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Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8

Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8

by Robert Zimmerman

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Circling the moon at 3,700 miles an hour, a quarter of a million miles from Earth, the captain opened the Bible and began to read. "In the beginning God created heaven and earth..." Sweeping past the three astronauts was a stark black and white terrain, cold and forbidding. Unseen but listening intently was an audience of more than a billion people.

It was


Circling the moon at 3,700 miles an hour, a quarter of a million miles from Earth, the captain opened the Bible and began to read. "In the beginning God created heaven and earth..." Sweeping past the three astronauts was a stark black and white terrain, cold and forbidding. Unseen but listening intently was an audience of more than a billion people.

It was Christmas Eve, 1968. And the astronauts of Apollo 8 -- Captain Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders -- were participants in a mission that took them farther (500,000 miles) and faster (24,000 miles an hour) than any human had ever traveled. Of the 27 previous manned launches, none had ever ventured higher than 850 miles in altitude. Apollo 8 was the mission that broke humanity's bond to the earth: it was the first manned vehicle to leave the earth's orbit. Although it did not land there, Apollo 8 was the first craft to orbit the moon.

Confined within a tiny 11x13-foot spaceship -- the size of the interior of a 15-passenger van -- the astronauts were aided in their journey by a computer less powerful than the least sophisticated handheld calculator available today. The mission ended flawlesly. It was a triumph for America and its space agency, and assured the public's continued interest in exploring space. Genesis is thr true story of human character at its most inspiring.

Editorial Reviews

Americans living in the late 1960s went through the most exciting days of space exploration. Astronauts were more famous than rock stars, and the world eagerly followed each venture beyond the Earth's atmosphere. Apollo 11 was the logical climax to the great Space Race, and Neil Armstrong and "Buzz" Aldrin certainly deserve their immortality as the first humans ever to walk the surface of the Moon. An earlier mission, however, generated fully as much excitement, and is remembered even more fondly. When Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders splashed down safely after circling the Moon in December 1968, they provided an upbeat ending to a ghastly year of assassinations, riots, and social unrest. More importantly, their flight marked the first time that humans had ever escaped from the Earth's gravity well. All of mankind seemed to hold its breath during the long minutes while the spacecraft was out of contact beyond the far side of the Moon. The three astronauts not only proved that a manned landing on the Moon was possible, but also brought back the first photographs showing Earth in its true perspective: a lovely blue marble in the black immensity of outer space. It was Frank Borman, however, who gave the world its most unforgettable moment when, on Christmas Eve, he slowly began to read: "In the beginning" Robert Zimmerman is a filmmaker who has written extensively on space and astronomy subjects. He has done an excellent job here, giving us a richly anecdotal account of the mission that nicely balances rocket science with the human element. He never lets the story get bogged down in melodrama, however, and is skilled in making all of the engineering and technologyunderstandable to the average reader. Best of all, he puts the story of Apollo 8 into the perspective of the times. This is probably the best writing on the space program since Michael Collins' Carrying the Fire. KLIATT Codes: JSA*—Exceptional book, recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1998, Dell, 350p, 18cm, illus, notes, bibliog, index, $6.99. Ages 13 to adult. Reviewer: Raymond L. Puffer; Ph.D., Historian, Edwards Air Force Base, CA, May 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 3)
Library Journal
Zimmerman, who writes for the Sciences, Astronomy, and the Wall Street Journal, tells the story of the three astronauts involved in the "first manned flight to another world" as we approach its 30th anniversary. The story is well told in the astronauts' own words and through interviews with their wives and children. The sections covering selected events and personages of the Cold War and the 1960s provide a unique perspective; the role of religion in the astronauts' lives is an important theme not found elsewhere. While Apollo 8 is included in many other books on the Apollo program, Zimmerman's work is the first to cover this flight alone and to stress its monumental significance as the most important Apollo mission. A strong purchase for all academic and public libraries.--Dale Ebersole, Carlson Lib., Univ. of Toledo, OH
An account of the 1968 Apollo 8 mission to the moon, weaving details of the mission into the saga of the three astronauts' careers, family lives, and the emotional and spiritual after-effects of their historic journey. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
The year 1968 is memorable for any number of reasons, science writer Zimmerman reminds us, not the least of which was the historic flight of Apollo 8, the first manned space flight to slip out of Earth's gravitational tethers. Apollo 8, with Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders aboard, blasted off in late December of 1968, its intention to journey beyond Earth's orbit, slip into a lunar orbit, then escape again, and return. Its success was a momentous occasion—-the frontiers of space had been effectively pushed out, way out—-although it was overshadowed six months later by the actual lunar landing. Zimmerman, a science and technology writer who has contributed to American Heritage, the Sciences, and other publications, has chosen two aspects of the Apollo 8 mission to emphasize. First, he depicts a space program then still the venue of the hero/ace pilot who, sacrificing family priorities and personal safety, was the Cold Warrior nonpareil. In relating this, Zimmerman situates the flight within the context of that electrifying and appalling year the Tet Offensive, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, student uprisings, the Chicago Democratic convention, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, when more than a spacecraft appeared to be spinning out of orbit. Zimmerman keeps in check this potentially hyperbolic drama, giving it a nice steady rhythm, but he loses that touch when he goes after his second theme, attempting to infuse the event with righteousness. It showed the world, Zimmerman claims, an "American vision of moral individuality, religious tolerance and mutual respect," though it's difficult to see the space race as an expression ofsuch respect or to decipher the meaning of "moral individuality" in this context.

