On Feb. 15, 2017, people paying attention to the US human space flight program were startled to learn NASA was considering putting a crew aboard the first flight of the SLS rocket system. Plans had been to send an uncrewed Orion capsule on a circumlunar flight in late 2018, but now doing it with a crew in 2019 or 2020 is being studied.
In fact this parallels a development from the early Apollo program. In 1968 the plan had been to shake down the Apollo Command and Service modules in Earth orbit with Apollo 7, add the Lunar Module but stay in Earth orbit for Apollos 8 and 9, and after that head toward the Moon. The LEM was facing delays, though, and in August George Low proposed a reshuffling of the schedule, sending Apollo 8 without a LEM on a circumlunar flight. Big difference: this wasn’t a mission three years in the future. It was sixteen weeks away. It was the 1960s, the Cold War was on, and NASA could and did improvise and take risks like that.
So Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders went to the moon and back.
Kluger’s book about the mission is a prequel of sorts to the book he and Lovell wrote, Lost Moon, about Lovell’s next, less successful flight: Apollo 13. Apollo 8 makes for a more problematic subject, because it went so damn well; I can’t see this book becoming a successful movie the way Lost Moon did. Never mind that people gave this crew no better than a 2 in 3 chance of coming back alive. You don’t build a blockbuster around waiting to see if the Service Module rocket fired or not.
Apollo 8 had one of the space program’s most poetic moments, on Christmas Eve, 1968, when the astronauts sent home video of the Earth above the Moon and read the opening verses of Genesis. You won’t find much else poetic in this book. Kluger writes competently but rather woodenly, giving a matter of fact recitation of the events. The first hundred or so pages look like a book titled Frank Borman rather than Apollo 8, describing his career from West Point to the Air Force to NASA. Then there’s the Apollo 1 fire and its aftermath, the problems with the Apollo spacecraft and the Saturn V rocket, the decision to go to the moon, the training and Apollo 7. Not until page 158 does Apollo 8 launch, and its mission occupies the rest of the book.
Space enthusiasts will want to read this book, not necessarily for any revelations but for a beginning to end compilation of the story. I’m not sure who else will. Apollo 8 was the first time humans left this planet to visit another world, a remarkable milestone in human history. By rights it should inspire stirring and compelling epics. Apollo 8 isn’t one.