Chariot of Fire: Apollo 8’s Daring Mission to the Moon

Apollo 8It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 50 years since NASA’s Apollo program first landed a man on the Moon. Since passing decades tend to filter out everything save the highlights, that epic effort has been boiled down to a couple of missions: Apollo 11’s triumphant landing, and the near calamity of Apollo 13, which we might not remember were it not for Tom Hanks and Ron Howard. Lost is all (or most) of the daring preamble, when the United States and the Soviet Union repeatedly swapped positions in the Space Race, recklessly shooting manned aluminum cans – packed with all the computing power of a scientific calculator – into orbit.

You won’t have to be a rocket scientist to enjoy Jeffrey Kluger’s Apollo 8 (though it’s pure candy for aficionados). Kluger – who previously documented the Apollo 13 crisis with Commander Jim Lovell, also Apollo 8‘s pilot – recounts the first mission to carry astronauts into lunar orbit, marrying technological and historical perspectives with eyewitness accounts to spin a brisk, thrilling, and informative tale. Kluger writes, “The Saturn V engines had only one speed, which was full speed.” So does this book.

Here Kluger reflects on the legacy of the mission and his own history with the capsule. Apollo 8 is a top 10 selection for Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for May 2017.


You can learn a lot by looking at a dead machine—especially when that machine once lived a glorious life. Few machines achieve that oppositional tension more powerfully than a spacecraft. And no spacecraft does it better than Apollo 8. 

You can see Apollo 8—the first spacecraft to carry human beings to the Moon—any time you want to. It lives in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, only about half an hour’s ride from the suburban Chicago home of former astronaut James Lovell, who flew in the center seat of that historic ship when it made its ten orbits of the Moon on Christmas Eve 1968.

NASA is happy to tell you where all of its old Apollos are; their whereabouts are listed right on its website. Apollo 7 is at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas. Apollo 10 is at the Science Museum of London. Apollo 15 is at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. But it’s Apollo 8 that, in many ways, is the most extraordinary of them all.


Apollo8-Earthrise

During the third of Apollo 8’s ten orbits, the angle of the spacecraft’s prow allowed the crew to get their first glimpse of the Earth rising over the lunar horizon. Anders captured the iconic image that would come to be known as “Earthrise” (courtesy of NASA).


The conical command module that sits in the middle of a display area, encased in a shell of protective plastic, was once a vastly more dynamic thing than the stationary fixture it is today. On the morning of December 21, 1968, it sailed outward from Earth at a speed of 24,200 miles per hour, carrying Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and Bill Anders, who at that moment were moving faster than human beings ever had before. Three days later, the same speeding spacecraft carrying the same three men neared the Moon and, flying aft-end forward, fired its main engine to hit the brakes slightly and settle into lunar orbit.

There, balanced at the fulcrum of another kind of tension—the one that splits the difference between momentum and gravity—it circled around and around the Moon ten times, from dark to light, lunar night to lunar day, Earthset to, famously, Earthrise. The crew photographed the first of those Earthrises that they saw, a sight that was preserved on traditional film and hand carried back to a laboratory, where the one of the most iconic pictures in human history first revealed itself on a piece of photographic paper in a bath of chemicals.

Less than a day after taking that famous photo, the astronauts relit their engine, sped back up, and headed home. On December 27, 1968, Apollo 8 collided with the atmosphere at 25,000 miles per hour, riding a violent gravitational roller coaster to a splashdown in the South Pacific.


Apollo8-recovery

After Apollo 8 landed in the Pacific Ocean in the predawn hours of December 27, 1968, the crew was evacuated by helicopter. The USS Yorktown then steamed to the site of the splashdown and winched the spacecraft onto the deck (courtesy of NASA).


The first time I ever saw the Apollo 8 spacecraft was in 1993 when Jim and I were writing the book Apollo 13. He took me to see the spacecraft, exhibited in a somewhat more modest display than today’s, and we strolled slowly around it while he described the experience of riding aboard the little ship, living those extreme accelerations and decelerations, on the way to entering the history books as a member of the first human voyage to another cosmic body.

As we left, Jimcalled back jauntily to one of the guards who had escorted us on our visit: “Take care of my spacecraft now.” My spacecraft, I mused. Who among us gets to speak those words?


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Nearly twenty years later, I saw Apollo 8 again, in the summer of 2012, when my wife, our daughters, and I were visiting the Lovell family for the weekend. Our girls were eleven and nine at the time, and just before we piled into Jim’s car to drive over to the museum, I pulled them aside and said, “You might not be old enough to appreciate it right now, but this will be like Columbus showing you the Santa Maria.”

I’m happy to say that our daughters did appreciate it, and I, who had long ago come to love the story of Apollo 8, came to appreciate it anew. The mission was one that changed us all. For that reason as much as any, the spacecraft on display in the museum in Chicago will always be very much a living machine.


Apollo8-astronauts

The Apollo 8 crew (left to right): Jim Lovell, the command module pilot; Bill Anders, a rookie pilot; and Frank Borman, the mission’s commander. This photograph, a NASA publicity shot, was taken on the steps of the Apollo simulator five weeks before launch (courtesy of NASA).


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