GARY – It's a long, long, long, long way from Gary to the far side of the moon. More than 238,000 miles, in fact.
But 50 years ago Friday, Frank Borman, an astronaut born in the Steel City, was launched with two others in a small capsule atop the first crewed Saturn V rocket.
On Christmas Eve 1968 they became the first human beings to orbit another heavenly body.
Apollo 8 was America's initial manned mission to the moon. It would be followed, most notably, by the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969, and five more successful landings until Chicago native Eugene Cernan left the last boot-prints on the moon Dec. 14, 1972.
NASA's Apollo program fulfilled President John F. Kennedy's goal, announced in 1962, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.
The story is replete with Hoosiers, whether born in Indiana, like Borman; or trained at Purdue Unversity, like Cernan and Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon; or inspired by Apollo to pursue their own space adventures, like Jerry Ross, a Crown Point native who flew seven missions between 1985 and 2002.
Now 90, the namesake of the area's Borman Expressway lives in Montana, where he has spent the past nine years attending to the daily needs of Susan, his wife of 68 years, as she suffers from Alzheimer's disease.
“It's very, very difficult. Very,” Borman said in August on the Chicago-based public radio program, “This American Life.”
Family always has come first for Borman, who retired from NASA to spend more time with his wife and two sons not long after his Apollo 8 mission, even though he likely would have had the opportunity to walk on the moon had he remained at the space agency.
“I would not have accepted the risk involved to go pick up rocks. It doesn't mean that much to me,” Borman said in the interview.
“If somebody else wanted to do it, let them take my place. I love my family more than anything in the world. I would have never subjected them to the dangers, simply for me to be an explorer.”
Borman likewise has the same no-nonsense perspective on Apollo 8.
Even though it would fly farther than any manned spaceship ever had and produce a photograph of the Earth from the perspective of the moon that's widely credited with launching the environmental movement, Borman said he had one overriding purpose on the trip.
“I was there because it was a battle in the Cold War,” Borman said. “I wanted to participate in this American adventure of beating the Soviets. That's the only thing that motivated me – beat the damn Russians.”
Prior to Apollo 8, the Soviet Union beat the Americans to launch the first satellite, Sputnik in 1957; send the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin in 1961; send the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963; and send the first probes to the moon, Venus and Mars.
Meanwhile, the United States in 1967 saw Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, an Indiana native and Purdue University graduate; Edward H. White II; and Roger B. Chaffee, another Purdue graduate, perish in a cabin fire during a launch test, postponing future Apollo flights 20 months until Apollo 7 returned Americans to space in October 1968.
While Borman didn't encounter any Russians on the six-day Apollo 8 flight, neither does he romanticize his 10 lunar orbits or the nearly half-million miles he traveled in space from the Earth to the moon and back.
“I didn't want to spend any more time in lunar orbit than absolutely necessary, for any prolonging of the mission simply increased the chances of something going wrong,” Borman said in his 1988 autobiography, “Countdown.”
As for the moon itself: “It's a vast, lonely, forbidding type of existence ... a great expanse of nothing that looks rather like clouds and clouds of pumice stone. It certainly would not be a very inviting place to live and work,” he said.
The only thing Borman said he did like seeing from the moon was the Earth.
“It was 240,000 miles away. It was small enough you could cover it with your thumbnail. And the dearest things in life were back on the Earth, my family, my wife,” he said.
“It was the only thing in space that had any color to it. Everything else was either black or white, but not the Earth. It was mostly a soft, peaceful blue, the continents outlined in a pinkish brown. And always the white clouds, like long streaks of cotton suspended above the immense globe.”
However, to Borman, the realist, still more impressive was the overall accomplishment of Apollo 8.
Not what Borman and his fellow astronauts, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, did in space, but what all the people associated with the Apollo program got done together.
“A machine produced by more than 300,000 Americans was circling the moon for the first time in history,” he said. “We showed what American determination, coordinated effort and selfless cooperation could achieve.”
Michael Smith, a history professor at Purdue University, which dubs itself “The Cradle of Astronauts” for training 24 of them, said with the journey of Apollo 8, “Americans had won a big part of the race to the moon.”
“With a powerful cultural significance, Apollo 8 sent back a famous photograph of the Earth from lunar orbit, cementing the popular image of a fragile planet in living color,” Smith said.
“Apollo 8 was one of the signal 'giant leaps' of the Apollo program, much like the earlier successful test launches of the Saturn booster, and the coming mission of Apollo 11 to land on the moon.”