‘Apollo 8’ Book Review: Historic Epic

Apollo 8

With a Neil Armstrong movie in the works — sure to focus on Apollo 11’s first manned lunar landing — and with Apollo 13’s dramatic space rescue already an honored film of the same name, it’s about time a book was written about a space mission just as meaningful and historic as those: Apollo 8.

Thankfully, Jeffrey Kluger has done it with Apollo 8, new at retail on May 16 from Henry Holt and Co. (in hardcover and audio CD).

The same author who co-wrote Lost Moon (later retitled Apollo 13) with former astronaut James Lovell has interviewed Apollo 8’s Lovell, Frank Borman and Bill Anders — along with many others — to tell the tale of the first humans to leave Earth’s gravitational pull by voyaging to another celestial body. They also became become the first humans to orbit the moon, the first to see its far side directly and the first to see Earth in its entirety in a single view, from a quarter-million-mile distance.

(I’m grateful that, being the space pro he is, Kluger never slips and refers to a “dark side” of the moon, unlike so many who confuse the moon’s fixed “far side” with a presumed dark side, of which there is none, but rather a continual shift from lightness to darkness across the moon’s entire rotating surface, just as on Earth.)

Ranging from postwar rocket development through the first years of manned space flights to Apollo 8’s December 1968 mission, Kluger gives a masterfully comprehensive and detailed look at the Cold War “Space Race” and inner workings of NASA. He gets into the heads of the astronauts as well as mission controllers, and in the finishing chapters that take Apollo 8 to the moon, provides a rare sense of “you are there” immediacy to the spacecraft.

It turns out the voyage wasn’t as glamorous as many might have assumed. Borman suffered from nausea, the men had trouble sleeping, the ship was too hot or too cold, and the trip wasn’t always a smooth ride. In fact, this was an extremely arduous and risky mission, as Kluger emphasizes.

He also makes the challenging intricacies of space flight understandable, but without oversimplifying. Going to the moon and back was anything but simple. Though this is no dry textbook, it is jammed with intricate information.

Kluger does fail to point out one thing: Though Apollo 8’s crewmen were the first humans to see the moon’s far side directly, earlier U.S. and USSR unmanned probes had orbited the moon and transmitted photos of the far side, whose battered surface is drastically different from the near side.

But those limited views by probes didn’t come close to the awe and wonder of Apollo 8’s first manned lunar orbits. That was epitomized by Anders’ photo now dubbed “Earthrise,” which showed the small blue ball of Earth rising over the stark, gray lunar horizon.

As history, Kluger puts Apollo 8’s epic flight in vivid perspective with the horrific turmoil of 1968 (wars, riots, assassinations). That turmoil was relieved at year’s end via Apollo 8’s successful mission, highlighted by a moving telecast to a spellbound Earth — the largest TV audience in history — on Christmas Eve.

The visuals were grainy, but the words were clear as the astronauts took turns reading from the Book of Genesis. Borman then said the immortal closing words, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.”

The dangerous trip home remained — dangers Kluger divulges with scary clarity. But the historic, epic flight would end in triumph with a splashdown in the Pacific three days later. It was only then that NASA’s Mission Control in Houston was allowed to erupt in celebration.

As a fellow Houstonian, I hold space flight in vaulted esteem. The heroes on high and those behind the scenes (flight director Gene Kranz and many others), like so many in this great city, are can-do dreamers. They are close to my heart. And now, so is this remarkable book.

— Bruce Westbrook

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Borman (who gets extra emphasis as Apollo 8’s commander), Lovell and Anders became the first human beings to

 

 

 

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