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Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8

The First Manned Flight to Another World

By Robert Zimmerman

D Street Books

Copyright © 2012 Robert Zimmerman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4956-0046-3



Someone once pictured humanity as a race of islanders who have not yet learned the art of making ships. Out across the ocean we can see other islands about which we have wondered and speculated since the beginning of history. Now, after a million years, we have made our first primitive canoe; tomorrow we will watch it sail through the coral reef and vanish over the horizon.

--Arthur C. Clarke, 1947

Sealed within a cramped cone-shaped compartment about the size of a customized van, three men waited silently. They were perched three hundred sixty-three feet in the air. Below them pulsed 1,500 tons of powerful fuel, about to ignite in a fiery explosion.

The date was Saturday, December 21st, 1968. The time was 6:51 AM (C.S.T). The place was Cape Canaveral, Florida, at that time called Cape Kennedy.

Commander Frank Borman sat in the left couch. For the last twenty years he had dedicated himself to the defense of his country. When his government called for experienced test pilots to risk their lives flying into space, he had taken the call, becoming one of America's first sixteen astronauts. Now the forty-year-old sat poised and tense, his left hand gripping the abort handle. Though it was his responsibility to terminate the flight should something go wrong, he was determined this would be a perfect mission. He had devoted the last two years of his life in pursuit of that goal.

Jim Lovell, the command module pilot, sat in the middle couch. This was Lovell's third space mission, and he was at that moment the world's most experienced spaceman. Since childhood all he had ever wanted to do was build and fly rocket ships. Also forty years old, he had joined the military in order to fly the most advanced aircraft, and had become an astronaut to fly even more advanced rockets. Now, fired up with anticipation, his eyes fixed on the display panel of the spacecraft's computer as he keypunched data into the program.

Bill Anders, lunar module pilot, sat on the right. For him this flight was the adventure of a lifetime, flying the biggest and fastest flying machine ever built. Thirty-five years old, and the crew's only rookie, he had waited five long years for this first flight into space. Now he sat there and scanned the instrument panel and the spacecraft's systems, making sure everything was running properly.

Below them quivered the Saturn 5 rocket, tested only twice before, and never before used to put human beings in space.

These men had volunteered to be here. They had spent their lives trying to fly as fast and as high as a human being could go. And now they were about to go faster and higher than any human had ever attempted.

Apollo 8 was like no other space mission. Of the twenty-seven previous manned launches, both American and Soviet, none had ever ventured higher than 850 miles in altitude. Like the ancient sailors who had hugged the coasts, afraid to venture out into the vast uncharted ocean, astronauts and cosmonauts alike had remained close to Mother Earth, circling her again and again as they tested their ability to survive in the hard vacuum and utter cold of space.

