|Left to right, Robert Kurson, Bill Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman|
"Why didn't you tell me it was going to be like this!?" my wife enthused.
We were hurrying through a windowless hallway at the Museum of Science & Industry on Thursday night, heading to the Crown Space Center to view the Apollo 8 spacecraft, having been thrilled and uplifted by the launch festivities of "Rocket Men" by Robert Kurson, which featured the author interviewing the three astronauts from Apollo 8.
"I didn't know," I confessed. "It could have been Bob at a card table with the astronauts and a handful of people."
I do have a tendency to underplay literary occasions—just in case. The instance lodged in my wife's mind is when I suggested, in a half-hearted, might-as-well sense, that we go to this library dinner, which turned out to be the Carl Sandburg awards, making cocktail chatter with Don DeLillo and Scott Turow, and me on stage with the assembled Chicago literary luminaries, such as we are.
The truth is, with these book events, you really never do know. Perhaps I am influenced by my own book signings, where I can be the only attendee. I naturally assumed that the people going would be like me, longtime admirers of the author acting out of loyalty. The thought that 500 people would cram the MSI theater at $35 a pop out of, not only interest in Bob's work, but from passionate respect for the astronauts and the space program never crossed my mind.
But there they were, a full house at the MSI auditorium, giving a standing ovation to the astronauts before they said a word.
Maybe I was just projecting. At the beginning of the evening, I had no knowledge of Apollo 8 except that it came between Apollos 7 and 9. My strong memories were with Apollo 11, and the Moon landing, and Apollo 13, dramatically limping home after the explosion, and of course Ron Howard's brilliant movie.
Then Bob took the microphone and started by talking about the Apollo 8 mission, how Neil Armstrong considered it more daring than his own, because it was assembled quickly--in four months—out of fear the Russians would orbit the moon first. Up to that point, in mid-1968, only Mercury capsules had orbited the earth and returned. The Saturn 5 rocket, to this day the most powerful machine ever made, had been tested exactly twice, the second time a catastrophic failure.
Bob made the leap sound like the most exciting thing in the world, and maybe it was. The crew of Apollo 8 would be going on a journey 2,000 times further than what was planned: 240,000 miles to the Moon as opposed to parking 125 miles up in Earth orbit.
All that was before we heard Kurson lead the Apollo 8 crew, Bill Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman, through 90 minutes that was in turns moving and informative, funny and fascinating.
Even before it began there was a surprise. While we sat waiting my wife turned to me and said that astronaut Eugene Cernan, was from her hometown of Bellwood and she remembered him coming back for a parade, and what a thrill it was. She tapped at her phone to call up details of the parade—all this technology surrounding us boosted by the space program. I looked at her dumbfounded—you know a woman for 35 years, you think you know everything about her, so it's notable when you learn something new.
Then the astronauts, amazingly sharp despite being in their 80s, started sharing their personal stories: Lovell talking about arranging Neiman Marcus to deliver a fur to his wife on Christmas, while they were in space. Borman throwing up, which you really do not want to do in zero gravity.
Anders talked about the iconic earthrise photo, driving home to those back on Earth what a small blue planet we live upon.
"It's ironic, we came to explore the Moon but we really discovered the Earth," said Anders.
Lovell—who, I was surprised to learn, flew on 8 as well as 13—spoke of holding his thumb so it blotted out the Earth.
"Everything I ever knew was behind my thumb," he said.
The Apollo 8 mission began Dec. 21—officials worried that a Christmas tragedy in space would forever mar the holiday, that a capsule with three American corpses inside eternally circling the moon would kill it as a romantic nighttime icon. The three astronauts, all career military, were tasked with speaking to the largest audience to listen to human voices—an estimated third of the earth's population. The sum of the guidance they got to prepare their marks, said Borman, was 'Do something appropriate."
Talk about trust.
"That's one of the great hallmarks of our country," he added.
Or at least was. The ghost of our current political predicament hovered over the event, at least for me. While never directly evoked, it flashed when Borman expressed relief that nobody from Washington was involved to mess up their plans, or Bob spoke of the unifying force of the mission, what good people can do when they work together.
The astronauts ended up, at the advice of the friend of a friend, a former fighter in the French Resistance, reading the opening lines of the Book of Genesis.
And yes, they got sued for injecting religion into a government sponsored program, Borman laughed. But the lawsuit was thrown out.
I haven't read the book yet, but Bob does a typical Bob thing—he explores a section of the story heretofore ignored, in this case the wives and families of the astronauts.
"We are the only crews in Gemini or Apollo that still have our original wives," said Borman, turning to Bob, and telling him that, of all the books written about Apollo 8, his was "the only one who gave the wives proper credit."
That was the only unsurprising part of the program, because that's what Bob does. At the beginning of the program, he explained how he was taking friends to the Museum of Science & Industry, noticed the capsule on display, and became intrigued. It was hiding in plain sight. Think of all the people who walked past that capsule. Millions, including me. Which is as good a recommendation of a writer as I know: the guy who looks at something right in front of everybody, sees the thing we all ignore, understands its true value, and then does the hard work to make everyone else finally understand it too.
Okay, I'm signing off now so I can start reading.