline and devotion to setting and achieving ambitious life goals. In his autobiography, jointly co-authored with cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, Scott recalled watching Jenny biplanes soaring over Randolph as a three-year-old boy and was fascinated that aboard one of them was his father, Army Air Corps flier Tom Scott. From that tender age, the young Scott set his sights on someday becoming a pilot.

With a military father, the family moved many times during his childhood, from Texas to Indiana, abroad to the Philippines and, in 1939, back to the United States. Scott’s father was posted overseas after Pearl Harbour to support the war effort and the young boy developed an interest in model aircraft. Then, when his father returned at the end of the conflict, Scott received his first flying lesson.

Despite a desire to study at West Point, Scott won a swimming scholarship to read mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan in 1949. After a year in Michigan, he was summoned for a physical at West Point, passed and headed to upstate New York to begin preparations for a military career. In his autobiography, Scott would credit his four years at West Point – plus his own upbringing – as “the most valuable and formative… of my life’’.

Ultimately, in 1954, he graduated fifth in his class and opted to join the Air Force, receiving initial flight training at Marana Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. He subsequently moved to Texas to begin working on high-performance jets, followed by gunnery preparation and assignment to a fighter squadron in Utrecht, Holland. Whilst in Europe, Scott flew F-86 Sabre and F-100 Super Sabre jets under a variety of weather conditions and, in October 1956, when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, his squadron was placed on high alert for the first time.

Three years later, as the Mercury Seven were introduced to the world’s media, Scott watched from afar with scepticism; why, he wondered, were they abandoning

such promising military careers? His own focus was upon gaining an advanced degree in aeronautics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and achieving admission to test pilot school. His work at MIT, he later wrote, “was like trying to drink water from a high-pressure fire hydrant… Compared to the hard grind of MIT, the five or six years I had spent flying fighter jets felt like playing.” He and his wife, Lurton, also had a newborn daughter, Tracy.

As part of his master’s degree, Scott was introduced to the new field of ‘astronautics’ – “my first exposure to space’’ – and his dissertation focused upon the mathematical application of guidance techniques and celestial navigation. This undoubtedly proved of benefit during Projects Gemini and Apollo, both of which depended heavily upon rendezvous and docking. Scott passed his final exams shortly after John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, hoping for reassignment to test pilot school… only to be detailed instead as a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Air Force Academy. Fortunately, a conversation with a sympathetic superior officer led to a change of orders and Scott reported to the Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Graduation was followed, in mid-1963, by the lengthy application process to join NASA’s astronaut corps. In his autobiography, Scott recalled undergoing cardiograms, running on treadmills and enduring hypoxia evaluations, in which he was starved of oxygen to assess his physical response. The psychologists were especially difficult to please. When asked about his MIT days and how he had liked Boston, Scott replied that he found New Englanders cold, aloof and ‘‘a little hard to get to know’’ … only to discover that the stone-faced psychologist was a born-and – raised Bostoner!

It obviously had little adverse impact on his application, however, and in October 1963 Scott and 13 other candidates – Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, Bill Anders, Charlie Bassett, Al Bean, Gene Cernan, Roger Chaffee, Mike Collins, Walt Cunningham, Donn Eisele, Ted Freeman, Dick Gordon, Rusty Schweickart and Clifton ‘C. C.’ Williams – were notified of their assignment to NASA. Of these, eight were test pilots, whom Slayton intended to use ‘‘for the more immediately difficult work’’ as solo command module pilots for the Apollo missions, while the others represented a mixture of operational military fliers, engineers or researchers. The latter, added Slayton, ‘‘would get their chance, too, but on the development end of things’’. The excitement of the accelerating lunar effort, Scott wrote, was palpable, even in the wake of President John Kennedy’s assassination a few weeks later.

The new astronauts worked together surprisingly well, with the Air Force pilots kidding their Navy counterparts that they couldn’t bring their jets down without a thump. In return, the naval aviators retorted that the Air Force fliers needed far too much runway on which to land. Despite the steadily burgeoning number of astronauts, they were still offered deals on cars, small Life magazine contracts and ‘‘the banks all wanted to have our accounts’’. Unlike the Mercury Seven, however, their privacy was better respected and their wives and children were pestered less by journalists from other publications.

After initial training, Scott was assigned guidance and navigation as his area of responsibility and in June 1965 served as one of the backup capcoms for Gemini IV and America’s first spacewalk. Less than three months later, at the end of August, Deke Slayton caught up with him for “a word’’. Now that Gemini V was over, Slayton said, Neil Armstrong was free from his backup duties and would be teamed with Scott for Gemini VIII, scheduled for March 1966. The mission, Slayton added, would involve a lengthy, two-hour EVA for Scott. The boy from Randolph Air Force Base could not have been more delighted.

DR. RENDEZVOUS

Not long after his return from Gemini IX-A, astronaut Gene Cernan was summoned to Deke Slayton’s office and posed an unusual question.

‘‘Geno, how soon can you be ready to fly again?’’

‘‘Just say the word, Deke. When?’’

“Right now. Would you be willing to jump from backup to prime? Fly [Gemini] XII with Lovell?”

The year 1966 had certainly been a dramatic one for Cernan. When it began, he and Tom Stafford confidently looked forward to flying Gemini XII – the last manned mission in the series – themselves. Then, with awful suddenness, the deaths of Elliot See and Charlie Bassett in February pushed them from backup to prime crew on Gemini IX. Following his return from his first spaceflight, Cernan had been given a ‘dead-end’ slot, with Gordo Cooper, to back up Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin on Gemini XII. Now, with barely two-thirds of the year gone, Slayton was offering to break his own crew-rotation system, bumping Aldrin from the mission. Cernan’s first question to Slayton was a simple one. Why?

The reason was the Astronaut Manoeuvring Unit (AMU) – the Air Force-built rocket armchair which Cernan was originally detailed to test in June 1966 – whose military sponsors were pushing strongly to fly again on Gemini’s last mission. Without giving much away, Slayton told Cernan simply that he was the best man to fly the AMU, which was probably true, but a number of contributory factors centred on Buzz Aldrin himself: a man of mathematical and engineering genius, the first astronaut to possess a doctorate, an unquestioned expert in the field of space rendezvous. . . and a constant worry to Slayton. Aldrin had already raised eyebrows during Gemini IX-A, specifically those of Bob Gilruth and Chris Kraft, when he advocated having Cernan cut the lanyards of The Blob. Although not an outrageous suggestion, Slayton acquiesced, Aldrin’s advice was a little too adventurous in light of NASA’s limited EVA expertise.

Gilruth, Kraft and Slayton were not the only ones with worries about Aldrin. In his autobiography, Cernan hinted strongly that Aldrin’s intelligence was tempered by a seeming inability to stick to one topic: he had a tendency to fly off at tangents and drastically re-engineer everything, at a time when NASA had little time to do so. Astronauts and their wives would roll their eyes when Aldrin collared them, even over coffee, and engaged them in hours-long discussions of the intricacies of celestial navigation and mechanics. Coupled with reports of his performance in the Gemini simulators, it was Slayton’s judgement that the AMU test flight should be entrusted to Cernan, rather than Aldrin.

In his own defence, Aldrin would blame the decision on problems experienced by both Cernan and Dick Gordon on their EVAs: exhaustion, fogged-up visors and a difficulty in performing even simple tasks. ‘‘An urgent meeting of senior officials concerned with the Gemini XII EVA,’’ Aldrin wrote, ‘‘was held at the end of September and… they decided arbitrarily that I stood a poor chance of putting the innovative AMU backpack to good use. They felt the risks outweighed the benefits.’’

Despite the risks to his colleague’s career, Cernan accepted Slayton’s invitation on the spot – ‘‘when Deke asked if you would take a mission, there was only one answer’’ – and would have flown Gemini XII had not the decision been made that an AMU test was too risky. Gemini XII’s EVAs would focus instead on less dramatic evaluations of a spacewalker’s performance outside the pressurised confines of his spacecraft. Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr, nicknamed ‘Dr Rendezvous’ behind his back, retained his place on the mission. Born in Glen Ridge, New Jersey on 20 January 1930, the son of an Army Air Corps pilot and a mother whose maiden name, propitiously, happened to be ‘Moon’, Aldrin’s development, even into adulthood, was very much guided by his father.

Naturally, in light of his father’s career, the man who would someday fly Gemini XII and become the second person to walk on the Moon was brought up with aviation in his blood. He first flew aboard an aircraft with his father in 1932, when he was barely two years old. (As a child, he earned the nickname ‘Buzz’ from his young sister, who, unable to pronounce ‘brother’, called him her ‘buzzer’.) Graduation was followed by enrolment in a military ‘poop school’ – aimed at preparing him for the Naval Academy at Annapolis – although Aldrin sought the Military Academy at West Point. Despite his father’s outspoken preference for the Navy, which he considered ‘‘took care of its people better’’, his son persisted and eventually won his reluctant approval.

When Aldrin graduated third in his class from West Point in 1951, his father’s immediate reaction was a question: who had finished first and second? He was not accepted for a coveted Rhodes postgraduate scholarship and instead entered the Air Force, earning his pilot’s wings later that same year after initial training in Bryan, Texas. During the conflict in Korea, Aldrin was attached to the 51st Fighter Wing, flying F-86 Sabres, and by the time hostilities ended in the summer of 1953 he had no fewer than 66 combat missions in his military logbook. Just a month before the end of the war, one of Aldrin’s gun-camera photographs – a Russian pilot ejecting from his stricken MiG – ended up in Life magazine.

In total, Aldrin returned from Korea having shot down three MiGs. Back in the United States, he became a gunnery instructor at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and in 1955 was accepted into Squadron Officer School in Montgomery, Alabama. At around the same time, he met and married Joan Archer and shortly thereafter became the father of a son, James. Professionally, his military career prospered: he was assigned as an aide to General Don Zimmerman, the dean of the new Air Force Academy, then moved to Germany in 1956, flying the F-100 Super Sabre as part of the 36th Fighter-Day Wing, stationed in Bitburg. During this time, he became a father twice more: to Janice and Andrew.

Before pursuing his next ambition of test pilot school, Aldrin, like his Bitburg flying comrade Ed White, sought to gain further education and was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on military detachment for a doctorate of science degree in astronautics. His 259-page ScD thesis, completed in 1963, just months before his selection as an astronaut, was entitled ‘Line of Sight Guidance Techniques for Manned Orbital Rendezvous’. He chose the topic, he later wrote, because he felt it would have practical applications for the Air Force and aeronautics, although it also drew the attention of NASA, which was by now looking at lunar-orbital rendezvous for its Apollo effort.

Aldrin dedicated his thesis to future efforts in human exploration, wistfully remarking ‘‘if only I could join them in their exciting endeavours’’. By this time, of course, his application for the 1963 astronaut class was already being processed; he had tried to gain admission the previous year, seeking a waiver for his lack of test – piloting experience, but this time achieved success. A concern about his liver function, thanks to a bout of infectious hepatitis, did not prevent Aldrin from becoming one of the 14 astronauts named to the world that October.

Assigned to work on mission planning, his early days saw him focusing his attention on rendezvous and re-entry techniques… and, gradually, as each Gemini crew was named, he became increasingly frustrated that he was receiving no flight assignment. At one stage, he even approached Deke Slayton to stress his confidence in his own abilities – that his qualifications and understanding of orbital rendezvous far exceeded those of anyone else in the office – and was politely told that his comments would be noted.

Shortly thereafter, in early 1966, Aldrin and Jim Lovell were assigned as the backup team for Gemini X. His heart sank. Taking into account Slayton’s three – flight rotation system for backup-to-prime crews, there would be no Gemini XIII to which Aldrin and Lovell could aspire. It was, in effect, a ‘dead-end’ assignment. “Apparently, petitioning Deke – an arrogant gesture by ‘Dr Rendezvous’ – had not been well-received by the stick-and-rudder guys in the Astronaut Office,’’ Aldrin wrote. ‘‘By being direct and honest rather than political, I’d shafted myself.’’ All that changed on the last day of February, when See and Bassett were killed and their Gemini IX backups were pushed into prime position. In mid-March, Lovell and Aldrin were named as the new Gemini IX backups, with a formally-unannounced (but anticipated) future assignment as the prime Gemini XII crew.

For Aldrin, whose Nassau Bay backyard bordered that of the Bassetts, it was a devastating way to receive his long-desired flight assignment. Three weeks after the accident, he and Joan visited Jeannie Bassett to tell her the news. ‘‘I felt terrible,’’ he wrote, ‘‘as if I had somehow robbed Charlie Bassett of an honour he deserved.’’ Jeannie responded with quiet dignity and characteristic grace: her husband, she explained, felt that Aldrin ‘‘should have been on that flight all along. . . I know he’d be pleased’’.

