Prologue August 1968
The last thing Frank Borman needed was a phone call when he was trying to fly his spacecraft. No astronaut ever wanted to hear a ringing phone when he was in the middle of a flight, but when the spacecraft was an Apollo
, any interruption was pretty much unforgivable. The Apollo
was a beautiful machine—so much bigger, so much sleeker than the Mercury
pods that all the other Americans who had ever been in space had flown. But the Mercurys
and the Geminis
had a perfect record: sixteen launches, sixteen splashdowns, and not a crewman lost. The Apollo
, on the other hand, was already a killer: only eighteen months ago, three very good men had died in the ship before the first one ever got off the launchpad.
So when Borman was trying to fly, he needed to pay complete attention. And now, at precisely the wrong moment, there was a call for him.
In fairness, Borman was not actually midflight when the phone rang. No one had yet taken an Apollo
into space; that wouldn’t happen until the ship was proven fit to fly, which it most certainly had not been. For now, he was merely sitting in the cockpit of the spacecraft on the factory floor at the North American Aviation plant in Downey, California, where all the new Apollos
were being built. If it did fly, Borman’s place would be in the left-hand seat—the commander’s seat—and that suited him just fine. His crewmates, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders—exceptional men, both—would be in the center and right seats. Lovell and Anders were with him today, in fact, and the work they were doing was every bit as difficult as his own.
This spacecraft, Apollo 9
, was scheduled to launch in approximately nine months, leaving no wiggle-room in the training schedule. That schedule, however, depended on Apollos 7
, the first two manned flights of the Apollo series; both had to get off the ground and bring their crews home whole and well. All three of the flights were supposed to stay in Earth’s orbit, and to Borman’s way of thinking, that was a shame. It was the boiling summer of 1968, and the world had spent much of the year bleeding from countless wounds: wars, assassinations of American leaders, riots and unrest from Washington to Prague to Paris to Southeast Asia. The Soviet Union and the United States, again and always, were staring each other down in hot spots around the globe as the Cold War raged, while American men died in the war in Vietnam at a rate of more than a thousand each month.
A flight to the moon—which President Kennedy had once promised would happen by 1970—would have been a fine and uplifting achievement right about now. But Kennedy was five years dead by an assassin’s bullet and three Apollo
astronauts were eighteen months dead and the entire lunar project was flailing at best, failing at worst. Most people believed that if American astronauts reached the moon at all, they wouldn’t get there for years.
Still, Borman had his mission, and he and his crew had their ship. And today they were inside it, running their flight drills and doing their best to get the feel of the machine. All the Apollos
looked the same and were laid out the same, but spacecraft were like aircraft. Pilots could feel their differences—in the give of a seat or the grind of a dial or the stickiness of a switch that had a bit more resistance than it should. Each spacecraft was as particular to each astronaut as a favorite mitt is to a catcher, and you had best know your ship well before you take it into space.
Now, as Borman, Lovell, and Anders lay in their assigned seats in their small cockpit, working to achieve that flier’s familiarity, a technician popped his head through the hatch.
“Colonel, there’s a phone call for you,” he said to Borman.
“Can you take a message?” Borman asked, annoyed at the interruption.
“No, sir. It’s Mr. Slayton. He says he has to talk to you.”
Borman groaned. Mr. Slayton was Deke Slayton, the head of the astronaut office and the man who assigned all the men to their flights. That power came with the understanding that he could always un
-assign you to a flight if he chose. When Slayton rang, you took the call.
Borman crawled out of the spacecraft and trotted to the phone. “What is it, Deke?” he asked.
“I’ve got something important I need to talk to you about, Frank.”
“So talk. I’m really busy here.”
“Not on the phone. I want you back in Houston now.”
“Deke,” Borman protested, “I’m right in the middle of—”
“I don’t care what you’re in the middle of. Be in Houston. Today.”
Borman hung up, hurried back to the spacecraft, and told Lovell and Anders about the call, offering only a who-knows shrug when they asked him what it meant. Then he hopped into his T-38 jet and flew alone back to Texas as ordered.
Just a few hours after he was first pulled from his spacecraft, Borman was sitting in Slayton’s office. Chris Kraft, Borman noticed with interest, was there as well. Kraft was NASA’s director of flight operations; as such, he was Slayton’s boss and Borman’s boss and almost everyone else’s boss, save NASA’s top administrators themselves. But today he remained silent and let the chief astronaut talk.
“Frank, we want to change your flight,” Slayton said simply.
“All right, Deke . . . ,” Borman said tentatively.
Slayton held up his hand. “There’s more,” he said. “We want to bump you and your crew from Apollo 9
up to Apollo 8
. You’ll take that spacecraft since it’s further along—and you’ll fly it to the moon.”
Then, as if to make clear that the astounding statement Borman had just heard was really what Slayton meant to say, he put it another way: “We are changing your flight from an Earth orbital mission to a lunar orbital,” he said, adding: “The best launch window is December 21. That gives you sixteen weeks to get ready. Do you want the flight?”
Borman said nothing at first, taking in the weight of what Slayton was proposing.
Before Borman could fully gather his thoughts, Kraft spoke up. “It’s your call, Frank,” he said.
That, all three men knew, was entirely true—and entirely untrue, too. Borman was a soldier, a West Point graduate and an air force fighter pilot. He had never had an opportunity to fight in a hot war, but the space program was a race with the Soviet Union and a critical part of the Cold War. A battlefield assignment—no matter what kind of battlefield—was not something he could possibly turn down.
The way Borman saw it, circumstances might warrant your saying no to a dangerous assignment, and your commanding officer might forgive you for saying no, but if you hadn’t signed up to fight, then why did you become a soldier in the first place? And if you hadn’t joined the space program to fly to the moon when your boss and your nation and—somewhere in that long chain of command—your president were asking you to, well, maybe you should have chosen a different line of work. The Apollo
spacecraft might not be up to the job, the flight planners who had the same sixteen weeks to get ready for a mission to the moon might not know exactly what they are doing, and in the end, three more Apollo
astronauts might wind up dead. But death was always a part of the piloting calculus, and this time would be no different.
“Yes, Deke,” Borman said. “I’ll take the flight.”
“And Lovell and Anders?” Slayton asked.
“They’ll take it, too,” Borman responded briskly.
“You’re sure about them?”
“I’m sure,” Borman answered. Then he smiled inwardly. He could only imagine the look on Lovell’s and Anders’s faces if he had flown back to Downey and told them that they had all been offered the chance to go to the moon before Christmastime and he had answered, No thanks.
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey Kluger. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.