'Apollo's Daring Mission' explores troubles, triumph of first manned mission to orbit moon

The Apollo 8 space vehicle is launched from the Kennedy Space Center on Dec. 21, 1968.


By ERIN BLAKEMORE | Special To The Washington Post | Published: December 22, 2018

On Christmas Eve in 1968, the world paused to watch telecasts of something people had never seen: pictures of the moon and Earth taken from lunar orbit. As they circled the moon, the American astronauts read passages from the Book of Genesis in a powerful moment of calm.

But the first manned mission to orbit the moon was rocky, chaotic and fearful.

The space race wasn't all guts and glory - and "Apollo's Daring Mission," premiering on PBS stations at 9 p.m. Wednesday, reveals one of its tensest chapters.

The Nova TV series documentary shows how NASA turned tragedy into triumph after Apollo 1, the mission originally tasked with orbiting the moon, went up in flames. In 1967, during a rehearsal for that mission, three NASA astronauts died in a fire. The film includes audio of their sarcastic reaction to communication problems with Mission Control, and their realization that the cockpit was burning.

The Apollo 1 tragedy changed the course of the U.S. space program. "We redoubled our efforts," Jerry Bostick, who worked in Mission Control, says in the film. "Those were our friends."

Motivated by the astronauts' deaths and top-secret revelations that the Soviet Union planned to beat the United States to the moon, NASA's leaders undertook something risky. They converted the Apollo 8 mission, which had been intended to orbit Earth, into a manned moon mission instead.

Instead of orbiting Earth, the astronauts of Apollo 8 would become the first humans to leave low Earth orbit. Along the way, they would prove that the United States had what it took to push even further, putting the first men on the moon with the Apollo 11 mission less than a year later.

Success was anything but guaranteed.

To get Frank Borman, William Anders and James Lovell into lunar orbit, NASA would have to get creative, building the world's most powerful rocket, redesigning the orbiter and figuring out the most ambitious flight plan ever undertaken.

The documentary captures those grim, nerve-racking days, and the sheer will that helped the mission succeed.

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