C-PRIME

That August, around the time that Anders’ E mission was beginning its metamorphosis into C-prime, Apollo command module 103 arrived at Cape Kennedy for testing. Its mission, unofficially, ranged from circumlunar to fully orbital, with around ten circuits of the Moon planned. During the translunar coast, to qualify the ‘make-or-break’ SPS engine, it would be test-fired for a few seconds. If the engine refused to work, the astronauts could still be brought home safely, thanks to a safety feature built into Apollo 8’s trajectory design. Known as the ‘free return’, it would allow the crew to essentially loop around the Moon and use its gravitational influence to ‘slingshot’ them back to Earth without using the SPS. In fact, if Borman, Lovell and Anders did find themselves with a useless engine, they would only need to perform a couple of mid-course correction burns, using the service module’s thruster quads, to keep them on track for home.

Aside from the chance of an SPS failure, a host of other concerns worried Borman. One of them surrounded Apollo 8’s splashdown in the Pacific at the end of the six-day mission. To achieve a splashdown in daylight hours would require a trajectory design which included at least 12 lunar orbits. Borman, though, could not care less whether he landed in daylight or darkness. ‘‘Frank didn’t want to spend any more time in lunar orbit than was absolutely necessary,’’ wrote Deke Slayton, ‘‘and pushed for – and got – approval of a splashdown in the early morning, before dawn.’’ Apollo 8 would stick at ten orbits. To understand Borman’s reluctance to do more than was necessary is to understand part of his character and military bearing: he was wholly committed to The Mission, whatever it might be. On Gemini VII, he strenuously rejected any addition to the flight plan which might complicate his and Lovell’s chances of fulfilling their primary objective: to spend 14 days in space. Now, on Apollo 8, Borman’s mission was to reach the Moon and bring his crew home safely. Nothing else mattered.

All non-essential, ‘irrelevant’ requests irritated him. “Some idiot had the idea that on the way to the Moon, we’d do an EVA,’’ he recounted years later in a NASA oral history. ‘‘What do you want to do? What’s the main objective? The main objective was to go to the Moon, do enough orbits so that they could do the tracking, be the pathfinders for Apollo 11 and get your ass home. Why complicate it?’’

The four months leading up to the mission were conducted at a break-neck pace. The lunar launch window opened on 21 December, at which time Mare Tranquilitatis (the Sea of Tranquility, a low, relatively flat plain tipped as a possible first landing site) would be experiencing lunar sunrise and its landscape would be thrown into stark relief, allowing Borman, Lovell and Anders to photograph and analyse it. In the final six weeks before launch, the Apollo 8 crew regularly put in ten-hour workdays, with weekends existing only to wade through piles of mail. At the end of November, outgoing President Lyndon Johnson threw them a ‘bon voyage’ party in Washington. Then, on the evening of 20 December, the legendary Charles Lindbergh, first to fly solo across the Atlantic, visited their quarters at Cape Kennedy. During their meal, the topic of conversation turned to the Saturn V rocket, which would burn over 18,000 kg of fuel in its first second of firing. Lindbergh was astounded. ‘‘In the first second of your flight tomorrow,’’ he told them, ‘‘you’ll burn ten times more fuel than I did all the way to Paris!’’

Shortly after 2:30 am on launch morning, Deke Slayton woke them in Cape Kennedy’s crew quarters and joined them for the ritual breakfast of steak and eggs. Also in attendance were chief astronaut Al Shepard and Apollo 8 backups Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. (The third backup crew member, Fred Haise, was busily setting switch positions inside the command module at Pad 39A.) Shortly thereafter, clad in their snow-white space suits and bubble helmets, they arrived at the brilliantly-floodlit pad, where their Saturn V awaited. First Borman, then Anders and finally Lovell took their seats in the command module, joining Haise, who had by now finished his job of checking switches. After offering them his hand in solidarity and farewell, Haise crawled out of the cabin and the heavy unified hatch slammed shut at 5:34 am. Years later, Bill Anders would tell Andrew Chaikin that, at one point, he glanced over at a window in the boost-protective cover and saw a hornet fluttering around outside. ‘‘She’s building a nest,’’ he thought, ‘‘and did she pick the wrong place to build it!’’

As their 7:51 am launch time drew closer, a sense of unreal calm pervaded Apollo 8’s cabin. With five minutes to go, the white room and its access arm rotated away from the spacecraft and, shortly thereafter, the launch pad’s automatic sequencer took charge of the countdown, monitoring the final topping-off of propellants needed by the Saturn to reach space. Sixty seconds before launch, the giant rocket was declared fully pressurised and it transferred its systems to internal control. As the countdown ticked into the final dozen seconds, Borman, Lovell and Anders, despite being cocooned inside their space suits, could faintly hear the sound of fuel pouring into the combustion chambers of the five F-l engines, a hundred and ten metres below. As the clock inside the command module read ‘T-3 seconds’, that faint sound was replaced by a distant, thunder-like rumbling and, at some point in the calamitous commotion that followed, the first Saturn V ever to be trusted with human passengers took flight.

‘‘Liftoff,’’ radioed Borman, gazing at the clock on his instrument panel. ‘‘The clock is running.’’ After the mission, all three men would have their own recollections of what it was like to launch atop the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, but Chaikin summed it up best when he quoted Bill Anders: they felt as if they were little more than helpless prey in the mouth of a giant, angry dog.

Forty seconds into the climb, the rocket broke through the sound barrier and G loads on the three astronauts climbed steadily – three, now four, and still climbing – but when they hit 4.5 the uncomfortable feeling of intense acceleration ended as the Saturn’s S-IC first stage burned out and separated. ‘‘The staging,’’ Borman recounted, ‘‘from the first to the second stage, as we went from S-IC cutoff to S-II ignition, was a violent manoeuvre: we were thrown forward against our straps and smashed back into the seat.’’ So violent, in fact, was the motion that Anders felt he was being hurled headlong into the instrument panel. Seconds later, the now – unneeded escape tower and the command module’s boost-protective cover were jettisoned, flooding the cabin with daylight as windows were uncovered. For Anders, his first glimpse of Earth from space – mesmerising clouds, vivid blue ocean and a steadily darkening sky – were electrifying.

A little under nine minutes after launch, the S-II finally expired and the S-IVB picked up the remainder of the thrust needed to achieve orbit. ‘‘The smoothest ride in the world’’ was how Borman would later describe riding the Saturn’s restartable third stage, before it, too, shut down, at 8:02 am. Barely ll minutes had passed since leaving Cape Kennedy and the Apollo 8 astronauts were in orbit. In less than three hours’ time, assuming that their spacecraft checked out satisfactorily, they would relight the S-IVB for six minutes to begin the translunar injection, or TLI, burn and set themselves on course for the Moon. However, if Apollo 8 did not pass its tests with flying colours and the lunar shot was called off, they would be consigned to what had been uninspiringly termed ‘the alternate mission’: an Apollo 7-type jaunt for ten long days in Earth orbit, with little to do. Borman could think of nothing worse.

Indeed, at one stage, Lovell, working under one of the couches to adjust a valve, accidentally inflated his space suit’s life vest and his commander gave him a dirty look. In true Frank Borman fashion, nothing would be permitted to interfere with or distract their attention from The Mission. At length, it was Capcom Mike Collins, who had been recovered from his neck surgery since early November and had even fruitlessly approached Deke Slayton with a view to staying on the crew, who gave them the news they so badly needed to hear: ‘‘Apollo 8, you are Go for TLI!’’

Drifting high above the Pacific Ocean at the time, the astronauts knew that the burn would be entirely controlled by the computers and, with ten seconds to go, a flashing number ‘99’ appeared on the command module’s display panel. In essence, it asked them to confirm that they wanted to go ahead with the specific manoeuvre. Lovell punched the ‘Proceed’ button and at 10:38 am, some two hours and 47

Had the Saturn V risen or had Florida sunk? On 9 November 1967, the maiden flight of the mighty Saturn V got underway with “naked power, lots of noise and light”. A little more than a year later, Apollo 8 would carry its first human crew.

minutes into the mission, the third stage ignited with a long, slow push. Although Borman kept a keen eye on his instruments in the event that he had to assume manual control, Collins relayed updates from the trajectory specialists that Apollo 8 was in perfect shape. It did not feel that way to Borman, who was convinced from the intense shaking and rattling that he might be forced to abort the burn. Steadily, as Anders watched the third stage’s propellant temperatures and pressures, they turned from ‘Earth-orbiting’ astronauts to ‘Moon-bound’ adventurers. By the time the S-IVB finally shut down after five minutes and 18 seconds, their velocity had increased from 28,100 km/h to 37,300 km/h – the ‘escape velocity’ needed to reach the Moon. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were travelling faster than any human beings had ever flown before.

Surprisingly, though, with no outside point of reference, there was not the slightest sense of the tremendous speed at which Apollo 8 was moving. Then, when Borman separated the command and service module from the now-spent S-IVB and manoeuvred around to face the third stage, they saw for the first time the effect of TLI: their home world, Earth, was no longer a seemingly-flat expanse of land and sea and cloud ‘below’ them, but a planet, spherical, its curvature obvious in the black void. They could actually see it receding from them as they continued travelling outwards. At length, as their altitude increased, Earth grew so small that it seemed to fit neatly inside the frame of one of the command module’s windows, then could be easily hidden behind a thumb. ‘‘Tell Conrad he lost his record,’’ Borman radioed Collins. Jim Lovell promptly launched into a geography lesson and even asked Collins to warn the people of Tierra del Fuego to put on their raincoats, as a storm seemed to be approaching.

Manoeuvring Apollo 8 with its nose pointed toward Earth and the S-IVB had not been done simply for sightseeing: Borman’s next task was to rendezvous with it, just as future crews would need to do in order to extract their lunar modules from the enormous ‘garage’ atop the S-IVB. After completing this demonstration, he pulled away for the final time and Apollo 8 set sail for the Moon. Five hours into the flight, after finally removing his space suit, Lovell set to work taking star sightings with the 28-power sextant and navigation telescopes. If they lost contact with Earth, he might have to measure the angles between target stars and the home planet and punch the data into the computer to figure out their position. He would do the same in lunar orbit, measuring craters and landmarks to help refine Apollo 8’s flight path. Not for nothing was ‘navigational expert’ one of the senior pilot’s main responsibilities.

Shortly after 6:00 pm, the first test firing of the SPS engine was performed, lasting just two seconds, which satisfied the astronauts and ground controllers that it could operate as advertised. As the first workday of Apollo 8 drew to a close, Lovell and Anders watched the instruments whilst Borman, unsuccessfully, tried to sleep.

Heading across the vast cislunar gulf, more than 370,000 km wide, the astronauts awakened the first sensations of space sickness. Borman, it seemed, suffered the most. A number of cases of gastroenteritis had plagued Cape Kennedy in the days before launch and it was suggested that this ‘24-hour intestinal flu’ could have triggered the malady; alternatively, Borman had taken a Seconal tablet to help him sleep and blamed the medication for his discomfort. Upon awakening to begin his

The S-IVB recedes into the blackness of cislunar space as Apollo 8 heads for the Moon.

second day aloft, he suffered both vomiting and diarrhoea, but recovered sufficiently by the third day to tell Mission Control that “nobody is sick”. Unknown to Borman, his “case of the 24-hour flu” had caused much consternation amongst the flight surgeons on the ground and even led to suggestions that the mission might have to be terminated. Fortunately, all three men were indeed fine and, even if they were ill, the SPS could not be fired to about-face them back to Earth. They were heading for the Moon, whether they liked it or not.

Strangely, since the Moon was barely a crescent to them at the time, none of the crew really saw it until shortly before their arrival. “I saw it several times in the optics as I was doing some sightings,” admitted Lovell, but “by and large, the body that we were rendezvousing with – that was coming from one direction as we were going to another – we never saw … and we took it on faith that the Moon would be there, which says quite a bit for ground control.” As they headed towards their target, Apollo 8 slowly rotated on its axis in a so-called ‘barbecue roll’, to even out thermal extremes of blistering heat and frigid cold across its metallic surfaces.

Two hundred and twenty-three thousand kilometres from Earth, approximately two-thirds of the way to the Moon and 31 hours since launch, they began their first live telecast from Apollo 8. Borman had tried to have the camera removed from the mission, but had been overruled, and now found himself using it to film Jim Lovell in the command module’s lower equipment bay, readying a dessert of chocolate pudding. Next there was a shot of Bill Anders, twirling his weightless toothbrush. ‘‘This transmission,” Borman commenced for his terrestrial audience, ‘‘is coming to you approximately halfway between the Moon and the Earth. We have about less than 40 hours to go to the Moon… I certainly wish we could show you the Earth. Very, very beautiful.’’

Unfortunately, a telephoto lens fitted to the camera by Anders did not work and when they switched back to the interior lens it resolved the home planet as little more than a white blob, giving away little of its splendour. Borman was disappointed that he had been unable to show viewers the ‘‘beautiful, beautiful view, with blue background and just huge covers of white clouds’’. Lovell closed out the transmission by wishing his mother a happy birthday, after which Borman placed Apollo 8 back into its barbecue roll, which took the high-gain antenna off Earth. A day later, their second telecast was somewhat better, allowing Lovell to describe for his spellbound audience the appearance of the western hemisphere: the royal blues of the deep ocean trenches, the varying browns of the landmasses, the bright whites of the cloud structures.

