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.