July 2, 2009
Space historian Matthew Hersch writes in:
It is difficult to imagine it now, but in 1967, Americans and Soviets were literally dying to get to the moon. That year, three American astronauts lost their lives in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire, and a Soviet cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov, died when the reentry parachute of his Soyuz craft failed after a brief Earth orbit flight. (Even more died in flight training.) At the beginning of 1968, it wasn’t clear to space watchers which of the two nations would reach the moon first, or whether the men they sent would return alive. Some wondered whether that was even a requirement.
The mid-1960s had introduced the world to the seemingly flimsy craft that would carry American pilots to the moon sooner rather than later. Such was the urgency that some suggested the men might risk the ultimate Cold War suicide: a quick-and-dirty one-way trip to ensure that the first dead body on the moon would be American. This wasn’t the sort of thing NASA had in mind, and it suppressed such schemes. Astronauts had always recoiled at the suggestion that they had a death wish, and NASA wouldn’t hear of any plan that would leave Americans to die in space.
Hollywood, though, was happy to pick up the slack. In Robert Altman’s 1968 film Countdown (based on a novel by Hank Searls), astronauts played by James Caan and Robert Duvall compete for the honor of steering a modified Gemini spacecraft on a one-way trip to the moon. This part wasn’t so crazy: NASA, its contractors, and astronaut Pete Conrad had studied lunar missions involving this simple, proven hardware, much of it shown in the film. With an extra translunar stage, a modified Gemini spacecraft could have sent two people around the moon by 1965, without Apollo hardware and at a fraction of the cost. Lightweight, open-cockpit landers could have ferried crewmembers to the lunar surface by 1966; a Gemini craft with legs could have managed a direct descent to the lunar surface some time later. (To be sure, without the redundancies or robustness of Apollo, these plans might have produced some dangerous and uncomfortable voyages, and would not have yielded the same scientific benefits.)
In Countdown, the lone astronaut selected for such a mission wouldn’t come back until a later Apollo crew fetched him, camping out until then in an automated shelter launched from Earth. When word hits NASA that the Soviets have launched first, Caan’s obsessed spaceman still wants to go, and when he can’t locate the shelter, decides to land anyway. In real life, though, a suicide mission wasn’t necessary. By December of 1968, the Apollo 8 astronauts had orbited the moon, proving that humans were ready to go to the lunar surface, and had a pretty good chance of coming back.
Hersch, an HSS/NASA Fellow in the History of Space Science at the University of Pennsylvania, is writing a labor history of American astronauts. He’ll be blogging regularly about the Apollo anniversary during the month of July.