Lovell was an explorer at heart. His excitement in wanting to fly Apollo 8 was motivated equally as much, if not more so, by the simple urge to explore and see new sights and places than by a desire to carry out scientific investigations. The science was important, but Lovell’s sentiment could perhaps be best tied to a statement made three years later by Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott: that going to the Moon was “exploration at its greatest’’. At one stage in the flight, Lovell turned to Borman and wondered aloud what alien travellers might think as they approached Earth. Would they believe it to be inhabited or not? Would they decide to land on the blue or the brown part of its surface?

“You better hope that we land on the blue part,” deadpanned Anders.

By the afternoon of 23 December, almost 60 hours since their Saturn V left Earth, the gravitational influence of their home planet was finally overcome by that of the Moon. At this point, Apollo 8 was more than 300,000 km from Earth and just 62,600 km from its target and the spacecraft’s velocity had slowed to 4,320 km/h as it moved farther into its gravitational ‘well’. As they sailed towards Lunar Orbit Insertion (LOI), their trajectory was near-perfect: only two of four planned mid-course correction burns had been needed to keep Apollo 8 locked into its free return trajectory. At 3:55 am on Christmas Eve, Capcom Gerry Carr, a member of the Apollo 8 support crew, radioed Borman with the news that they were ‘‘go for LOI’’.

The three astronauts had still not seen the Moon, despite their close proximity to it, since their angle of approach caused it to be lost in the Sun’s glare. At length, Carr asked them what they could see. ‘‘Nothing,’’ replied Anders gloomily, adding ‘‘it’s like being on the inside of a submarine’’. Less than an hour later, at 4:49 am, Apollo 8 passed behind the Moon, with Lovell telling Carr that ‘‘we’ll see you on the other side’’. Eleven minutes later, moving at 9,300 km/h and ‘backwards’, they fired the SPS engine for four minutes to reduce their speed by 3,200 km/h and brake themselves into a 111 x 312 km orbit. The burn was flawless, although Lovell admitted that it was ‘‘the longest four minutes I ever spent’’. Had the engine burned too long or too short, they could have ended up either crashing into the Moon or vanishing into some errant orbit. Just to be sure, Borman hit the shutdown button as soon as the clock touched zero.

Back on Earth, a tense world – nearly a billion people were listening in, NASA estimated, scattered across 64 different countries – waited for word of their insertion into lunar orbit. If Apollo 8 had not fired the SPS, then Borman, Lovell and Anders would come back into communications range ten minutes sooner than planned. At length, right on time, following a 45-minute blackout, public affairs officer Paul Haney announced with joy: ‘‘We got it! We got it!’’ Fifteen minutes later, the astronauts’ first close-range descriptions of the Moon came across more than three hundred thousand kilometres of emptiness: ‘‘The Moon,’’ Lovell began, ‘‘is essentially grey; no colour; looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a greyish deep sand. We can see quite a bit of detail. The Sea of Fertility doesn’t stand out as well here as it does back on Earth. There’s not as much contrast between that and the surrounding craters. The craters are all rounded off. There’s quite a few of them; some of them are newer. Many of them – especially the round ones – look like hits by meteorites or projectiles of some sort… ’’

The lack of even the slightest vestiges of an atmosphere lent a weird clarity to what was, in effect, a scene of the utmost desolation, silence and stillness; the Moon was literally a world frozen in time. Only weeks earlier, the film of Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ had premiered and even the astronauts imagined the lunar terrain to be composed of dramatic, sharp-edged mountains and jagged cliffs. Instead they were presented with an essentially dead place, seemingly ubiquitous in its dullness and blandness. Anders, tasked with the bulk of the lunar photography, had spent hours before launch with the only geologist-astronaut, Jack Schmitt, discussing the features of the surface, and had his own flight plan to plough

The lunar farside, never before seen directly by human eyes.

through, but found it hard because of dirty windows. In fact, only the command module’s two small rendezvous windows remained reasonably clear.

For Anders, the far side of the Moon, never seen from Earth or ever by human eyes, resembled “a sand pile my kids have been playing in for a long time… it’s all beat up, no definition, just a lot of bumps and holes’’. He considered the lunar surface to be an unappealing place, albeit with “a kind of stark beauty’’ of its own, and all three men found pleasure in giving temporary names to some of the craters to honour their colleagues and managers: Low, Gilruth, Shea, Grissom, White, Webb, Chaffee, Kraft, See, Bassett and others. “These,” said Borman, “were all the giants who made it work.’’ At one stage during the excitement, when flight controller John Aaron noticed that the command module’s environmental control system needed adjustment, they responded by naming a crater for him, too. (Before the flight, Lovell had even given his wife Marilyn a photograph of a mountain, near the eastern edge of the Sea of Tranquility, which he had unofficially named for her: Mount Marilyn.)

Four hours after entering orbit, another SPS burn, this time thankfully shorter at just 11 seconds, adjusted Apollo 8’s path around the Moon into a near-perfect 111 km circle. Then, at 10:37 am on 24 December, their first glimpse of colour entered a Universe of endless blackness and greyness: the three astronauts became the first humans to witness ‘Earthrise’ from behind the lunar limb. Borman was in the process of turning the spacecraft to permit Lovell to take some sextant readings, when all at once Anders yelled: ‘‘Oh my God! Look at that picture over there.’’ It would become a running, though light-hearted competition among the crew over who took the ‘Earthrise Picture’ which has since become world-famous: a shot of our home planet, a pretty blue-and-white marble, rising in the void above the Moon’s grey-brown surface. With Lovell in attendance, it was Anders who, after fitting the colour magazine and aiming the telephoto lens, snapped one of the most iconic images of the Space Age. In perhaps no other image has the beauty, fragility and loneliness of Earth been captured with more meaning. Years later, Anders would win praise from environmentalists for his assertion that Apollo 8’s goal was to explore the Moon. . . and what it really did was discover the Earth!

The astronauts’ intense workload during their 20 hours in orbit was getting the better of them, with tiredness causing them to make mistakes. On occasion, Lovell had punched the wrong code into the command module’s computer, triggering warning alarms, and Anders was overcome with his own schedule: stereo imagery, dim-light photography and filter work. At length, clearly irritated that the timeline was too full, Borman snapped at Capcom Mike Collins that he was taking an executive decision for his two crewmates to get some rest. ‘‘I’ll stay up and keep the spacecraft vertical,’’ he told Collins, ‘‘and take some automatic pictures.’’ With some difficulty, he had to force Lovell and Anders to pry their eyes away from the windows and get some sleep.

It seemed inevitable, after thousands of years of watching and wondering about the Moon, that humanity’s first visit would be commemorated in a religious, spiritual or symbolic way. Before the launch, Borman, Lovell and Anders had discussed this issue at length with friends and concluded that they would read the story of Creation from the first ten verses of Genesis. During their ninth orbit, on their second live telecast from the Moon, they read it to a spellbound world, first Anders taking a part, then Lovell and finally Borman closing with ‘‘Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you. . . all of you on the good Earth’’.

Eight minutes into Christmas morning, three days and 17 hours after launch, the return home got underway when the SPS engine was ignited to increase their speed by 3,800 km/h. As they rounded the Moon for the last time, Lovell told Capcom Ken Mattingly, who was just coming on duty in Houston, ‘‘Please be informed there is a Santa Claus’’. Mattingly replied that they were the best ones to know.

The return journey proved uneventful, with fogged windows, puddling water and clattering cabin fans creating mere annoyances. A final televised tour of Apollo 8 showed Anders preparing a freeze-dried meal. . . and, when the camera stopped rolling, they found a real treat in their food locker: real turkey and real cranberry sauce, wrapped in foil with red and green ribbons. It was a far cry from the

One of the 20th century’s most iconic images: Earthrise from Apollo 8.

toothpaste tubes of Project Mercury and even better, perhaps, than Gus Grissom’s corned beef sandwich. The turkey and cranberry sauce turned out to be their best meal of the entire flight, although Borman was annoyed that Deke Slayton had slipped three small bottles of brandy aboard as well. Why, if anything went wrong on the flight, the overzealous Borman fumed, the press and public would blame it on the ‘drunk’ astronauts. Lovell and Anders, who have admitted that they had no intention of touching the brandy, felt that Borman had gone a little too far. Christmas spirit returned, however, with festive presents: pairs of cufflinks and a man-in-the-Moon tie pin from Susan Borman and Marilyn Lovell and a gold ‘figure 8’ tie pin from Valerie Anders.

Only one minor trajectory correction burn was needed and early on 27 December, the astronauts fired pyrotechnics to jettison the service module and plunged into Earth’s atmosphere at 34,900 km/h. During re-entry, which carried them over north­eastern China, then brought the command module in a long slanting path towards the south-east, Borman, Lovell and Anders were subjected to deceleration forces as high as 7 G. Splashdown came as Cape Kennedy clocks read 10:51 am, but still in pre-dawn darkness over the western Pacific, completing a mission of just over six days. At Mission Control in Houston, sheer pandemonium broke out, in the traditional American back-slapping way, and the smell of celebratory cigars scented the air for hours.

Among the cheering NASA throng was an overjoyed, though dejected Mike Collins. ‘‘For me personally, the moment was a conglomeration of emotions and memories,’’ he wrote. ‘‘I was a basket case, emotionally wrung out. I had seen this flight evolve in the white room at Downey, in the interminable series of meetings at Houston… into an epic voyage. I had helped it grow. I had two years invested in it – it was my flight. Yet it was not my flight; I was but one of a hundred packed into a noisy room.’’

A quarter of a world away, in the Pacific Ocean, some 1,600 km south-south-west of Hawaii, water came flooding through an open vent in the command module, drenching Borman and giving Anders the mistaken impression that the hull had cracked on impact. The ship overturned onto its nose, but quickly righted itself when Borman inflated the three airbags. It did not stop him from being sick. This time, Lovell and Anders, both of whom had served in the Navy, showed no mercy on their Air Force commander: ‘‘What do you expect from a West Point ground-pounder?’’

Amidst the radio chatter from a rescue helicopter despatched by the aircraft carrier Yorktown came an age-old question which the whole world now wanted answered. ‘‘Apollo 8, is the Moon made from Limburger cheese?’’

‘‘Nope,’’ replied Bill Anders. ‘‘It’s made from American cheese!’’

TRAINING

Of course, wrote Scott, he had to be sure that Armstrong, as Gemini VIII’s command pilot, was happy with his selection. He need not have worried. “When I caught up with him in a corridor outside the VIP room,’’ Scott related, “he gave me a big grin and held out his hand. That was all I needed.’’

The official announcement came on 20 September, with Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon assigned as their backups. Gemini VIII would be the most complex mission ever attempted, involving all of the tasks practiced by previous flights… and more: three days in orbit, rendezvous – and, for the first time, physical docking – with an Agena-D target, combined manoeuvres, scientific experiments, a precision re-entry and a tricky spacewalk. The sheer complexity of the flight, wrote Scott, “was reflected in our mission badge. . . a rainbow of colours refracted from twin white stars through a prism to form the Gemini symbol together with a Roman ‘VIII’ … to reflect its many objectives’’.

Scott’s EVA was part of a goal that simply had to be perfected before the early Apollo missions and the Department of Defense, through the Air Force, had already invested heavily in an Astronaut Manoeuvring Unit (AMU) to be tested by Charlie Bassett on Gemini IX. Before that, Dave Scott would wear a suit with a chest pack (known as the Extravehicular Life Support System) to feed oxygen from the spacecraft’s supply and from a backpack (dubbed the Extravehicular Support Package) located on the spacecraft’s rear adaptor section. This backpack also provided a radio and 8 kg of propellant for a zip-gun manoeuvring tool – similar to the hand-held device used by Ed White – and was connected to Gemini VIII’s systems by an 8 m oxygen-hose tether.

When Scott reached the rear of the spacecraft and backed himself into the backpack, he would add a lightweight 23 m tether to the hose, allowing him to move up to 30 m into space. The exercise was extremely risky and if Scott encountered problems, there would be no way for Armstrong to aid him: the command pilot therefore requested a realistic model of the Gemini VIII adaptor for training, to rehearse donning the backpack, together with practice runs in an altitude chamber. Scott, meanwhile, worked closely with Ed White and by the eve of launch had completed more than 300 zero-gravity aircraft parabolas and over 20 hours on an air-bearing table, donning and doffing the bulky suit again and again. It was hot, hard, strenuous work. ‘‘I remember Dick [Gordon] turning to me once,’’ wrote Scott, ‘‘drenched in sweat and joking ‘Isn’t this glamorous?’’’

Conversations with White had certainly identified the need for Scott to maintain

TRAINING

The space suit and equipment scheduled to be used by Dave Scott on Gemini VIII.

his physical fitness and strength, particularly in light of the difficulties in closing the hatch on Gemini IV. A consequence of this was that a lever was added to Gemini VUI’s hatch, allowing it to be closed with less physical force. Nonetheless, White cautioned, the space suit itself was both stiff and heavy, requiring strength and stamina to move around for two hours. Scott began jogging, playing handball and lifting weights in the gym. . . and, in his autobiography, would recall how this brought him face to face with Neil Armstrong’s sly humour.

