Monday, May 22, 2017

Author Event: When We First Ventured Into Deep Space

Apollo 8:  The Thrilling Story of the
First Mission to the Moon,
by Jeffrey Kluger

On Wednesday, May 24, at 7:00 p.m. at the Buena Vista Branch of the Burbank Public Library, Jeffrey Kluger will be in conversation with space historian Amy Teitel about his new book Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon. Jeffrey Kluger is the co-author with astronaut Jim Lovell of the bestseller Lost Moon, which was made into the movie Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks (“Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”).

Many people today do not remember, or are unfamiliar with, the mission of Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders. This was the mission that prepared for the landing of men on the moon with Apollo 11. But as the years have gone by, Apollo 8 has come to be recognized by historians as a defining moment. It was the first time humans left the orbit of earth and ventured into deep space. It was the first time men left the gravitational pull of the earth and the first time men experienced the gravitational draw of another celestial body. It was the first time humans saw with their own eyes the other side of the moon, and the first time they saw the earth from such a distance. The Apollo 8 mission produced what became one of the most iconic photos of the 20th century: the famous “earthrise” photo that showed the moon in the foreground and the lonely and fragile earth floating in the dark vastness of space. The astronauts successfully put the spacecraft into orbit around the moon, and studied and photographed possible sites for a future landing.

The launch of Apollo 8 aboard the huge
Saturn V rocket, December 21, 1968.
What many of us did not realize at the time was that Apollo 8 was an improvised mission, one that was moved up in NASA’s schedule of Apollo flights in its quest to land a man on the moon first. Jeffrey Kluger explains how this was prompted by the Cold War and the space race with the Russians who, it was feared, were about to jump ahead of the United States in the race for the moon. The mission was riskier and more daring than we knew. When the Apollo 8 mission to the moon was planned, no crew had flown in the Apollo space capsule. The year before, three astronauts--Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee--had been killed in a fire in the Apollo capsule during ground tests. The Saturn V rocket that would lift the astronauts into space had never put men into space before, and in its last unmanned test had pogoed wildly as it ascended. Engineering adjustments had to be made. Kluger has interviewed the three Apollo 8 astronauts (they are all still alive) and their families. His narrative gives us a wonderful sense of the character of the astronauts and the intimate drama of the mission.

The author tells us about all the challenges and problems that had to be addressed in a short window of time before the launch. The reader learns about all the various tasks and the huge collective community of planners and builders whose work had to be coordinated in order to accomplish the mission. Particularly memorable are the stories of the astronauts working behind the scenes on the floor of North American Aviation in Downey to make sure the Apollo capsule would be safe, after the terrible tragedy of the previous year. There were so many things in this mission that happened in actuality for the first time, never before tried--however numerous the simulations run on the ground. So much depended on detailed calculations, careful planning, and in the timeliness of execution. There were hundreds of thousands of parts that went into the spacecraft, and even the most minute lapse in design, assembly, or integrity of materials could result in utter disaster, as it had for Grissom and his colleagues. All these years later, it still impresses us as a complex and astonishing feat. 

The Apollo 8 astronauts (left to right) Apollo Commander Frank Borman, William Anders
(Lunar Module Pilot) and Jim Lovell (Command Module Pilot). The lunar module
did not accompany this flight.
 This is also an inspirational story. The Apollo 8 mission came at another time of deep division in our country, at the close of 1968, a troubled year in our history. The country was fighting a war in Vietnam, experiencing deep racial divisions and widespread political unrest, and had witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. And yet on Christmas Eve, in late December, the nation was focused on a national triumph, and the largest worldwide audience in television history tuned in to watch men talk to them from the moon and recite the moving opening passages from the Book of Genesis. 

The famous "earthrise" photo taken by William Anders as Apollo 8 orbited the moon.
If you decide to read this wonderful book, you should also go one weekend to the California Science Center in Exposition Park, where you can see on display an actual Apollo capsule. It is an interesting experience to imagine, when it comes to the flight itself, all the action of Kruger’s exhilarating and expansive narrative taking place within this impossibly cramped and enclosed compartment. And if you are interested in space, or even if you want a little uplift in these troubled times, you should not miss this event. This program is the first scheduled event for the Summer Reading Club for Adults, but everyone is welcome to attend. Like all library programs, it’s free, and those who come will be able to purchase the book at a great price and get it signed.

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