Saturday is the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, of Neil Armstrong taking one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind. But of course, he and Buzz Aldrin (and Michael Collins, who is rarely given his full due credit because he stayed up in the lunar orbiter, while the other two went and got their boots dirty) didn't get there without the efforts and trials of hundreds of thousands of scientists and a couple dozen fellow astronauts before them. Among these men were the crew of Apollo 8, the first mission to orbit the moon, the first humans to ever see the far side of the moon with their own eyes. That crew consisted of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell (who'd later be involved in the Apollo 13 near disaster), and Bill Anders, who captured the iconic Earthrise photograph seen below (this is the original version, before it was rotated to make the moon horizon level and cleaned up a bit for the famous version).
I mention these guys because I'm reading a book entitled Apollo 8, written by Jerry Kluger, who wrote the book "Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13" that was the basis for the movie Apollo 13 starring Tom Hanks as Lovell, as well as Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton , among others. It's a fascinating study of what went on behind the scenes leading to that first moon shot, eventually leading to the landing achieved by Apollo 11.
The first Apollo mission never even launched, what with a testing phase accident killing three astronauts not too long before they were to go up in space. Apollo 6, an unmanned flight, was an unmitigated disaster, but its failure was overshadowed by the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King on the very same day. Just a few months later, humans were winging their way towards the moon, because a few key engineers and NASA administrators came up with, and convinced everyone above them on the chain of command, going right up to President Lyndon Johnson, that doing so was feasible, and needed to be done. There were Cold War implications at stake. There was President Kennedy's declaration that Americans would get to the moon by 1970, a rapidly approaching deadline that probably seemed impossible to achieve after the April 1968 Apollo 6 disaster. Whatever the reasons, and they're amply spelled out by Kluger in the book, NASA threw the dice, and they won big in December of 1968, setting the scene for even greater triumphs over the next 4 years.
The funny thing is that there were only ever 6 missions that successfully landed men on the moon, and the last of these occurred in 1972. Jim Lovell, who was on Apollo 8 and was among the first to orbit the moon, was supposed to get to the surface, but the explosion that rocked Apollo 13, and darn near killed him and his crewmates also put an end to his chance to walk on the moon. The Soviets never made it, not that they let on anything about their programs until a couple decades later, soon before the end of the Soviet Union.
This book is absolutely engrossing, and I think the next time I'm at the library, I'll have to see if the Apollo 13 book is on the shelf. Might have to watch the movie again, too, though I do remember getting kinda seasick when I saw it on the big screen when it first came out. That effect should not be quite as pronounced on a laptop screen, right?