Armstrong’s theory on exercise, John Glenn once said, was that a human being had only a finite number of heartbeats and should not waste them frivolously. One day during Gemini VIII training, as Scott pumped iron in the gym, Armstrong turned up, set the exercise bicycle onto its lowest possible tension setting and began pedalling, telling him: “Attaboy, Dave! Way to go!’’

Work on the 6 x 7 m air-bearing table – which pumped highly-compressed air through holes in its floor to remove friction – allowed Scott to literally ‘fly’ across its surface using the zip-gun, which he described as one of the most valuable parts of his EVA training. The gun had 15 times more propellant than White’s device and, instead of oxygen, used freon, a refrigerant with a correspondingly higher density. This multiplied the gun’s impulse, although Scott worried how the gas might behave in space. During one test at low temperatures, for example, the freon caused the gun’s poppet valve to stick open when triggered. Had this occurred in space, the escaping gas might have caused Scott to tumble uncontrollably. New seals were fitted to solve the problem and two new shut-off valves provided additional safety.

The space suit’s other equipment presented its own problems. One key obstacle was the risk that an ejector in the chest pack could freeze and block the flow of oxygen from both Gemini VIII’s supply and from the backpack. In response, engineers incorporated 20-watt heaters near the ejector. Other obstacles included overcoming the jumble of umbilicals, tethers and jumper cables whilst donning the chest pack inside the cramped cabin, although by December 1965 Scott was satisfied that he could do the task satisfactorily. The explosion of Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford’s Agena-D, on the other hand, did not fill Armstrong or Scott with confidence. Mission Control shared their concerns, telling them to ‘‘get out fast’’ if the target showed the slightest hint of a malfunction whilst docked.

Despite the EVA experience gained by Ed White, the Gemini VIII excursion would eclipse it in complexity. Not only would Scott be outside for two hours and 40 minutes – nearly ten times longer than White – but the flight plan also required him to move to the rear of the spacecraft to don his backpack. He would spacewalk through orbital daytime and nighttime, retrieve an emulsion package, activate a micrometeoroid collector on the Agena and test a reactionless power wrench. As a result, in addition to aircraft parabolas and trial runs on the air-bearing table, he was submerged into a large water tank with a mockup zip-gun to practice moving around in a neutrally-buoyant environment. Today, such underwater exercises are common as spacewalkers rehearse procedures outside the International Space Station and are regarded by many as the closest analogue to the real thing.

Training for the spacewalk was, however, only part of the Gemini VIII mission; Armstrong and Scott’s 70 hours aloft also featured a full plate of experiments. One

TRAINING

Artist’s concept of Dave Scott during his EVA.

of these was the Zodiacal Light Photography investigation, which sought to capture a series of electronically-controlled exposures using a modified 35 mm Widelux camera with a rotating lens. “This was to observe… a very faint glow on the horizon on Earth seen just after sunset and before sunrise,” Scott wrote. To accustom their eyes to the subtle zodiacal light, caused by dust circling towards the inner Solar System, Armstrong and Scott would turn down the lights in their T-38 cockpit during cross-country night flights.

Also aboard Gemini VIII was a hand-held spectrometer to deduce cloud-top heights from the absorption of light by the oxygen band, together with a nuclear emulsion experiment to determine cosmic radiation effects on bromide crystals, a micrometeoroid investigation affixed to the Agena and a series of synoptic terrain photography tasks for meteorological research.

THE END

As the Gemini XII flight hardware – Lovell and Aldrin’s spacecraft home, their Titan booster, their Atlas-Agena – was readied for launch during 1966, it was accompanied by an impending deadline to terminate the project and press on with Apollo. Indeed, when the two men walked out to Pad 19 on launch morning, 11 November, they would wear placards reading ‘The’ and ‘End’ on their backs. By this point, the corroded dome of the second-stage fuel tank previously assigned to Gemini X had been repaired and was delivered from Martin’s Denver to Baltimore plants in late January. Seven months later, on 12 August, the entire Titan for Gemini XII was approved by Martin and by mid-September both of its stages were at Cape Kennedy.

It was at around this time that the Air Force’s AMU test was deleted from Gemini XII and Gene Cernan lost his final opportunity to test-fly it in orbit. Persistent problems with mastering EVA techniques on previous missions had, NASA management concluded, made it inadvisable to proceed with such an ambitious endeavour and Gemini XII would instead focus on perfecting the ‘fundamentals’ with just basic extravehicular tasks. During his time outside, Aldrin would remove, install and tighten bolts with the power tool whose evaluation had been denied both Dave Scott and Dick Gordon, as well as operating connectors and hooks, stripping patches of Velcro and cutting cables.

To physically condition themselves, Aldrin and Cernan spent a considerable amount of time underwater in the neutral buoyancy tank, just outside Baltimore. They wore carefully-ballasted suits, Aldrin said later, to completely neutralise their buoyancy and approximate microgravity conditions as closely as possible. “Eventually,” he wrote, “I mastered the intricate ballet of weightlessness. Your body simply had to be anchored, because if it wasn’t, flexing your pinkie would send you ass-over-teakettle. And you don’t want to do that dangling at the end of an umbilical cord 160 miles above Earth.’’

Processing of the Atlas booster and Gemini’s final Agena target ran in tandem with that of the Titan. Designated Agena ‘5001’, it was actually the non-flying version of the target delivered to Cape Kennedy in the summer of 1965, which had since been upgraded and made space-capable. ‘‘Getting a docking target took a bit of juggling,’’ wrote Deke Slayton. The Air Force formally accepted it for advanced processing early in September 1966 and by the end of October it had been mated atop its Atlas and installed on Pad 14. For Lovell and Aldrin, their scheduled launch just a few days after Halloween had spawned an interesting orange-and-black embroidered crew patch, together with a crescent Moon offering a nod to the impending Apollo project.

Plans to launch on 9 November were abandoned when a malfunctioning power supply in the Titan’s secondary autopilot reared its head and Lovell and Aldrin were recycled to fly two days later. The morning of the 11th dawned fine and clear and the Agena set off promptly that afternoon at 2:08 pm. (During insertion into space, an anomaly was noted in the target’s propulsion system and plans to boost Gemini XII into a higher orbit were abandoned.) Strapped inside their tiny cabin, both astronauts could clearly hear the Atlas’ thunderous roar. Ninety-eight minutes later, at 3:46:33 pm, it was their turn.

‘‘There was no noise at first,’’ Aldrin wrote, ‘‘but then a growing rumble began as the spacecraft rolled through its pre-programmed manoeuvre, twisting to the proper south-east launch trajectory.’’ Steadily, the Titan accelerated, ‘‘like a subway train’’, Aldrin recalled, and as they climbed ever higher the sky turned to dark blue and eventually to black. Inside their space suits, both men felt their limbs rise and their toes lift to touch the tops of their boots. It felt almost as if they were stretching their feet, but not quite. They were weightless.

Once established in their 160 x 270 km orbit, Lovell and Aldrin set to work ploughing through their checklists, preparing for rendezvous and docking with the Agena some three orbits – and a little over four hours – into the mission. At around 5:11 pm, they made their first attempt at radar contact with the target and were surprised when the computer responded with the desired digits. ‘‘Houston,’’ radioed a jubilant Aldrin, ‘‘be advised we have a solid lock-on … two hundred thirty-five point fifty nautical miles.’’

However, the astronauts’ success proved short-lived. As they circularised their

THE END

Jim Lovell (left) and Buzz Aldrin at breakfast on launch morning.

 

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orbit to align themselves ‘behind’ and ‘below’ the Agena, above North America, Gemini XII’s radar began giving intermittent readings. It was at this stage that Aldrin’s years of rendezvous work came to the fore: he broke out the intricate charts and reverted to what he called the ‘Mark One Cranium Computer’ – the human brain. In his autobiography ‘Men from Earth’, Aldrin vividly described the hours – long effort: as Lovell piloted Gemini XII, he laboured over the charts, barely able to see the closely-printed data, occasionally aware of the passage of orbital daytime into nighttime and vice-versa.

It paid off. A little over four hours into the mission, Lovell eased the spacecraft’s nose into the Agena’s docking collar and announced, somewhat nonchalantly, ‘‘Houston, we are docked’’. The response from the ground, delivered with similar excitement, was a simple ‘‘Roger’’. A potentially serious obstacle – the failure of a critical piece of equipment, the rendezvous radar – had been overcome by human brainpower and flying abilities. Should a similar contingency occur during a rendezvous situation in orbit around the Moon, Lovell and Aldrin’s work had at least proved that workarounds could be achieved. They had also used barely 127 kg of their fuel supply in one of the project’s most economical rendezvous.

For the fourth time in eight months, a Gemini was securely linked to an Agena and Lovell and Aldrin became the second crew to practice undocking and redocking exercises. One attempt by Lovell during orbital darkness caused the docking latches to ‘hang up’ – producing a rather disturbing grinding sound – but he was nevertheless able to rock Gemini XII free without damage. A few minutes later, they switched roles and Aldrin redocked them onto the target.

Original plans, laid out before launch, had called for a reboost to high altitude, but this had to be abandoned eight minutes after the Agena lifted-off when its engine suffered a momentary decay in thrust chamber pressures and a drop in turbine speed. Instead, the astronauts were directed to turn their attention to solar eclipse photography; this task had been a scheduled part of their mission had they launched on 9 November, but the two-day delay caused it to be dropped. Now that the Agena reboost had been cancelled, it was reinstated, thanks to the input of Gemini XII’s experiments advisory officer James Bates.

The inclusion of Bates’ recommendation marked a shift in operations, with the scientists’ representative, for the first time, being allowed to participate as one of the flight control team in the main Mission Control room. Moreover, it was determined that the Agena’s secondary propulsion system had enough power to orient the spacecraft for an eight-second photographic pass at the proper time. At 10:51 pm, a little over seven hours into the mission, Lovell duly fired the target’s smaller engines to reduce the combination’s speed by 13 m/sec. The adjustment was successful and, after their first sleep period, the astronauts were advised to perform a second firing. Sixteen hours after launch, they reported seeing the eclipse ‘‘right on the money’’, cutting a swath across South America from north of Lima down to the southernmost tip of Brazil.

At first, it had seemed to the disgruntled crew that the second Agena burn might throw out the remainder of their schedule and adversely affect the start of Aldrin’s first EVA. It did not, and at 11:15 am on 12 November, some 20 minutes before orbital sunset, Aldrin cranked open his hatch and pushed his helmeted head outside. “The hatch rose easily,” he wrote, “and I rose with it, floating above my seat, secured to the spacecraft by short oxygen inflow and outflow umbilical hoses.” Years later, he would vividly describe the immensity of the Universe all around him, remember the absence of any sense of speed and the recall the distinct curvature of Earth.

Aldrin quickly set to work on his first task, dumping a small bag containing used food pouches, and watched it slowly tumble away like a top, straight ‘above’ him. Next he moved on to quickly attach cameras onto brackets to photograph star fields on ultraviolet film and retrieved a micrometeoroid package, which he passed inside to Lovell. Unlike Cernan and Gordon, he did not overheat, thanks partly to regularly-scheduled rest breaks of two minutes apiece, and he returned inside Gemini XII at 1:44 pm after two and a half hours.

His real work had yet to begin. The mission’s second period of EVA, which got underway at 10:34 am the following morning, required Aldrin to move away from the spacecraft on a 9 m tether. He set up a movie camera to allow flight controllers to monitor his performance, then moved to Gemini XII’s nose and affixed a waist restraint strap to the docking adaptor. Next, Aldrin removed a tether from the Agena’s nose and snapped it onto the Gemini, connecting the two vehicles for a gravity gradient exercise scheduled for later in the mission. He then manoeuvred himself towards the rear of the spacecraft, using flatiron-shaped handholds fitted with Velcro patches, and slipped his boots into a pair of foot restraints nicknamed ‘golden slippers’. These, coupled with two small waist tethers, kept him anchored securely and Aldrin was able to satisfactorily complete a number of tool-handling and dexterity tests.

‘‘Back in the buoyancy pool in Maryland,’’ he wrote later, ‘‘I had torqued bolts and cut metal dozens of times – what I used to call ‘chimpanzee work’ – and I had no problem with these chores in space. Someone even put a bright yellow paper Chiquita Banana sticker at my busy box.’’ He was even able to wipe Lovell’s window (who asked him to change the oil, too) before returning to the cabin after two hours and six minutes outside. Back on Earth, Aldrin would claim quite openly that he had personally solved many of the problems of EVA, arousing criticism among the other astronauts, including Gene Cernan, who felt that his tasks were nowhere near as difficult as theirs. ‘‘Quite frankly,’’ Cernan wrote, ‘‘we said he was only working a monkey board. Draw your own conclusions.”

Shortly after Aldrin’s return inside Gemini XII, the two men completed their evaluation of the tether by undocking from the Agena. The tether tended to remain slack, although they believed that slow gravity gradient stabilisation was achieved. ‘‘Within minutes,’’ wrote Aldrin, ‘‘the two vehicles had stabilised without the aid of thrusters.’’ After two full orbits thus connected, they finally fired an explosive squib to jettison the tether at 7:37 pm on 13 November.

