For Immediate Release:
October 3, 2005
Race to the Moon
A co-production of WTTW11 and Indigo Studios for American Experience Airing Monday, October 31 at 9:00 p.m. and on PBS stations across the county
In the early morning hours of December 21, 1968, three astronauts strapped themselves into a tiny capsule perched atop the most powerful rocket ever built. They were about to attempt the most daring, dangerous mission in the history of exploration: a journey from the earth to the moon. If they succeeded, they would realize a dream that had captured people's imaginations since time began. If they failed, the United States would be forced to cede technological dominance to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. The three men were the crew of Apollo 8 the first manned mission to the moon.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Race to the Moon, airing on WTTW11 Monday, October 31, 2005 at 9:00 p.m. is a documentary about what is arguably America's riskiest and most important space mission. The film features first-hand recollections of the three former fighter pilots whose single-minded determination and remarkable bravery united a nation divided by the war in Vietnam and racial strife at home, and met the challenge set forth by President John F. Kennedy in 1962: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade … that challenge is one we are willing to accept, and one we intend to win." Also interviewed are the astronauts' wives; Walter Cronkite, who covered the event for CBS News; members of Mission Control in Houston; Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon; and John Logsdon, director, Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
The crew was led by Frank Borman, 40, a West Point graduate and Air Force colonel. Joining him were James Lovell, 40, and Bill Anders, 35, both graduates of the US Naval Academy. A Navy captain, Lovell had spent more time in space than any other human being. (In 1965, Borman and Lovell flew an endurance test on Gemini 7, orbiting the earth for two weeks in a capsule the size of a refrigerator.) Anders had flown fighter jets out of Iceland for the Air Force, often facing down Soviet MiGs above the North Sea, and later trained with Neil Armstrong on the lunar lander.
The Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in October 1957 touched off a space race that peaked in 1968, when the CIA reported that the Soviets were preparing to send a pair of cosmonauts to circumnavigate the moon before year's end. In response, George Low, manager of the Apollo program in Houston, proposed sending their second manned flight Apollo 8 on a groundbreaking 500,000-mile journey to orbit the moon. With only four months to train the astronauts and the flight team, the trip was riddled with risks and unknowns, but the intrepid pilots looked past the danger.
Apollo 8 launched from Cape Canaveral at 7:51am on December 21. Eight minutes into the flight, the module raced along at 17,000 miles per hour and was soon in orbit 115 miles above the earth. Two days later, Apollo 8 took the first human beings beyond earth's gravitational hold 200,000 miles from home and just 40,000 miles from the moon. The crew's families waited in Houston with a combination of excitement and worry. Susan Borman recalls asking flight director Christopher Columbus Kraft, "I really want to know what you think their chances are of getting home. He said, 'How's fifty-fifty?' I said, 'That suits me fine.'"
Her brave words masked tremendous doubts: "I really didn't think they'd get him back. I just didn't see how they could."
In the early morning hours of December 24, Apollo 8 entered the critical "loss of signal" phase. As the capsule slipped behind the moon, tension mounted at Mission Control, and for 36 minutes, only static filled the air. "When we heard from the crew, it was one of the happiest moments of my life," recalls flight guidance officer Jerry Bostick. "We had been working for six or seven years to accomplish this. And there we were in lunar orbit!"
Apollo 8 would orbit the moon 10 times over the next 20 hours. Relaxed and confident, the astronauts enjoyed the ride. "We had our noses pressed against the glass," recalls Lovell. "We were looking at those craters go by. It was a really amazing sight."
The largest audience in television history tuned in for a Christmas Eve broadcast live from Apollo 8. On the bright side of the moon, the astronauts catalogued the lunar mountains and craters for millions watching around the world. But more captivating than the moon's stark, forbidding surface was the unprecedented view of earth from outer space. Anders' photograph of the earth rising over the lunar surface would become one of the most famous images of the century.
Before the mission could be deemed a success, however, Apollo 8 had to get through a complex, untested re-entry sequence. The module hit the earth's atmosphere traveling seven-and-a-half miles per second, subjecting the capsule to searing heat and the crew to intense G-forces. This was in many ways the most dangerous part of the flight. Finally, in the predawn darkness of December 27, Apollo 8 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, just 5,000 yards from the waiting carrier USS Yorktown.
In Houston the excitement was irrepressible. "It took a lot of guts, a lot of nerve, a lot of confidence," says Kraft in the film. "Apollo 8 showed the guts of this country, the real capability of this country, the real willingness of this country to do some things that were forward-reaching."
Borman agrees. "The Apollo program was one of the great accomplishments of our American civilization," he reflects. "The people, the country, were able to accomplish what to me still seems like an impossible dream."
Series underwriters: The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Liberty Mutual, The Scotts Company, Public Television Viewers, PBS and Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Program funders: United Financial of Illinois, Inc., The William A. Anders Foundation, Malott Family Foundation and WTTW National Production Fund. Presenter: WGBH Boston. Producer/director/writer: Kevin Michael Kertscher. Editors: Aaron Vega and Tricia Reidy. Camera: Allan Moore and Stephen McCarthy. Original score: Jessica Locke. Animation: Adam Starr. Co-producer: Mark Purushotham. Advisors: Andrew Chaikin; Roger Lanius, National Air and Space Museum; Mike Gentry, Johnson Space Center Media Resources. Format: CC Stereo DVI. Online: pbs.org
Race to the Moon is a co-production of Indigo Studios and WTTW/Chicago. WTTW is America's most-watched public television station.