A Mission Control Officer Remembers Apollo 8

The first manned flight to the Moon lifted off December 21, 1968. A documentary about the mission premieres on NOVA next Wednesday.

Next week, NOVA will air a documentary on Apollo 8, humankind's first flight to the moon, which launched 50 years ago tomorrow, on December 21, 1968.

Originally, Apollo 8 was scheduled to test out the lunar module in Earth orbit. But when it became clear, in August 1968, that the module wouldn't be ready in time, NASA had to make a decision: was it ready to fly a manned rocket to lunar orbit?

"My first reaction was, ‘That's the craziest idea I've ever heard,'" said Jerry Bostick, then chief of flight dynamics and retrofire officer at NASA's Apollo Mission Control Center in Houston. "We hadn't planned to do that until the first quarter of ′69."

It had been less than two years since the tragic Apollo 1 fire, which killed astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee. NASA's first manned spaceflight after that, Apollo 7, was set for that October. But the setback with the lunar module threatened the goal set by President John F. Kennedy of putting a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.

"George Low [then manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, later NASA deputy administrator] came up with the bold idea of, ‘Okay, if Apollo 7 is successful, then let's go to the Moon on Apollo 8 without the lunar module, and that will allow us to get the program back on schedule."

Christopher Kraft, then NASA's director of flight operations, met with Bostick and three of his colleagues on a Friday afternoon to ask whether it was possible. He told them he wanted an answer by Monday.

"We all went back on Monday and said, ‘There is no reason why we can't. We won't have everything that we want in the control center as far as displays go, but we can make do,'" Bostick said.

Four months later, Frank Borman, James “Jim” Lovell, and William “Bill” Anders became the first humans to travel to the Moon. One of the most striking moments of the mission came as a complete surprise to Bostick and his colleagues at Mission Control.

"What could be better than having Americans circling the Moon on Christmas Eve and reading from Genesis about the creation of the universe? It brought tears to everybody's eye," Bostick says.

The flight set the stage for Apollo 11 to land on the Moon the following July.

NOVA's documentary, "Apollo's Daring Mission," premieres next Wednesday, December 26, at 8 p.m. on TV 8.


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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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