Rocket Men: Meeting the brave crew of Apollo 8

To say it was thrilling is a vast understatement. I’ve been lucky to have many opportunities to meet high profile people and celebrities in my line of work, but I’m not sure I have the words to describe what it was like to meet these three American heroes, the crew of Apollo 8–Captain James Lovell, Colonel Frank Borman and Major General Bill Anders, the first men to see the far side of the moon. During their historic mission, they traveled farther than any human had gone before and orbited the Moon ten times before returning to Earth.

An intimate VIP reception allowed guests at the Museum of Science & Industry to meet these living legends during its 38th annual Columbian Ball celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission. David Mosena, Museum president/CEO, welcomed guests but told the crowd “no pictures” with the crew to which Anders shouted, “Yes, you can take pictures!” The crowd responded with appreciative laughter and, in my case, gratitude.

The men were charming and very willing to chat and take photos with the crowd, especially Anders and Borman, who seemingly arrived alone. Lovell was surrounded by a large family including his wife of 66 years, Marilyn. They are all still married to their original spouses, which I love, of course!

During a conversation with emcee (and a legend himself) Bill Kurtis onstage in the Rotunda, the crew revealed info surrounding the mission. Borman explained, ” In reality, the Apollo program was a battle of the Cold War. The reason it was funded was because we had a charismatic president and we were afraid of the Russians. There were three battles of the Cold War–Korea we tied, Vietnam we lost but we won space.”

Anders was asked about the iconic photograph he took of the Earth as seen from the Moon’s surface during their 4th orbit. “Earthrise” has been touted as the most important space photo ever taken. Anders said, “I begged some color film from Lovell and then just machine-gunned it, taking 6 to 10 photos and this was the one they chose.” He added, “I wish I had royalties from it!” (He was referring to a postage stamp that was inspired by his photo.)

Anders spoke about the trust between the crew. “Frank [Borman] never left any stone unturned so when we found out we would be the first to use the Apollo command module and the first crew on the Saturn 5, that if Frank thought it was safe, then it was okay with me.”

Lovell told the audience how the Apollo 8 mission came about. “It was intended to be an Earth’s orbit flight to test out the lunar module but we had intelligence evidence that the Soviets were going to put a man around the moon sometime in the fall of 1968. During this time, we had a war that was not too well liked, assassinations of people and riots. The American public needed something to end the year on a positive note,” Lovell said. Borman joked, “I could’ve cared less about walking on the moon, all I wanted to do was beat the Soviets! ”

All of the crew lamented the lack of funding for the space program. “Once Kennedy’s goal had been achieved to beat the Soviet Union, they gave up,” Anders said. “In fact, I left the program because I realized there wouldn’t be an Apollo 29. Even though there’s a lot of fan clubs for space programs, there’s no money.”

I loved Lovell’s story about buying his wife Marilyn a Christmas gift after he realized that the flight’s trajectory would take them around the Moon on Christmas Day. “I ordered my wife a mink stole that she had always wanted. I had it delivered that day by limousine from Neiman Marcus wrapped in a pink box and signed, ‘with love from the Man on the Moon.'”

Kurtis asked if there was fear involved in this pioneering flight among the crew. Anders replied, “We were all picked from the fighter pilot community, where frankly, I had assignments more dangerous than Apollo. I’m sure Frank and Jim did too. Anybody who flies off a carrier, besides being somewhat nuts, has to be used to being subjected to danger… Anyone who couldn’t take the stress, got weeded out. Besides, we were all involved in a very important mission for our country, to beat the Soviets, so we weren’t inclined to be fearful.”

Talk about brave heroes….these men saw things no human had ever seen and, since the Saturn 5 rocket had never carried a crew before, many people feared it wouldn’t return. So many things could’ve gone wrong. Susan, Borman’s wife, had even written her husband’s eulogy!

It was truly the thrill of a lifetime, just being in the same room with these remarkable men, much less getting a chance to shake their hands. We need more men like Borman, Lovell and Anders. Thanks for your service and for giving America something to celebrate!

(To watch the crew’s entire conversation conducted by Bill Kurtis, click here!)

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