Aldrin’s record-breaking five and a half hours of cumulative extravehicular experience concluded the following day, the 14th, when he ventured outside at 9:52 am for a second stand-up period, lasting 55 minutes. He dumped unneeded equipment overboard, together with a sack containing his umbilical tether and two rubbish bags – hurled in lazy arcs over his shoulder – and took one last lingering

THE END

Aldrin during one of his three periods of EVA.

look at Earth below him: the vast land mass of Indochina… and thought of his friend, Sam Johnson, with whom he had undergone flight training, and who was at that very moment a prisoner of war somewhere in North Vietnam.

Lovell and Aldrin’s four-day mission had brought Project Gemini to a spectacular conclusion and had satisfactorily demonstrated rendezvous, docking, gravity gradient tethered operations and the ability of skilled human pilots to calculate a rendezvous with sextants and charts and a slide rule and pencil. Such human skills, using, in Aldrin’s own words, the Mark One Cranium Computer, had relaxed managers’ concerns about the viability of astronauts being able to perform a manual rendezvous, if necessary, in orbit around the Moon.

Gemini XII’s problems were comparatively minor. Four of its 16 thrusters failed during the course of the mission and two its six fuel cells went dead, obliging flight controllers to instruct Lovell and Aldrin to drink more than their planned rations of water. This would make room for the excess fuel-cell water, which otherwise threatened to flood the spacecraft’s power system. Whenever they drank water or used it to prepare their food, the red warning light blinked off, and in this way they nursed the fuel cell through 80 hours of flight.

A re-entry controlled completely by the computers brought Gemini XII into the Atlantic, barely 4.8 km from its target impact point, at 2:21 pm on 15 November. Within half an hour of splashdown, Lovell and Aldrin were safely aboard the aircraft carrier Wasp. The only unexpected event during re-entry had come at the onset of peak G loads, when a pouch containing books, filters and equipment broke free from the sidewall and landed on Lovell’s lap. By this time, both men had unstowed the D-rings for their ejection seats and Lovell fought the urge to catch the pouch, lest he accidentally grab and pull the ring. “I didn’t want to see myself punching out right at this high heating area,’’ he said later.

With the safe return of Lovell and Aldrin to Earth, many of the procedures needed to get to the Moon and back had been thoroughly tested. Extravehicular suits had been used for extended periods of time and five astronauts had completed useful tasks outside. Unlike Alexei Leonov’s swim in the void 20 months earlier, they had actually begun to demonstrate an astronaut’s ability to really work in space. It provided the closest analogue yet attained of what working on the lunar surface might be like. Rendezvous, despite its complexity, had been completed with seemingly effortless ease by six Gemini command pilots… and Lovell and Aldrin’s work had shown it could be done without the aid of radar.

The radiant Moon above Cape Kennedy in the early winter of 1966-67 seemed considerably brighter than normal, as an altogether different kind of space vehicle geared up for its first manned shakedown cruise. Sitting on Pad 34 was a far larger rocket – the Saturn 1B – topped with the Apollo 1 spacecraft. In February 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee would evaluate the machine that would carry Americans to the Moon. Forget 1970, said many within NASA; it was becoming increasingly likely that a lunar landing might be achieved two years ahead of schedule. For ten euphoric weeks from mid-November 1966, the Moon was within humanity’s grasp. Then, on the fateful Friday evening of 27 January 1967, all such dreams dissolved.

6

SAVED

A few weeks after Apollo 8 splashed down, amongst his mountains of fan mail, Frank Borman came across a telegram from a stranger which summed up the entire mission and the effect of the mission in three words. It read simply: ‘‘You saved 1968’’.

In spite of Borman, Lovell and Anders’ achievement, the telegram’s sender was right in that the year had been a bad one, both in America and elsewhere. Israel and Palestine clashed in border disputes, three decades of ‘Troubles’ began in Northern Ireland, Soviet tanks rolled in Czechoslovakia to stifle the Prague Spring reforms, the Vietnam War seemed unwinnable and so unpopular that President Lyndon Johnson had glumly announced in March that he had no intention of running for re­election and the United States was left reeling by the murders of Martin Luther King and Senator Bobby Kennedy. Apollo 8, humanity’s first journey to the Moon, had cast one of few rays of light over a desperately unhappy and violent year.

On 29 March, King had visited Memphis, Tennessee, in support of black sanitary works employees, who were striking for higher wages and better treatment. A few days later, he delivered his famous ‘I’ve Been To The Mountaintop’ speech, then checked into his room at the Lorraine Motel. At precisely 6:01 pm on 4 April, as he stood at his balcony, he was shot; the bullet passing through his right cheek, smashing his jaw, travelling down his spine and finally lodging somewhere in his shoulder. In spite of emergency surgery, the man who had fought tirelessly for civil rights in America was dead. . . and his murder instantly sparked fury in as many as a hundred cities across the nation. Two months later, on 5 June, Senator Kennedy – brother of the murdered president, one-time attorney-general and having himself just won the California primary as part of his own presidential candidacy bid – was shot in the crowded kitchen passageway of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Both killings provoked desperate outrage as two men who supported two of the strongest issues of the day – civil rights and ending the Vietnam War – were prematurely cut down.

As the last few days of blood-stained 1968 faded into history, however, the long road to the Moon had been won. The enormous technological challenges needed to navigate men and machines across a gulf of more than three hundred thousand kilometres of uncharted emptiness had been met. Nor was Apollo 8 simply a lucky shot: Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders had been guided into a precise orbit around our closest celestial neighbour and had taken a truly giant leap towards the small step which, seven months hence, would change humanity’s view of itself forever. Completion of the first circumlunar mission was just the first part of John Kennedy’s promise. Now, in the final few months of the decade, would come the most audacious task of all: achieving all that Apollo 8 had achieved and more, guiding the spidery, as-yet-untested lunar module down those last 111 km from orbit and planting American bootprints onto the Moon’s dusty surface. The pieces were set. The machines, equipment and rockets were ready. So were the men. On 6 January 1969, Deke Slayton summoned Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin into his office. In just two words, he told them the news every astronaut had trained for years to hear: ‘‘You’re it!’’

‘It’, of course, meant that they were being tapped for the coveted lunar landing, tentatively pencilled-in for Apollo 11 in July. Armstrong and Aldrin had just come off their Apollo 8 backup duties and Slayton, perhaps, felt a pang of conscience for Collins, who had fought his way to full health and back onto flight status after his neck surgery. There would be a slight shift of roles, though. Following Jim Lovell’s departure for the Borman crew, Aldrin had been promoted to senior pilot of the Apollo 8 backup team. It was a role later to become synonymous with the command module pilot, essentially a mission’s second-in-command, but both Armstrong and Slayton had more confidence in Collins to fill this role. “I had a little difficulty putting Aldrin above Collins,’’ Armstrong told James Hansen. “In talking with Deke, we decided, because the CMP had such significant responsibilities for flying the command module solo and being able to do rendezvous by himself and so forth, that Mike was best to be in that position.’’ Thus, Aldrin missed out on being Apollo ll’s second-in-command, but the alternative was far sweeter: if the schedule ran as planned, he would be the second man on the Moon.

Of course, we know today that Kennedy’s goal was indeed met. Yet a lunar landing on Apollo ll was by no means set in stone as 1969 dawned. (Mike Collins would later estimate the chance of success, in his mind at least, as no more than 50­50.) Still to be proven was Grumman’s spidery lunar module, which Apollo 9 astronauts Jim McDivitt and Rusty Schweickart intended to test in Earth orbit late in February, as their colleague Dave Scott practiced rendezvous and docking in the command module. The space suit which astronauts would one day use to walk on the Moon would be put through its paces by Schweickart during a dramatic EVA, in which he would climb out of the lunar module’s hatch and onto its porch. A couple of months later, Apollo l0 would do a full dress-rehearsal of the Moon landing. . . 370,000 km away, in lunar orbit. Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan, old buddies from Gemini IX-A, would guide the lunar module to just 15 km above the surface, before firing their ascent engine to boost themselves back up to rendezvous with crewmate John Young. Only if both of these highly-complex missions, the details of which remained to be hammered-out, succeeded could Apollo ll stand any chance of launching in mid-July.

The Soviets, too, were on the brink of re-entering the game with a vengeance. More than a year and a half after Vladimir Komarov’s tragic death, the new Soyuz spacecraft was operating and, for them, l969 would see no fewer than five manned missions: two in January which would feature their first spacewalk in almost four years, carried out, finally, by Yevgeni Khrunov and Alexei Yeliseyev, and a unique triple rendezvous involving seven cosmonauts in October, which the Soviets would laud as having laid the foundations of a long-term space station. However, the writing did seem to be on the wall as far as the their chances of getting a cosmonaut onto the lunar surface before the Americans was concerned; Nikolai Kamanin had long since written in his ubiquitous diary that he was convinced the United States would win the race. Yet the lure of the Moon and getting cosmonauts there would not fade from the Soviet psyche for some time and, indeed, l969 would prove a make-or-break year for the enormous, temperamental N-l booster. If that beast – even more powerful than the Saturn V – could somehow be tamed, made to work and entrusted with a human crew, a flag bearing the Hammer and Sickle might still end up sticking out of the lunar soil.

In addition to closing out the first decade of manned spaceflight, l969 offered a starting point for the future: after the G mission, longer stays on the Moon were envisaged, running into the Seventies, with perhaps lunar bases and expeditions to

Mars thereafter. A revolutionary reusable spacecraft known as the Space Shuttle would begin its tumultuous development and it was hoped that, instead of simply visiting the heavens, men would actually come to live there. By the end of the Seventies, as the Shuttle prepared for its maiden launch and promised access to space that was cheaper than ever before, a total of six flags and hundreds of bootprints would dot half a dozen lunar landing sites and Soviet cosmonauts would routinely spend six months at a time in orbit, hosting guests from other nations in their orbiting stations.

Humanity had advanced enormously between the end of the Fifties and the close of the Sixties, in a thousand social, cultural, political and technological ways. It would have been impossible to imagine on the eve of Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight that within such a short span of time the techniques and tools of rendezvous, docking, spacewalking and reaching the Moon would have been tried, tested and mastered. Four per cent of the federal budget, in Apollo’s case, had much to do with this speed and success, but it remains quite remarkable that the International Space Station has required two decades from conception to construction and at least 15 years will have passed by the time George W. Bush’s vision of humans back on the Moon is realised sometime around 2020.

The Sixties were truly an inspirational, pivotal decade which shaped the future of space exploration. Lessons were learned which have much bearing on activities in orbit today and some continue to be relearned for the missions of the future. Yet they only represented the first few years of a human adventure which, to date, has spanned five decades. If the Sixties involved simply rising from Earth, as Socrates said, and reaching the top of the atmosphere to understand the world from which we came, then the Seventies would establish our first foothold in the heavens.

“SMOOTH AS GLASS”

Meanwhile, preparation of the Gemini VIII flight hardware got underway in mid­August 1965, when the Agena-D target, tailnumbered ‘5003’, arrived at Cape Kennedy and, after final assembly, commenced pre-launch testing in October. Then, in early January of the following year, the two stages of the Titan II were delivered to Florida, mated and installed on Pad 19. Leak checks of the second stage engine on 7 February turned up small cracks in the thrust chamber manifold, a problem solved by rewelding, but by the 10th the rocket and Gemini VIII were fully mated and had undergone electrical compatibility tests.

Final preparation of the Agena-D occurred in tandem, the Atlas having been erected on Pad 14 at the Cape in early January. By this time, procedural and design changes – a result of Project Surefire – had been fully implemented. Two weeks later, the pencil-like Agena-D was mated to its docking adaptor and on 1 March was mounted atop the Atlas. The only problem in the last few days was an overfilling of its propellant tanks, which required the replacement of its regulator and relief valve and pushed the launch date from 15 March to the 16th.

In spite of the renewed vigour injected into the lunar effort by the spectacular Gemini VII/VI-A rendezvous late the previous year, morale in the astronaut corps suffered a devastating blow with the deaths of Elliot See and Charlie Bassett in the crash of their T-38 jet on 28 February 1966. Two days later, although their minds were almost wholly focused on their upcoming mission, Armstrong and Scott and their wives joined a huge crowd of mourners at Seabrook Methodist Church for See’s memorial service and at Webster Presbyterian Church for that of Bassett. A sense of foreboding pervaded the Gemini project. ‘‘People started… fearing we were in a run of bad luck,’’ wrote Dave Scott. ‘‘The memorial services in Houston… were sad, depressing affairs.’’ The following year, 1967, would be worse still.

Armstrong and Scott and their backups, Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon, had little time to waste on contemplation; a few days after the See and Bassett memorials, they were in quarantine at Cape Kennedy as launch drew closer. At 7:00 am on the morning of 16 March, Armstrong and Scott awoke and proceeded through the time – honoured ritual of a pre-flight physical and breakfast of filet mignon, eggs and toast with butter and jelly. Clear blue, cloud-speckled skies over the marshy Florida landscape promised a perfect opportunity for a launch. As they suited up, a watch belonging to aviation pioneer Jimmy Mattern – who had unsuccessfully attempted a round-the-world solo feat in 1933 – was strapped around the wrist of Armstrong’s suit. Not to be outdone, Scott, in his own nod towards aviation heritage, carried pieces of wood and cloth from an old Douglas World Cruiser, the New Orleans, which first flew around the world in 1924. Both artefacts had been borrowed from the museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Shortly after insertion into his seat, a glitch with Scott’s parachute harness threatened a delay. One of the technicians discovered some epoxy in the catcher mechanism of the harness, but the efforts of Pete Conrad and pad fuerher Guenter Wendt finally got it unglued. “Pete… rushed around until he found a dentist’s toothpick with which to try and clear the connection out,’’ recalled Scott. “I remember looking back and seeing Pete sweating like mad digging this stuff out.’’ Conrad’s toothpick did the trick. The hatch was finally closed and Gemini VIII’s countdown proceeded.