After reaching orbit on December 21st, however, Apollo 8 would spend less than three hours circling the earth. If all systems checked out properly, the astronauts would re-ignite their third stage rocket and send their spacecraft hurtling away from the earth and out into the endless blackness of space.

Unlike past space missions, these astronauts would actually be going somewhere. They would be going to the moon.

* * *

For the past week the three men had spent considerable time taking care of personal business. The Sunday before, Jim Lovell had attended church, then drove out to nearby Edgewater, Florida where his mother Blanch lived with her sister and brother-in-law. In one week she would be seventy-three years old, and her family now gathered for a combined early Christmas and birthday dinner of ham and scalloped potatoes.

When Jim Lovell was twelve, his father had been killed in a car accident. Blanch Lovell had raised Jim herself, a single mom with an only son. Now her only son was about to travel to the moon, and he spent almost the entire birthday meal diagraming the mission and explaining the technical details of the flight to her. Jim Lovell very much wanted his mother to come with him, if not in body at least in soul.

Two nights later Marilyn Lovell arrived in Florida with their four children. She arranged to stay in a nearby beachfront cottage, where she and the children could swim in the ocean and relax while avoiding the crush of reporters. Just as Jim wanted his mother to be with him in spirit, he and Marilyn had decided that the entire family should share this first moon flight together.

Thursday night Jim and Marilyn took a car and drove to a place where they could see the gigantic Saturn 5 rocket, lit up against the night sky. As they sat there in the dark, he explained what the launch would be like, how the rocket would twist sideways to avoid the launch tower and how its flight would curve eastward as rocket rose.

He then handed her a black and white photograph of the moon, taken by one of NASA's unmanned scout ships. She looked at it, puzzled. "I'm going to name that mountain for you," he explained, pointing at a triangularly shaped mountain on the edge of the Sea of Tranquility. Jim knew that he couldn't have gotten where he was without Marilyn's support, and by naming the peak after her she would share in his glory.

* * *

Bill and Valerie Anders said their goodbyes four days earlier. Since Bill had become an astronaut Valerie had seen as many live launches as possible, often driving long hours with her kids from Texas to Florida. She found the liftoffs exciting and exhilarating. If it had been possible she would gladly have flown into space herself.

This time, however, they both decided she should stay home. They had five young children, ranging in ages from four to eleven, and both parents knew that a crush of reporters would descend upon them for this flight. And though they had just hired an au pair from Germany to watch their kids, Valerie could already see that eighteen-year-old Sylvie was not going to be much help. "All she did was clip news articles about the mission," Valerie remembered. It just seemed simpler to watch the launch from home.

Even so, she had flown out with Marilyn on Tuesday to spend a single evening with Bill. They had originally made their farewells just before Bill left for the Cape on December 8th. The night before they had had an early Christmas dinner, at which Bill had given Valerie and the kids their Christmas presents, including a color television to watch the mission. He also gave Valerie two audiotapes. One was a Christmas message he had recorded for the family that he wanted her to play on Christmas Day, while he was in lunar orbit. The other she was only to play if he did not return.

Then he gave her a farewell kiss and left for Florida.

One day later President Johnson decided to have a party for the astronauts and their families, and Valerie and Bill unexpectedly found themselves together again at a formal dinner in the White House. Since it seemed ridiculous for them to say what might be their last goodbyes with so many people watching, Valerie made arrangements to fly out to the Cape to be with Bill one more time.

They spent that one short evening together. He went back to his crew quarters and she flew back to Houston and the kids.

Now it was less than twenty-four hours before launch, and Bill's childhood priest, Father Dennis Barry, came to visit him in his crew quarters. Barry was an old family friend, and Anders, a practicing Catholic, had invited him to the Cape to see the launch live. Bill showed him around, introducing him to the other astronauts. Then Barry performed a short private mass, giving Anders communion.

Also visiting Bill that last day was Leno Pedrotti. Pedrotti had been Bill's thesis adviser when Anders had gotten his masters in nuclear engineering back in 1960. Anders had invited him and his brother Frank, a Jesuit priest, to come to Florida see the launch. The two brothers drove down from Ohio that Thursday to arrive at the astronaut's crew quarters just before sunset, and after introducing the two men to the other astronauts, Anders walked them to their car. As much as he wanted to, he couldn't spend much time with them. The launch was now only a few hours away.

