Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas From The Moon

The Bismarck Tribune has an article about the Appollo 8 flight:

HAZEN — A living legend flew from the airport at Hazen on Monday.

The handful there to see him go had — for a few shining moments — been in the breathing, clear-blue-eyed presence of history.

The 79-year-old man flying solo was Frank Borman.

He commanded the first space ship to orbit the moon, transmitting a message to people on Earth one Christmas Eve those many years ago.

He was in Hazen because a month ago he’d left his antique Cessna L-19 in the hands of Joe VanInwagen, an airplane painter whose national reputation for quality work had captured Borman’s attention.

VanInwagen stripped the original camouflaged Korean War-era reconnaissance plane and repainted it a glossy olive brown with bright red wing flaps and its old Air Force squadron number out on the tail.

On the nose were the words "Su Su III" for Borman’s wife, Susan, so called by their grandchildren and the third plane he’s named for her.

Borman was delighted.

“Does that look beautiful,” he said, strolling around the plane.

VanInwagen pasted a red Christmas bow on the side of the plane, which Borman said had looked “disreputable. Now it’s amazing.”

VanInwagen was a teen when Borman commanded Apollo 8. And his name, when Borman first called to schedule a paint job, just didn’t ring a bell.

The two men did business by phone and in person and it took one of VanInwagen’s friends to drop the dime after Borman dropped off his Cessna at Hazen, asking, “Do you know who Frank Borman is?”

Borman was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1968, along with his two co-astronauts, and his was a household name in those years when America romanced its pioneers of outer space.

To VanInwagen, who said it, and to others who met him Monday, “He’s just like a regular guy.”

Borman wrote out what one guesses was a generous check for the paint job. Then, with help, pushed the plane out of a hangar onto the airport apron. He climbed in, checked the controls, turned over the gutsy turbo engine and taxied to the runway.

In less than two hours he would land the plane in a meadow near his home in Big Horn, Mont., near Billings, where he’s lived for a decade and tinkered with collectible planes.

Borman circled low in farewell.

Those below waved to the slightly built pilot, a hero in the Cold War race to reach the moon before Russia did. These years later, his shoulders are still square in his green flight suit.

In the blink of an eye, the plane was a small metallic fleck in a soft blue December sky.

Thirty-nine years ago on Dec. 21, Borman was on board another metallic fleck in a December sky. Apollo 8 was a historic mission to set the stage for a manned lunar landing ahead of the Russians.

With more thrust than had ever before pushed man, Borman’s space ship traveled 250,000 miles one way. It broke Earth’s gravitational barrier, entered the moon’s gravity and then orbited the moon 10 times.

Borman and fellow astronauts James Lovell and William Anders were the first three humans to ever see the far, dark side of the moon.

Their photographs of the gray, crater-pocked lunar surface, taken from 70 miles above, and Anders’ famous “Earthrise” photo of this planet hanging suspended in space became America’s pride and proof of space exploration.

“It seems like forever ago,” said Borman, who sat in the hangar lounge to talk before leaving Hazen.

He said the Cold War was over the instant American astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped off Apollo 11’s lunar landing module onto the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969.

“We won,” Borman said.

His memories of his own glorious moment in history remain vivid.

The Apollo 8 astronauts were the first to spend Christmas in space and the craft reached the moon and went into lunar orbit on Christmas Eve.

“I thought it was fantastic, looking back on Earth on Christmas Eve. Everything dear to me was down there on Earth, my wife, my children,” Borman said. “It was a very deep experience.”

The government was aware that that astronaut’s Christmas Eve transmission would attract the largest audience to ever listen to the human voice on that holy night. It’s been estimated 1 billion people all over the world listened to television or bent an ear toward their radio.

Borman said, as commander, his only instructions were to “say something appropriate.”

Had the Russians been first, their cosmonauts’ message would likely have been about Stalin and about the political superiority of Communism.

Had it been today, for an American, the message would have been vetted for political correctness and highly orchestrated.

With only vague instructions to guide him, Borman turned to his fundamental beliefs.

He and his co-astronauts read from the book of Genesis.

It was Christmas Eve 1968, and people around the planet heard the astronauts’ voices, reading from somewhere near the moon, how the Christian world began.

With the spectacle of Earth before them — half in sunlight, half in darkness — the words “And God called the light Day and the darkness Night” from Genesis had probably never been so purely understood.

“It was the most poignant moment of the flight,” Borman said.

Looking back, Borman said being allowed to decide what to say “was a real indication of what this country was about — absolute individual freedom.”

For all the divine beauty of space, Borman said Earth provides some comparable moments.

On the drive up to Hazen that morning, he enjoyed seeing the gray dawn sky all awash with a salmon and pink streaked sunrise.

“You don’t have to go to the moon to understand that God created some beautiful things,” he said.

(Apollo 8 returned to Earth and splashed down successfully in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 27. It would not be until 1973 that astronauts were again in space on Christmas Eve, aboard Skylab 4.)


Cathy said...

Merry Christmas, Dakota.

BB-Idaho said...

"“He’s just like a regular guy.”..yes, but he was a regular guy who had 'The Right Stuff'.
Those guys will be heroes long after they (and we) are gone.