One hundred minutes before launch, at 10:00 am, as their cabin atmosphere was steadily being purged with pure oxygen, the first stage of the mission got underway as the Atlas-Agena lifted-off successfully from Pad 14. Unlike Schirra and Stafford’s experience the previous October, the rocket performed near-flawlessly. Despite following a trajectory that was slightly low and to the south of its intended flight path, the Atlas’ sustainer engine compensated by pushing itself back on track, ultimately carrying the 6 m-long, pencil-like Agena-D into a circular orbit, 298 km high. Advised of the successful insertion, Armstrong told launch controllers that he and Scott were ready to go.

“Cradled in my contoured seat it felt almost as if I was being held in someone’s arms,’’ wrote Scott, comparing the sensation to taking a brand-new Ferrari out on the open road for the first time. The pure oxygen atmosphere introduced a cool cleanness and freshness to the cabin.

Liftoff occurred precisely on time at 11:41 am, conducted under the auspices, for the first time, of a flight director other than Chris Kraft. The distinctly English-accented, tweed-suited and pipe-smoking John Hodge, who had led one of three teams during the Gemini IV mission, was in charge. “The Titan was smooth,’’ continued Scott, describing a few shudders and evidence of pogo oscillations, but overall “a solid feeling, a sharp kick in the tail’’. His heart rate in the moments preceding liftoff peaked at 128 beats per minute; Armstrong’s touched 146. Post-flight aeromedical studies would see the difference simply as a ‘keying-up’ of Armstrong’s physical awareness, rather than an indicator of undue stress.

Launch and ascent aboard the Titan, Armstrong told James Hansen, was ‘‘very definite; you knew you were on your way when the rocket lit off. You could hear the thrust from the engines, at least at low altitudes, but the noise did not interfere with communications. . . The G levels got to be pretty high in the first stage of the Titan – something like 7 G’’. As the rocket headed higher into the rarefied atmosphere and

“SMOOTH AS GLASS”

Launch of an Atlas-Agena target vehicle.

its second stage took over, the two men saw bright red and yellow debris from a severed joining strap through their windows.

Riding the second stage, Scott wrote, was “smooth as glass”. Later, his first experience of weightlessness came when a small metal washer hovered in front of his eyes. As he released his checklist, he was amused to see it drift across the cabin. Nothing, however, could have prepared him for his first glimpse of Earth. Armstrong rolled Gemini VIII and the men beheld the deep blue of the Mediterranean, together with Italy and, in the distance, the outline of the Middle East and the Red Sea, laid out, map-like, before them. Although he had reached 63 km in his final X-15 flight and had seen the curvature of Earth, Armstrong, too, was quite unprepared for the view. In his autobiography, Scott remembered the difficulty other astronauts had when describing the sheer beauty and grandeur of the home planet; now he knew how they felt. Perhaps, someday, he thought, a poet or an artist would be blasted into the heavens. Maybe he or she could describe it better than a test pilot. “But I wanted to capture what I could,” he wrote. “I pulled out my camera and took my first photographs from space.”

Incredible as the view was, there was little time to dwell upon it. Within minutes, they established themselves in a 160 x 172 km orbit, trailing the Agena by 1,963 km. Scott’s spacewalk was looming in barely 24 hours’ time and, before that, they had the Agena-D rendezvous and docking to perform. A minor radiator problem did not prevent the astronauts from undertaking some sightseeing over the Pacific, a cloud – covered Hawaii, Baja California, the naval base in San Diego and the area around Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, where Armstrong and Scott had both worked and studied years earlier.

Their first thruster firing came at 1:15 pm, a little more than 90 minutes after launch, which slightly lowered their apogee. A break for lunch took longer than anticipated, requiring them to Velcro-patch the food packages to Gemini VIII’s ‘ceiling’ whilst they executed a second burn on their second orbit to raise their perigee. When they came to eat lunch, it was hardly home cooking: Armstrong’s chicken and gravy casserole, despite having been rehydrated, was dry in places and the astronauts’ brownie cookies were stuck together and crumbly. ‘‘We had been running on adrenalin,’’ wrote Scott. ‘‘There had been no time for food – no thought of it either.’’ Nor was there time to spend worrying. A third manoeuvre, executed high above the Pacific Ocean at 2:27 pm, placed Gemini VIII into the same orbital plane as the Agena, albeit imprecisely.

‘‘A fundamental requirement of rendezvous,” Armstrong told James Hansen, ‘‘is to get your orbit into the same plane as the target’s orbit, because if you’re misaligned by even a few degrees, your spacecraft won’t have enough fuel to get to its rendezvous target. So the plan is to start off within just a few tenths of a degree of your target’s orbit. That is established by making your launch precisely on time, to put you in the same plane under the revolving Earth as is your target vehicle.’’

Armstrong then fired the aft OAMS thrusters, producing a horizontal velocity change of 8 m/sec, after which Capcom Jim Lovell requested that he add an extra 0.6 m/sec to his velocity. The adjustment, Armstrong said later, ‘‘was a pretty loose burn… without much preparation”, but the two astronauts quickly moved onto their next task: activating and testing the spacecraft’s rendezvous radar. Westinghouse, the company responsible for developing the device, had promised that it would be able to acquire its target at a distance of around 343 km.

They detected the Agena with their radar long before achieving a visual sighting, whilst still some 332 km away. A little under four hours into the mission, high above Madagascar, another burn adjusted their orbit. This prepared them with near­perfection to begin the ‘terminal’ phase of the rendezvous. An hour later, at 4:21 pm, during their third orbit, Scott reported his first visual sighting of the Agena as a speck in the distance, 140 km away, its rendezvous beacon flickering against the black sky. ‘‘Gradually, she became a sleek, silver tube,’’ he wrote, ‘‘a spectacular sight.’’

As both spacecraft drifted into orbital darkness, the Agena disappeared from view, although Armstrong and Scott were still able to discern its blinking acquisition lights. When the target was at the proper angle, ten degrees ‘above’ them, Armstrong recalibrated the platform of Gemini VUI’s inertial reference system for a translational manoeuvre. Next, he pitched the nose upwards 31.3 degrees and canted the spacecraft 16.8 degrees to the left, finally braking Gemini VIII by eyesight alone as Scott called out radar range and range rates. Several smaller thruster spurts brought them to a position just 46 m from the Agena, with no relative velocity and, after 30 minutes of inspections to ensure that the target had not been damaged during launch, they were given the go-ahead to execute the world’s first-ever docking manoeuvre.

Moving his spacecraft at barely 8 cm/sec, Armstrong gingerly pulsed towards the Agena, announcing the onset of the ‘station-keeping’ phase of the rendezvous at 5:40 pm. Years later, he told James Hansen that station-keeping at such close proximity to the target posed no major problems; conversations with Wally Schirra and Frank Borman had assured him that flying two vehicles close together was very easy to do once the correct position had been achieved.

For the next 25 minutes, he and Scott electronically checked the target’s systems, antennas and lights using radio command, before nudging their spacecraft closer; so close, in fact, that they could read a small, illuminated instrument panel above its docking cone. After receiving a go-ahead to dock from Keith Kundel, the capcom on the Rose Knot Victor communications ship, Armstrong pulsed Gemini VIII’s thrusters and achieved physical contact at 6:15 pm. An electric motor aboard the Agena retracted the docking cone, pulling the spacecraft’s nose about 60 cm into the target and connecting their electrical systems. By now close enough to read, the Agena’s display confirmed a green ‘rigid’ sign, indicating that both vehicles were mechanically and electronically mated.

‘‘Flight, we are docked,’’ Armstrong exulted, ‘‘and it’s really a smoothie. No noticeable oscillations at all.’’ Seconds later, as the realisation of what had been done finally set in, sheer pandemonium broke out in Houston. Armstrong and Scott’s ‘smoothie’ had cleared another hurdle on the road to the Moon.

That smoothie would rapidly give way to a far rockier road. . . one that would come close to claiming the two astronauts’ lives.

Disaster, Recovery, Triumph

“FIRE”

In a barren, disused area of Cape Canaveral stands a gaunt, concrete-and-steel hulk which once formed the launch platform of Pad 34. Four decades ago, it served as the starting point for the first Apollo mission, an 11-day trek into low-Earth orbit to demonstrate the capabilities of the spacecraft that would one day deliver men to the Moon. Today, overgrown with bushes, weeds and a few wild pepper trees, it slowly decays in the salty air. A faded ‘Abandon in Place’ sign adorns one of its legs. Near its base are a pair of plaques, memorialising a far darker and more tragic event. The first reads simply: ‘Launch Complex 34 Friday 27 January 1967 1831 Hours’ and dedicates itself to the first three Apollo astronauts, Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. The second pays tribute to their ‘ultimate sacrifice’ that January evening, long ago. Nearby are three granite benches, one in honour of each man.

Every year, without fail, their families are invited by NASA to visit the spot and reflect upon the disaster which befell them that Friday. It is a time of year which has become synonymous with tragedy in America’s space programme; the losses of Challenger and Columbia having occurred within the very same week in 1986 and 2003. Indeed, 27 January 1967 marked a line in the sand, as the seeming good fortune and achievement of Project Gemini gave way to the stark and brutal realisation that reaching the Moon before the end of the decade was by no means assured and, technically and literally, our closest celestial neighbour remained a long way off. It would be a bad year for both the United States and the Soviet Union and by its close no fewer than six spacefarers would be dead: three killed in Apollo 1, a cosmonaut during his return to Earth and two astronauts in aircraft and car accidents.

Gene Cernan, for whom 1966 ended brightly with assignment to the Apollo 2 backup crew, recounted that 1967 was such a rotten year that his wife, Barbara, did not even feel able to write her usual Christmas letters to friends. It should have been quite different. NASA’s plans called for as many as three Apollo missions, the first (led by Grissom) employing a spacecraft design known as ‘Block 1’, capable only of

reaching Earth orbit. The others, commanded, respectively, by Jim McDivitt and Frank Borman, would utilise a more advanced Block 2 type, which possessed the navigational, rendezvous and docking equipment needed for lunar expeditions. “There were hundreds of differences between the two,” wrote Deke Slayton, “the major one being that Block 1 vehicles didn’t have the docking tunnel that would allow you to dock with a lunar module.’’

Each mission, though, would find common ground in that it would evaluate what Grissom had already described as a machine infinitely more complex than Mercury or Gemini; a machine which came in two parts. The ‘command module’, firstly, was a conical structure, 3.2 m high and 3.9 m across its ablative base, and would provide its three-man crews with 5.95 m3 of living and work space whilst aloft. Brimming with reaction controls, parachutes, propellant and water tanks, cabling, instrumen­tation and controls, it would truly live up to its name as the command centre for future voyages to the Moon. Both it and the second section, the ‘service module’, were built by North American Aviation of Downey, California – today part of Boeing – and the latter consisted of an unpressurised cylinder, 7.5 m long and 3.9 wide, housing propellant tanks, fuel cells, four ‘quads’ of manoeuvring thrusters, an S-band communications antenna, oxygen and water stores and the giant Service Propulsion System (SPS) engine. The latter, some 3.8 m long and fed by a propellant mixture of hydrazine and unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine with an oxidiser of nitrogen tetroxide, would provide the impulse for inserting Apollo into and removing it from lunar orbit. It was a critical component without a backup and this demanded that its design be as simple as possible: its propellants, pushed into the combustion chamber by helium, were ‘hypergolic’, meaning that they would burn on contact, with no need for fuel pumps or an ignition system. The propellants would flow so long as the valves were held open and the valves were designed to be extremely reliable. The command and service modules would remain connected throughout a mission, with the latter jettisoned just minutes before re-entry.

Evaluating this machine for the first time was Grissom’s responsibility. He and his crew were tasked with an ‘open-ended’ mission, lasting anywhere from six orbits to 14 days. In his book on lost and forgotten Apollo missions, spaceflight historian Dave Shayler wrote that it was certainly the crew’s desire to fly for as long as practical – to extract as much valuable engineering data from the spacecraft as they could – but admitted that the Block 1 vehicle was almost certainly incapable of supporting operations for longer than 14 days. It will never be known what duration Apollo 1 might have achieved, but it seems doubtful that it could have seriously threatened the 14-day record established by Frank Borman and Jim Lovell a year earlier. Indeed, in the weeks before 27 January, Gus Grissom joked darkly that as long as the crew returned from orbit alive, he would consider the mission a success. His fatalistic outlook and lack of confidence in Block 1 was shared by many of his fellows within the astronaut corps.