They stood there in the parking lot, drinking soda and chatting about the mission and what Bill had done to get to this point. As they talked the sun was setting, and Anders noticed that a thin crescent moon floated slightly above it in the sky. The men shook hands and Bill was soon back in his quarters getting ready for bed.

It had only been a glance, yet Anders never forgot that crescent moon. The thought struck him that in mere days he would be there.

* * *

Frank Borman had his own intangibles to ponder. On Friday morning, just as the final countdown was beginning to gear up, Borman went to a local Episcopalian church in nearby Cocoa Beach, Florida. There he spent a silent hour, finding solace and calm before the coming journey. Though he had the utmost confidence in his equipment and knew he had done all that was humanly possible to make sure everything would work, he felt a need to spend a few quiet minutes in prayer.

Then he went back to his room to call his wife one last time before the launch. Like Valerie Anders, Susan Borman had decided against seeing the launch live, and now waited at home in Houston with their two sons, Fred, seventeen, and Ed, fifteen.

They talked of the mission, and in his typical hard-nosed test pilot manner, Frank reassured her that everything possible had been done to make the spacecraft and rocket flawless. He wouldn't be going if he didn't believe that. Though Susan Borman immediately agreed with her husband, expressing confidence and encouragement for the man she loved, she actually did not believe him. For her, the risks surrounding the Apollo 8 mission seemed so obvious and incomprehensible that she no longer had faith in the success of the flight. She truly expected him to die in orbit around the moon.

She did not let Frank know of her conviction. He had chosen to risk his life for his country, and for eighteen years it had been her job to support him, regardless of the danger. As he had once said, and she had accepted, "There's more to life than just living."

Frank did suspect that Susan was more frightened than usual. Christopher Kraft, Director of NASA Flight Operations, had come to visit her one night several weeks earlier, and they had talked about the flight and risks and dangers Frank faced. Normally, the astronaut wives never expressed their fears and doubts to anyone. For a wife to admit apprehension might lower her husband's standing in the eyes of NASA.

With Chris Kraft, however, Susan could be honest. He was a dear and close friend, and she trusted him. She also knew that he would tell her the truth.

She told him her fears. To her, it would be a miracle if NASA got them back alive.

Chris listened, and tried to give her some hope. He explained that the chances of success were probably fifty-fifty, not zero. He described the incredible effort that had gone into making the flight as safe as possible. He talked of his faith in what he, Frank, and all of NASA was doing. Though Apollo 8 was clearly the most dangerous space mission ever, he was convinced it was the right thing to do.

For a couple of hours after Kraft's visit Susan considered what he had told her. Maybe there is a chance, she thought. Maybe they will get home alive. Then her doubts reasserted themselves. By launch eve she had dismissed what Chris had told her and was once again resigned to despair.

Aggravating her fears was the knowledge that she would be on public display, required to exude self-confidence and excitement not only for her husband but for the rest of the country. While she knew she could do it, it was a task and responsibility she found increasingly painful.

With the launch mere hours away, Susan lay in bed, unable to sleep. She waited for dawn and what she was convinced would be her husband's fiery launch into oblivion.

* * *

Frank also found sleep difficult that night. In his passionate and obsessive career his family had always come second to flying. Twelve years earlier, the Air Force had assigned him to teach at West Point, sending him first to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena to study aeronautical engineering. Borman wanted to fly planes, however, and he figured that the only way he could get that teaching assignment changed was to accumulate a lot more flight time. That Thanksgiving, he had the choice of staying home with his wife and two young sons or flying a total stranger to Washington, D.C. He hopped in his plane and went to Washington. For Borman, time in the air was far more important than time on the ground with his family.

Nor was Susan resentful of this. She knew also that the success of their family depended on Frank flying as much as possible. Theirs was a lifetime partnership centered on the success of Frank's career.

To Frank, however, her unwavering support hadn't made the situation any easier. He loved his wife and children so deeply that if he thought of them while flying it distracted him, which in turn could be life-threatening. Hence, though he brought pictures of Susan and the boys with him into space, he refused to even glance at them, fearful of losing his focus.

