Apr 23, 2007

Apollo 8, heros that got lost in the shuffle

Here Comes Johnny Yen Again...: Earth Day, 1972

Johnny Yen had another great blog about earth day and mentioned the photo taken from Apollo 8 that came to be "the" photo used for the occasion.

I am a serious space program geek, and there is nothing I really like talking about more. I collect books and info about the whole space program, and as soon as it became available picked up the fantastic series that Tom Hanks and Spielberg put together called From the Earth to the Moon.

What a lot of people don't know was that the first trip to leave earth orbit, circle the moon and come back wasn't supposed to be Apollo 8. That was scheduled to come later, but there were numerous problems with the LEM (lander) component. So NASA came to the Apollo 8 crew (Commander Frank Borman, Lovell, and Anders) and asked if they felt they could move the mission up a couple of months.

The attitude around NASA at that point in time was one of go, go, go and of course they said yes. But, the navigation computer wasn't ready, and there had not been enough time to get the capsule or crew ready. So knowing that Lovell was an amateur astronomer and knew how to operate a navigation sextant, they mounted one in the side of the capsule. They did some quick training on star sitings off of our planet (which was all theory) and off they went.

All the way out to the moon, they would take a star siting, work the numbers, then compare it with the numbers that would get spit out of the nav computer. About 2 out of 3 times the nav computer spit out junk, and the other two guys would look at Lovell and ask, well Jim, are you sure?

That is guts...

The window for entry into the moons orbit and get the proper trajectory back to Earth is way small. A matter of a few miles. There is a scene from the old black and white footage of mission control when the went into lunar orbit. There is a big screen with the mission trajectory on it showing the path around the moon. There are two clocks on either side, LOS (loss of signal) and AOS (acquisition of signal). Remember, this is the very first time they were going to be out of touch with the crew in all the space missions. They had a pretty good guess of how it would take to loop around the back side of the moon, so that was what the clocks were for.

The Apollo 8 craft goes around the back, and the LOS clock starts counting up, the AOS clock starts counting down based on their guess of when the can communicate again.

The AOS clock reaches zero and they start calling Apollo 8 this is Houston, over and over and over.

You can see the body language of a bunch of the mission control folks change, shoulders are drooping, some heads are laying down on their consoles, they think that the command module has probably missed and went into the ground on the back side of the moon.

It turns out the were on the extreme outside of the orbit window, and had taken longer than expected to come around. Finally the answer back to mission control that are back and the cheer rivaled the actual landing on the moon.

It really is pretty amazing stuff what they accomplished with less computing power than what we have in a cheap pocket calculator these days.


  1. I love the episode of "From the Earth to the Moon" about that mission. I remember as a kid, on Christmas Day, hearing the astronauts reading Genesis from the bible. 1968 had been such a tumultuous year-- King and Kennedy's assasinations, the Tet offensive, the Democratic Convention riots (my family had moved out of Lincoln Park in April right after King's death, and missed that fun). It was a magnificent ending to a tough year.

    A couple of years ago, around the time Kim and I started dating, the Museum of Science and Industry had the capsule for Apollo 8 on display. It was really moving-- this object reaching across 35 years and a quarter million miles in my memories, and I finally got to lay eyes on it. It was really cool.

  2. Ditto what Johnny said about that "From Earth To The Moon" episode. I also really liked the one about designing the LEM. That whole series was outstanding.

  3. Glad to see some other space geeks out there, thanks guys!

  4. Chris, that one was called "Spider," and I loved it too. I've watched it probably ten times.

    I also liked the episode "Is That All There Is," with the guy from Kids in the Hall playing Al Bean. Oh hell, I just love every episode of the miniseries. Probably my favorite is the one about the Apollo 1 disaster.

    The actor who played scientist/actor Harrison Schmidt in a couple of the episodes, Tom Amandes, is my friend Jamie O'Reilly's ex-husband. She came into the restaurant with him a couple of months ago (they have two children, who are grown). He's a very nice guy.

  5. Johnny: You know, there is some pretty good stuff in the earlier episodes about Mercury and Gemini also.

    And, I enjoyed the movie The Right Stuff also.

    Discovery channel just ran an hour on Edwards air force base and how valuable the lake bed was as a resource. They had a lot of old footage, pretty cool.

  6. Thanks for the history lesson Johnny and Skylars Dad. very interesting information. Unfortunately I do not remeber all the space stuff like you guys. I lived through a wonderful time in history and I don't remember most of it. Vietnam, both Kennedys, King, bell bottom jeans, these I remember, but not the space stuff.

  7. Space geek! Space geek!

    Nice post, I enjoyed it.

  8. Cheer: most of my clothing decisions from back then is what I have blocked from my memory banks.

    GKL: I yam what I yam. You will appreciate my favorite Wil Riker quote, it's from an episode where they encountered a race that didn't have warp tech yet. They were watching from long range, to not be seen, and Riker leaned over to Picard and said:

    "It appears they are still bound by Newtonian physics"

    I thought yeah, ain't that a bitch during space flight...