Their launch, according to Flight Director Chris Kraft at the Apollo News Media Symposium, held in mid-December 1966, was targeted for late February or early March of the following year. As the event drew nearer, this date was refined. By the end of January, it was set for 21 February. Internally, the mission was known as

‘Fire’

‘Apollo-Saturn 204’ (AS-204) and Grissom, White and Chaffee would have become the first humans to ride Wernher von Braun’s mighty Saturn IB booster, a two-stage behemoth which, in just 11 minutes and 30 seconds, would have injected their 20,400 kg spacecraft into an orbit of 136 x 210 km. (The ‘204’ indicated that the launch vehicle was the fourth production unit of the Saturn 1B type. Despite this nomenclature, the crew had successfully pushed to rename their flight ‘Apollo 1’.)

Grissom and his backup, Wally Schirra, light-heartedly dubbed the Saturn 1B ‘‘a big maumoo’’. Its first stage, known as ‘S-IB’, was 25.5 m tall and 6.6 m wide and would have boosted Apollo 1 to an altitude of 68 km under the combined thrust of its eight H-1 engines. Next, the ‘S-IVB’ second stage, fitted with a single J-2 engine, would have completed the climb into orbit. The latter, built by the Douglas Aircraft Company, would also form the third stage of the Moon-bound Saturn V booster. Minutes after achieving Earth orbit, Ed White, the senior pilot of Apollo 1, would have unstrapped and headed into the command module’s lower equipment bay to begin setting up cameras and scientific hardware. Two and a half hours into the flight, he and pilot Roger Chaffee would have returned to their seats as Grissom separated Apollo 1 from the S-IVB.

Under Grissom’s control, the spacecraft would have maintained tight formation with the spent stage as White and Chaffee employed a battery of cameras to record the venting of its residual liquid oxygen and hydrogen propellants. Much of this work would be crucial for subsequent, Moon-bound missions, which would involve a third Apollo component, the lunar module, housed inside the upper part of the S – IVB and extracted by the command and service module shortly after launch. No rendezvous manoeuvre with the stage was planned on Apollo 1, however, but several tests of the SPS engine were timetabled. In total, it would have been fired on eight occasions: three times by Grissom and White and twice by Chaffee, with the astronaut responsible for ‘flying’ each burn stationed in the commander’s seat. The other crew members would respectively fulfil ‘navigation’ and ‘engineering’ roles. The first pair of SPS firings would have occurred during Apollo 1’s second day in orbit, with the remainder being executed at roughly 50-hour intervals throughout the rest of the mission.

Additionally, the crew was assigned one of the largest complements of scientific, photographic and medical experiments ever carried into orbit. During their long flight, they would have operated instruments to monitor aerosol concentrations in the command module’s cabin, carried out synoptic terrain photography of diverse targets ranging from the coast of Africa to the Mississippi River Mouth and Oyster Bay in Jamaica to the South China Sea and observed a range of meteorological and marine phenomena, from cloud eddies to dust storms and smog-laden cities to ocean currents. Other photographic tasks and medical investigations – an in-flight exerciser, a photocardiogram to monitor heart function and an otolith ‘helmet’ to track the effects of weightlessness on the balance mechanism of the inner ear – would have filled much of their time. Moreover, they would have been required to evaluate every aspect of Apollo itself, from the performance of its rudimentary ‘toilet’ to its general habitability.

Had their mission gone ahead and run to its maximum length, the three men would have returned to Earth on 7 March, separating from their service module a few minutes before plunging, base-first, into the upper fringes of the atmosphere. The command module would then have borne the brunt of re-entry heating and finally, beneath a canopy of three red-and-white parachutes, would have splashed into the Pacific some 330 hours after launch. Assuming nothing untoward happened, the flight of Apollo 1 would clear the way for the first mission of the Block 2 spacecraft and, eventually, for a lunar landing, possibly as soon as late 1968.

Thanks to Wally Schirra, there would only be one manned Block 1 flight. Originally, NASA wanted to virtually duplicate Grissom’s mission with Apollo 2, featuring Schirra and rookie astronauts Donn Eisele and Walt Cunningham. However, the man who had commanded the world’s first space rendezvous in December 1965 wanted nothing to do with it. “I argued it made no sense to do a repeat performance,” he wrote, “and I succeeded in getting the mission scrubbed.’’ (In fact, Walt Cunningham, in a 1999 oral history for NASA, speculated that Deke Slayton himself hoped to command Apollo 2, but was overruled. Slayton made no reference to this in his autobiography.) Regardless of Schirra’s involvement, the hands of fate had already turned on Apollo 2 by October 1966, when the propellant tanks inside one of the service modules exploded during a ground test. Although it had not been assigned to Apollo 2, it made sense to keep downstream flights on schedule, replace it with Schirra’s service module and cancel the ‘repeat performance’. Whether he liked it or not, Schirra was told on 15 November that Apollo 2 was no more.

In winning his battle to get rid of the second Block 1 mission, Schirra had shot himself in the foot because he, Eisele and Cunningham were reassigned in early December as Grissom’s new backup team. Schirra was reluctant to accept the change – he wanted a mission of his own that would provide a challenge and certainly did not want to serve on another backup crew – but Slayton and Grissom eventually talked him around. (He would complain to Tom Stafford, however, that Slayton had ‘‘screwed him’’.) Meanwhile, astronauts Jim McDivitt, Dave Scott and Rusty Schweickart, who had served as Apollo 1’s backups since March 1966, would now become the prime crew of a ‘new’ Apollo 2, which would test the Grumman-built lunar module in Earth orbit on a mission involving two Saturn 1Bs. McDivitt, to be fair, had been working on the lunar module for more than a year and Scott had rendezvous experience, so it made sense to assign them, rather than Schirra’s team, to this mission. Next up would be Frank Borman, Mike Collins and Bill Anders on Apollo 3, tasked with the first manned flight of the Saturn V to a high Earth orbit, reaching an record-breaking apogee of 6,400 km. Had the 27 January tragedy not occurred, these missions might have followed Apollo 1 in the summer and autumn of 1967, setting the stage for a lunar landing the year after.

Schirra’s wish to cancel the second Block 1 flight was not just based on a whimsical reluctance to fly what he perceived to be a pointless mission. It also had much to do with his lack of confidence in the Block 1 design, which many astronauts considered sloppy and unsafe. ‘‘The craft was like an old friend,’’ Time magazine told its readers on 3 February 1967. It was nothing of the sort. Since his assignment

The Apollo 1 command and service module during testing, with the Service Propulsion System (SPS) engine and thruster quads clearly visible. Apollo 1 would have been the first and only flight of the ‘Block 1’ design – a design disliked and distrusted by both Gus Grissom and Wally Schirra.

to Apollo 1, Gus Grissom had spent months overseeing poor performance and low standards on the part of North American in their efforts to get the Block 1 hardware ready for space. Unlike Gemini, where they could approach James McDonnell himself if issues arose, the North American set-up was far larger, more impersonal and little heed was paid to the astronauts’ concerns. It “was a slick, big-time bunch of Washington operators,’’ wrote Tom Stafford, “compared to the mom-and-pop operation at McDonnell.’’ Some astronauts felt the technicians were more worried about their free time than with building a Moonship. Even NASA’s Apollo manager Joe Shea remarked that, after receiving the two-billion-dollar contract, North American had thrown a party and made hats with ‘NASA’ printed on them, albeit with the ‘S’ replaced by a dollar sign…

In fact, as 1966 wore on, the number of problems with ‘Spacecraft 012’ – the command and service module assigned to Grissom’s mission – was so high that technicians were having trouble tending to them all. Riley McCafferty, responsible for updating the simulators, noted that at one point more than a hundred modifications awaited implementation. Plans to ship Spacecraft 012 to Cape Kennedy in August 1966 were postponed by three weeks when problems arose with a water glycol pump in the command module’s environmental control system. Upon arrival in Florida, more than half of the engineering work assigned to North American remained incomplete, together with other serious deficiencies: a leaking SPS engine, coolant problems, computer software that ‘‘never quite worked right’’ and faulty wiring.

It did not inspire confidence in Grissom’s crew, who presented Shea with a half – joking photograph of themselves bowed in prayer over their spacecraft. ‘‘It’s not that we don’t trust you,’’ they told him, ‘‘but this time we’ve decided to go over your head!’’ Repairs and rework eliminated any hope of launching Apollo 1 before the end of the year and a February 1967 target became unavoidable. On 22 January, just before leaving his Houston home for the last time, Grissom was so angry with the problems that he plucked a grapefruit-sized lemon from a tree in his backyard, flew it to the Cape in his baggage and hung it over the hatch of the Apollo simulator.

Things had seemed quite different the previous March, when Grissom, White and Chaffee, ‘‘the coolest heads in the business,’’ according to Bob Gilruth, had been named as the first Apollo crew. Together with their backups, McDivitt, Scott and Schweickart, they had closely monitored the spacecraft’s progress throughout 1966, spending virtually every waking hour in Downey, renting rooms in a nearby motel and even sleeping in bunks near the production line from time to time. ‘‘Gus and Jim were the first two guys available to move from Gemini to Apollo,’’ wrote Deke Slayton, ‘‘which is why I assigned them. Gus would keep an eye on the command and service module, while Jim would start following development of the lunar module.’’

To be fair, North American had faced immense technical challenges of its own. One of these was NASA’s mandate that the command module should operate a pure oxygen atmosphere – a dangerous fire hazard, admittedly, but infinitely less complex than trying to implement an oxygen-nitrogen mixture which, if misjudged, could suffocate the crew before they even knew about it. In space, the cabin’s atmosphere would be kept at a pressure of about a fifth of an atmosphere, but for ground tests would be pressurised to slightly above one atmosphere. This would eliminate the risk of the spacecraft imploding, but at such high pressures there remained the danger that anything which caught fire would burn almost explosively. At an early stage, North American had objected to the use of pure oxygen aboard Apollo, but NASA, which had employed it without incident on Mercury and Gemini, overruled them.

The selection of pure oxygen was not made lightly. NASA engineers had long been aware that a two-gas system, providing an approximately Earth-like atmosphere of some 20 per cent oxygen and 80 per cent nitrogen, pressurised to one bar, would reduce the risk of fires. Further, having a gaseous mixture of this type would avoid many of the physiological effects of pure oxygen, such as eye irritation, hearing loss and a clogging of the chest. However, at the time, the complexities of building a system which could mix and monitor these gases would have added to the spacecraft’s weight, making it intolerably heavy. Other complications included the astronauts’ space suits, which were pressurised to 0.31 bars. “To walk on the Moon,’’ wrote Deke Slayton, “you needed to get out of the spacecraft… and with a mixed-gas system you’d have to pre-breathe for hours, lowering the pressure and getting the nitrogen out of your system so you didn’t get the bends. Of course, if there was a real emergency and you had to use the suit, you’d really have been in trouble.’’

Other worries surrounded the craft’s hatch, a complex affair which actually came in two cumbersome segments: an inner piece which opened into the command module’s cabin, overlaid by an outer piece. North American had proposed a single­piece hatch, fitted with explosive bolts, which could be swung open easily in an emergency; NASA, however, argued that this might increase the risk of it misfiring on the way to the Moon. By adopting an inward-opening hatch, cabin pressure would keep it tightly sealed in flight. . . but notoriously tough to open on the ground. These two factors – a pure oxygen atmosphere and an immovable hatch – coupled with a mysterious ignition source would spell death for the Apollo 1 crew.

That Grissom was beginning to feel a strong sense of foreboding about the mission is reflected in his propitious comments in the weeks preceding the 27 January test – most famously, his declaration that “if we die, we want people to accept it… this is a risky business’’. He had already told colleagues that, if an accident did occur in the programme, it would probably involve him. Also, for the first time, he began to take the frustrations of work home with him. “When he was home,’’ recalled his wife, Betty, “he normally did not want to be with the space programme. He would rather be just messing around with the kids, but he was uptight about it.’’ Others, including Walt Cunningham, added that Spacecraft 012 “just wasn’t as good as it should have been for the job of flying the first manned Apollo mission’’.

It was with an air, perhaps, of scepticism and contempt that Grissom, White and Chaffee, clad in their white space suits, crossed the gantry at Pad 34 and eased themselves into their seats early on the fateful afternoon of 27 January. All three were described by NASA secretary Lola Morrow – who had herself nicknamed Apollo as ‘Project Appalling’ – as unusually subdued and in no mood for the so – called ‘plugs-out’ test. By this point, the backup crew had changed to Wally Schirra,

Donn Eisele and Walt Cunningham, who had themselves spent the previous night aboard the spacecraft for a ‘plugs-in’ test, with the vehicle still entirely dependent upon electrical power from the ground and the hatch open. Schirra liked Spacecraft 012 no more than did Grissom. After emerging from his own test, he took his friend to one side and told him to ‘‘get outta there’’ if he sensed even the slightest glitch. ‘‘I didn’t like it.’’

