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Excerpt from Chapter 3: First Around the Moon
The news was bad in the summer of 1968. A nation reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy now confronted more images of violence in its living rooms: the blood of young soldiers in Vietnam, the blood of demonstrators outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And even within NASA's world, where these events were overshadowed by the race with the decade, there was bad news. The second unmanned test of the Saturn V moon rocket had been a near disaster. Minutes into the launch the booster began to vibrate badly. Then two of the second-stage engines shut down prematurely. Later, a third engine refused to reignite in space. And if that weren't enough, there were ongoing headaches with the Apollo spacecraft. The redesigned command module was coming along well at North American, and the craft slated for Apollo 7, the command module's manned, earth-orbit debut, was already at the Cape being readied for an October launch. But the lunar module was facing one technical problem after another. From the beginning, engineers at the Grumman Corporation in Bethpage, Long Island, had struggled to keep the lander's weight from exceeding forbidden limits. And there were other woes: faulty wiring, corroded metal, and most serious of all, troubles with the LM's ascent rocket. And when the first manned lunar module was shipped to the Cape in June, quality control inspectors found 100 separate defects. At NASA, no one who heard the reports on the lander was happy with the situation. Apollo 8, the LM's first manned flight, would almost certainly be delayed beyond the end of the year, throwing the whole sequence of Apollo missions into jeopardy. The end-of-the-decade deadline for the lunar landing was slipping out of reach.
All that began to change in early August. A plan emerged, elegant in its simplicity, astounding in its boldness, that altered the course of the moon program. It was the brainchild of George Low, the quiet engineering genius who oversaw the development of the Apollo spacecraft from Houston. If Apollo 7 went well in October, Low reasoned, why keep Apollo 8 in earth orbit? Even if the LM wasn't going to be ready for its debut, the second command ship could go to the moon by itself in December. Already, during the spring, Low had quietly raised the possibility of a circumlunar flight in which the joined command module/lunar module pair would execute a figure 8 loop around the moon and then come home. His new plan was even more ambitious. Low wanted to send the command module to the moon by itself, not to fly a figure 8 loop, but to go into lunar orbit. Even without a lunar module, that would let NASA practice the elements of a basic lunar mission: navigating across the vast translunar gulf, executing the precise rocket firings to get into and out of lunar orbit, communicating across a quarter-million miles, and the critical reentry into the earth's atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. Then, by the time the LM was ready -- estimates said February -- Apollo would have taken a giant step forward.
But there was another reason for urgency. Reports from the Central Intelligence Agency said the Soviet Union was about to resume flying its new Soyuz spacecraft -- after the first Soyuz crashed, killing its lone cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov, in April 1967 -- and were on the verge of sending one around the moon. Most experts doubted the Soviets had the capability to land on the moon before the end of the decade; for one thing, they had yet to test a rocket, like the Saturn V, powerful enough to propel the necessary payload to the lunar surface. Even a lunar orbit flight was probably beyond them. But with the booster they already had, they could fire a Soyuz, with one or two cosmonauts aboard, on a trip around the moon.
From the beginning, without warning, the Soviets had upstaged the United States in space with their own spectacular firsts. In 1957 it had been the first earth satellite, Sputnik I. More than three years later it was Yuri Gagarin's one-orbit flight that stunned the world and sparked John Kennedy's decision to go to the moon. Then came the first woman in space, the first multiperson space crew, the first spacewalk. If the Soviets got to the moon first -- even if they did nothing more than loop around it -- the world would hardly notice the difference between that accomplishment and NASA's more difficult lunar orbit mission.
There is no way of knowing what would have happened to Low's plan if NASA Administrator James Webb had been in Washington, but the fact was he was not; he and his deputy George Mueller were in Vienna attending a conference. In their absence Associate Administrator Thomas Paine, a bright, young engineer with a penchant for the visionary, was in charge. When Paine's deputy, Apollo program director Sam Phillips, told him about Low's idea Paine immediately saw the logic in it. But it remained to convince Webb, and that might not be easy.
Webb was not an engineer. He was, however, a canny bulldog of a politician. When Kennedy said "Go to the moon" it was up to Webb to keep Congress from having second thoughts, which he did by any means of persuasion he found necessary -- including a knack for knowing where congressional skeletons were hidden. Year after year, he was Apollo's champion on the Hill, where it counted most. He had persevered even as the war in Vietnam claimed more and more of Lyndon Johnson's attention and Apollo became a target of congressional opposition. If Americans reached the moon by the end of the decade, it would be due in large measure to Jim Webb. But Webb would not be at NASA to see it; he already knew his tenure would end when Johnson left office.
Webb took Paine's call at the American embassy, where there was a secure phone, and then Sam Phillips got on the line. Webb wasn't ready for what he heard. He yelled over the transatlantic phone line, "Are you out of your mind?" Webb reviewed what was apparent to any sane person: They hadn't even flown a manned Apollo spacecraft, and here they were with a scheme to send the second flight to the moon. And with no lunar module! All along, the LM had been thought of as a measure of safety, a lifeboat in case something happened to disable the command ship's rocket engines. Sending the command module by itself only increased the risk of what was already a risky mission. With the Fire still fresh in the memory of the public and the Congress, Webb could only imagine the effect of another space tragedy. He warned his two deputies, "You're putting the agency and the whole program at risk."
Webb was right. For all its logic, Low's plan was audacious. Many would look back on it as the boldest decision NASA ever made. Still, by the time Paine and Phillips hung up the phone to Vienna, Webb had agreed to give the idea a chance.
In Houston, they were already working on it. Low had asked Chris Kraft, director of Flight Operations, to find out whether his people could be ready to send Apollo 8 to the moon in December. They went ahead with their study in secret. When their office mates asked -- "What's all this lunar stuff you're working on?" -- they replied coolly, "Oh, it's just a what-if type of study..."
Within a week Kraft's team had an answer. By the summer of 1968, after years of intensive effort, the basics of sending a manned spacecraft to the moon were all but perfected. The biggest hurdle: finishing the computer software that mission control would need to help Apollo 8 navigate to and from the moon. Making the December launch date would be tight, but Kraft's people were confident they could do it. Meanwhile, at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Wernher von Braun's rocket team reported the problems with the Saturn V were being ironed out. It remained for the Apollo spacecraft to prove itself. If all went well on Apollo 7, slated for October, there wouldn't be anything to stand in the way.