But Borman knew that his flying career could soar no higher, and weeks before he had told the space agency that Apollo 8 would be his last flight. In the future, he no longer wanted to do work that forced him to make believe his family did not exist.

Nonetheless, he still had to survive the flight of Apollo 8. As he lay there trying to sleep, he struggled to put his family from his mind, to focus his thoughts entirely on the needs of the mission.

* * *

As the sky began to lighten in the predawn hours of Saturday, December 21st, thousands and thousands of spectators gathered on the beaches of the Indian River. Some were NASA workers wishing to see the launch of their creation. Others were visitors from every part of the United States drawn by the thrill of this most audacious adventure. Many had driven to the beach the night before to sleep in their cars, guaranteeing themselves a good view.

Marilyn Lovell and her children had been picked up by a NASA official before dawn and driven to an isolated sand dune on the beach, only three miles from the launchpad. There, canvas chairs and food had been set up, and Marilyn and her children -- Jeffrey, Susan, Jay, and Barbara, aged from two to fifteen -- settled down to wait, bundled against the cool North Florida weather. Accompanying them was Adeline Hammack, Valerie's neighbor in Houston and one of Marilyn's closest friends. Adeline had come with her to Florida to help keep watch on the children during launch.

Marilyn looked with awe at the giant rocket, amazed that at that moment her husband was perched in the tiny capsule at its peak. She knew how excited and happy he was, finally doing what he had always wanted to do. Though she had some apprehension about the risks, she did as he did, putting these fears aside to savor the thrill of man's first journey to the moon. Unlike Sue Borman, Marilyn had a deep abiding faith that everything would work properly and Jim would come home.

Also on the sand dune sat Charles and Anne Lindbergh. Two days earlier they had visited the astronauts for a pleasant afternoon lunch. The astronauts, about to join the ranks of pioneers like Lindbergh, sat in delight as he described his flight across the ocean. Later he talked about the time he had met Robert Goddard, the inventor of the liquid fueled rocket and the father of American rocketry. Everyone laughed when Lindbergh described how Goddard thought he could have designed a rocket to reach the moon, though "unfortunately it might cost as much as a million dollars." The 1960s American space program, whose sole goal was to send a man to the moon, cost approximately twenty-five thousand times more.

Lindbergh himself was filled with wonder at what the astronauts were doing. At one point in the evening he calculated that in the first second of the Saturn 5's flight, it would burn "ten times more fuel than I did all the way to Paris."

Several months later, Anne Lindbergh wrote about this short afternoon meeting with the astronauts. "Here in the midst of a scientific, mechanical, computerized beehive is the human element, the most exacting of all. There is nothing mechanical or robotlike about these men. Intelligent, courageous and able, they inspire faith in human capabilities and in this particular human exploit."

All told, approximately a quarter of a million people had gathered to see the launch of Apollo 8. Standing on the shorelines surrounding Cape Kennedy, they stared with equal wonder and dread at that huge missile sitting more than three miles away.


Excerpted from Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8 by Robert Zimmerman. Copyright © 2012 Robert Zimmerman. Excerpted by permission of D Street Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Jim Lovell
The flight of Apollo 8 brought a shining ending to a year of turmoil. Zimmerman tells the reality of the story with vigor.
Frank Borman
Genesis captures the essence of the space race and the Apollo program.

Meet the Author

Robert Zimmerman is an award-winning science journalist and historian who has written four books and more than a hundred articles on science, engineering, and the history of space exploration and technology. His third book, Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel (Joseph Henry Press), was awarded the American Astronautical Society's Eugene M. Emme Astronautical Literature Award in 2003 as the best space history for the general public.
His magazine and newspaper articles have appeared in Science, Astronomy, Sky & Telescope, Air & Space, Natural History, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Wired, Invention & Technology and a host of other publications. In 2000 he was co-winner of the David N. Schramm Award, given by the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society for Science Journalism, for his essay in The Sciences, "There She Blows," on the 35-year-old astronomical mystery of gamma ray bursts.
In addition, he writes daily about space, science, politics, technology, and culture at his website, Behind the Black.com.
He was born in Brooklyn and lives in Tucson, Arizona.

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