Communications between the spacecraft and the nearby blockhouse, manned by rookie astronaut Stu Roosa, caused problems almost from the outset. Grissom was so frustrated that he had even asked Joe Shea, at breakfast that morning, to climb into the cabin with them and witness, first-hand, from a manager’s perspective, how bad the problems were. Shea weighed up the pros and cons of rigging up a headset and somehow squeezing himself in shirtsleeves into Apollo 1’s lower equipment bay, beneath the astronauts’ footrests, but ultimately decided against it. Even Deke Slayton, who was based in the blockhouse that day, considered sitting in with them, but decided to remain where he was and help monitor the test.

Grissom was first aboard, taking the commander’s seat on the left side of the cabin, and almost as soon as he had hooked his life-support umbilicals into the oxygen supply, he noticed a peculiar odour. It smelled, he said, like sour buttermilk, and technicians were promptly scrambled to the spacecraft to take air samples. Nothing untoward was found and Roger Chaffee entered next, taking his place with the communications controls on the right-hand side. Finally, Ed White slid into the centre couch. With all three men aboard, the command module’s inner and outer hatches were closed and sealed and finally the boost cover to protect it from the exhaust of the Saturn 1B’s escape tower was secured. Next, pure oxygen was steadily pumped into the cabin.

Throughout the afternoon, a multitude of niggling problems disrupted and delayed things. A high oxygen flow indicator periodically triggered the master alarm and spotty communications between Apollo 1 and Roosa grew so bad that Grissom barked in exasperation: ‘‘How are we gonna get to the Moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?’’ One such problem, which arose at 4:25 pm, turned out to be caused by a live microphone that could not be turned off. The NASA test conductor, Clarence Chauvin, recalled that communications were so poor that his team could barely hear the astronauts’ voices. Eventually, the simulated countdown was put on hold at 5:40 pm. Forty minutes later, after more communications headaches, controllers prepared to transfer the spacecraft to internal fuel cell power. . . and the countdown was held again.

Suddenly, with no warning, controllers noticed the crew’s biomedical readings jump, indicating increased oxygen flow in their space suits. At the same time, around 6:30:54 pm, other sensors recorded a brief power surge aboard Apollo 1. Ten seconds later came the first cry from the spacecraft. It was Roger Chaffee’s voice: ‘‘Fire!’’

Seated in the blockhouse, Deke Slayton glanced over at a monitor which showed Apollo 1’s hatch window, normally a dark circle, but now lit up, almost white. In quick succession came more urgent calls from the spacecraft. ‘‘We’ve got a fire in the cockpit!’’ yelled Chaffee, adding ‘‘let’s get out… we’re burning up’’ and finally uttering a brief scream. His words described the desperate bid by the astronauts to save themselves. Downstairs, on the first floor of Pad 34, technician Gary Propst, watching a monitor in the first seconds after the call, could clearly see Ed White, his arms raised above his head, fiddling with the hatch. Propst could not understand why the men did not simply blow the hatch, little realising that there was no way for them to do this.

Instead, White had to laboriously use a ratchet to release each of the six bolts spanning the circumference of the inner hatch. Years later, Dave Scott recalled that, during training, he and White had weightlifted the hatch over their heads whilst lying supine in their couches. Now, in the few seconds he had available before being overcome, White barely had chance to even begin loosening the first bolt. ft would have made little difference. As fire gorged its way through Apollo 1, the build-up of hot gases sealed the hatch shut with enormous force. No man on Earth could have opened the hatch under such circumstances. fn fact, even under the best conditions in the simulator, the inner hatch alone took 90 seconds to remove and none of the crew – even the super-fit White – had ever done it inside two minutes during training.

Subsequent investigations would determine that the fire had started somewhere beneath Grissom’s seat, perhaps in the vicinity of some unprotected and chafed wires and, once sparked in the pure oxygen atmosphere, fed itself hungrily and soon exploded into a raging inferno. Other readily-combustible products – Velcro pads, nylon netting, polyurethane padding and paperwork – added fuel to the flames. The astronauts themselves had even taken a block of styrofoam into the spacecraft to relieve the pressure on their backs throughout the test; it had exploded like a bomb in the pure-oxygen environment. “At such pressure, and bathed by pure oxygen,’’ wrote Grissom’s biographer Ray Boomhower, “a cigarette could be reduced to ashes in seconds and even metal could burn.’’

At length, pressures inside the cabin exceeded Apollo 1’s design limit and the spacecraft ruptured at 6:31:19 pm, filling Pad 34’s white room with thick black smoke and flames. By now, the pure oxygen had been guzzled by the fire and poisonous fumes had long since asphyxiated the three men. Outside, just a couple of metres away, North American’s pad leader Don Babbitt sprang from his desk and barked orders to lead technician Jim Greaves to get them out of the command module. ft was hopeless. The waves of heat and pressure were too intense and repeatedly drove the men back. “The smoke was extremely heavy,’’ Babbitt recalled. “ft appeared to me to be a heavy thick grey smoke, very billowing, but very thick.’’ fn fact, none of the pad staff could see far beyond their noses and had to physically run their hands over the outside of the boost cover to find holes into which they could insert tools to open the hatch.

The effects of the smoke were so bad that no fewer than 27 technicians were treated that night by Cape Kennedy’s dispensary for inhalation and Babbitt had to order Greaves out of the white room at one stage, lest he pass out. Eventually, with the assistance of more technicians and the arrival of firefighters, the hatch was opened and the would-be rescuers gazed at a hellish scene of devastation within. By the flickering glow of a flashlight, they could see nothing but burnt wiring, firefighter Jim Burch recounted, and it took a few seconds before they finally realised that the

The burnt-out remains of Apollo 1.

unreal calmness meant only one thing: Grissom, White and Chaffee were dead. It was 6:37 pm, five and a half minutes after the first report of fire. Choking over the phone to Slayton, Babbitt could not find words to describe what he saw.

Flight surgeon Fred Kelly, who arrived on the scene with Slayton shortly thereafter, was equally shocked. He observed that it would probably take hours to remove the three men from the spacecraft, because the intense heat had caused everything to melt and fuse together. Moreover, there remained the risk that the heat could accidentally set off the Saturn IB’s escape tower and the pad was cleared of all personnel. Not until the small hours of the following morning, 28 January, were the bodies removed. Grissom had detached his oxygen hose, probably in an effort to help White with the hatch, while Chaffee, in charge of communications, remained securely strapped into his seat. The autopsy team set to work immediately and found that none of the astronauts had suffered life-threatening burns; all had died from asphyxia when their oxygen hoses burned through and their space suits filled with poisonous carbon monoxide.

It was a devastating blow to the astronaut corps and to NASA as a whole. Deke Slayton described it as his “worst day’’ and Frank Borman, whom the agency appointed as its astronaut representative on the internal review board, admitted that he, Max Faget and Slayton “went out and got bombed’’ in the hours after the accident. “I’m not proud to say it,’’ continued the normally-teetotal Borman, “but… we ended up throwing glasses, like a scene out of an old World War One movie.’’ The wives of the three dead men – Betty Grissom, Pat White and Martha Chaffee – were also angry and would sue North American for its shoddy spacecraft. Each was awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation in 1972.

Three days after the accident, in flag-draped coffins, the bodies of the astronauts were met at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, DC, by an honour guard and by representatives of NASA and President Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Grissom and Chaffee were laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, whilst White’s family insisted on his interment at the Military Academy at West Point.

The one saving grace of the tragedy was that it happened when it did, that it stopped NASA’s incessant ‘go’ fever in its tracks at a point from which there might be some recourse. If Grissom, White and Chaffee had been on their way to the Moon when such a fire erupted, it could conceivably have spelled the end of Apollo. Moreover, astronauts Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan, who were in Downey on the night of the disaster, preparing to back up Jim McDivitt’s Apollo 2 mission, felt the deaths of three men on the ground had probably saved six or more lives later on. By extension, the fact that investigators had the burnt-out spacecraft to examine meant that the cause could be pinpointed and rectified. A fire on the way to the Moon would have eliminated any chance of finding out what had happened.

“HOW MANY BOYS, LBJ?”

Days after Gemini IV hit the waves of the Atlantic, the United States Military Command in South Vietnam announced that its troops would shortly begin fighting alongside South Vietnamese forces against the pro-communist North. It was the beginning of a long, bloody and infamous phase of American history that would see a markedly different United States by the end of the decade compared to that which John Kennedy had inherited in 1961.

Yet Kennedy himself was at least partly to blame for the steady escalation in the conflict in south-east Asia, as was his presidential successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ). In fact, one of the issues Kennedy had faced during the I960 election was a perceived ‘missile gap’ between America and the Soviets and in his inaugural address he had promised to ‘‘pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty’’. hollowing the crisis of the Bay of Pigs and the erection of the Berlin Wall, however, Kennedy feared that if his administration did nothing to halt the incessant advance of communism from North into South Vietnam, the United States would lose all credibility with its allies.

His initial move was to increase American troop numbers and, although he felt that President Ngo Dinh Diem must ultimately defeat the communist insurgents, the poor organisation, corruption and incompetent leadership of the South Vietnamese military made this an unlikely prospect. A key facet in the effort to isolate the populace from the communists was the Strategic Hamlet Programme, established in 1961, yet even its provisions of improved education and healthcare did little to prevent its infiltration by guerrilla factions. Moreover, the South Vietnamese peasantry resented being uprooted from their ancestral villages. As a result, by 1963, the project had all but collapsed.

That summer, some Washington policymakers were predicting that Diem’s inability to subdue the communists might force him to make a deal with North Vietnamese premier Ho Chi Minh. His main concern seemed to be the need to fend off military coups against himself and, according to Attorney-General Bobby Kennedy, “Diem… was difficult to reason with’’. Early suggestions to encourage a coup and forcibly remove Diem from power were ultimately discarded, for fear of the potential destabilising effects of such an action, and it was decided instead that his younger brother, the hated chief of the secret police, Ngo Dinh Nhu, be removed instead. Only weeks before Kennedy’s assassination, the CIA advised anti-Diem generals that the United States would support his removal from office. On 2 November, during a failed attempt to escape, Diem and Nhu were captured and summarily executed in the back of an armoured personnel carrier.

Kennedy, who had not approved such an act, was visibly shocked and in the wake of his own assassination three weeks later the South Vietnamese situation bounced from one military junta to another, all of which were regarded as nothing more than puppets of the United States. Their existence served only to encourage North Vietnam to consider the leaders of the South as slaves of colonialism. Indeed, in the wake of the Diem and Nhu murders, the number of American ‘military advisors’ multiplied to 16,300 to cope with rising guerrilla violence. Fears that the pro-communist Vietcong retained de facto control of the South Vietnamese countryside prompted the United States to adopt a different policy of pacification and ‘‘winning over hearts and minds’’.

In the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson asserted his own support for continued military operations in South Vietnam, before the end of 1963 pledging $500 million in aid to Saigon. In August of the following year, the destroyer Maddox, on an intelligence mission along the North Vietnamese coastline, fired upon several torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. Two days later, an alleged attack on the Maddox and another destroyer, the Turner Joy, prompted the Americans to initiate air strikes, marking their first large-scale military involvement in the conflict. Although the second incident was later discovered to be an error, it led Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving Johnson the authority to assist any south-east Asian nation under threat of communist aggression. Over the years, the Gulf of Tonkin ‘error’ has prompted some observers to argue that Johnson deliberately misled the American populace to gain support for greater involvement in Vietnam. Others refute this, but suggest that Robert McNamara and the Pentagon were in the mood to retaliate and presented their ‘evidence’ of the attacks to support their case.

In February 1965, an attack on a Marine barracks in Pleiku led to the ignition of Operations Flaming Dart and Rolling Thunder, a pair of vigorous aerial bombing campaigns to force North Vietnam to terminate its support for the Vietcong. The campaigns would last for three years, depositing, by November 1968, over a billion kilograms of missiles, rockets and bombs into North Vietnam, along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia and onto Vietcong installations in South Vietnam. Ultimately, it failed.

A month after the Pleiku attack, 3,500 Marines were deployed to South Vietnam to help defend the United States’ air bases, effectively beginning the ground war, with public opinion overwhelmingly supporting the move as part of a global conflict against communism. By the end of the year, troop numbers had swelled to 200,000. It was a commitment which many would regret as the Sixties wore on and the death toll rose, with the phrase “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many boys did you kill today?’’ chanted by protesters on the steps of the Pentagon in late 1967.

By the second half of the Sixties, with almost half a million American troops in Vietnam, many of the astronauts were developing itchy feet to return to active military service. “We were uncomfortable wearing the hero image,’’ wrote Gene Cernan, “while our buddies were bleeding, being captured and dying in a real shooting war for which we had been trained.’’ Some of them, indeed, approached Deke Slayton with a view to taking leave of absence from NASA, polishing up their carrier landing qualifications and returning to the front line… only to be awakened to the harsh reality. They were free to leave, if they wished, Slayton told them, but he offered no guarantees of a job when they returned.

“The Pentagon hammered in the final nail,’’ continued Cernan. “We could return to active duty if we wanted to, and even fly, but never – ever – would we be allowed into combat.’’ The negative propaganda impact of the Vietcong capturing American astronauts in a combat zone was too unpalatable for the Johnson administration to bear. “Vietnam,” wrote Cernan, “would not be our war.’’