One teen’s quest to capture the stories of men who went to the moon

Command module pilot, Don F. Eisele; commander, Walter M. Schirra Jr.; and lunar module pilot, Walter Cunningham (Wikimedia Commons)

[Editors’ note: This is part of America’s space issue, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Click here to find our other stories that are out of this world.]

I was sitting at my desk in fourth-period Spanish class on a cold December morning, writing down the meaning of encantar, when my phone started to vibrate. It was an unknown number from Montana.

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The man calling was Col. Frank Borman, the commander of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon. Mr. Borman was only one of several astronauts to generously answer questions about their space flights nearly five decades ago; the others were Apollo 7’s lunar module pilot, Walter Cunningham; James Lovell, the Apollo 8 command module pilot and commander of Apollo 13; Apollo 13 lunar module pilot Fred Haise; and Charles Duke, the 10th man to walk on the moon.

I first became interested in the story of the astronauts after watching the movie “Apollo 13.” I wanted to know what it was really like to travel to the moon, but I realized that the only people who knew would not be around much longer. So I set out to capture their stories.

I wanted to know what it was really like to travel to the moon, but I realized that the only people who knew would not be around much longer.

I started by contacting museums to get contact information. Over time, I was able to interview four of the astronauts over the phone and one in person. It was a strange feeling, interviewing these heroes. They were normal people talking about something they experienced decades ago. I thought I knew the stories, but I soon realized there was a lot more I did not know.

•••

On a cool October morning in 1968, the astronaut Walter Cunningham and his crewmates, Walter Schirra and Don Eisle, sat atop a Saturn 1B rocket awaiting the launch of Apollo 7, the first Apollo mission to carry a crew to outer space. Almost two years earlier, a fire during a pre-launch test had killed the astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White. Apollo 7 would be the first flight since that accident, and NASA needed to test its almost entirely redesigned command module. As Mr. Cunningham told me in an interview: “After that event, [NASA] went to work fixing and correcting the spacecraft.... Twenty-one months later, they had made over a thousand changes.”

 The author with Walter Cunningham, Apollo 7’s lunar module pilot (Photo provided by author)
The author with Walter Cunningham, Apollo 7’s lunar module pilot (Photo provided by author)

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The 11-day flight to test the newly redesigned command module, according to Mr. Cunningham, “was considered 101 percent successful.” With a fully functional spacecraft tested in Earth’s orbit, NASA’s next task was to fly it to the moon.

Apollo 8 launched on Dec. 21, 1968, and the members of its crew—Commander Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders—would become the first individuals in history to enter lunar orbit. They also became the first humans to fly on the Saturn V, the most powerful rocket ever built. Mr. Borman described the sensation:

The overriding thing that I associate with the Saturn V was the noise. From the standpoint of physical demands, it wasn’t that difficult to fight; it only produced...about six G’s. But the noise was overwhelming, and, of course, we hadn’t been able to train for that. But it worked. We sort of gritted our teeth, and it came through fine.

The journey between Earth and the moon took three days, and most of that time the crew faced away from the moon, watching as their home planet slowly grew smaller. They became the first humans to see Earth in its entirety, as a colorful planet in the black void of space. “The Earth is a grand oasis in the vastness of space,” Jim Lovell told me.

“The Earth is a grand oasis in the vastness of space,” Jim Lovell told me.

Only when they were a few hundred miles away from the lunar surface would they get a chance to see the moon up close. Mr. Borman recalled:

When we looked down, we saw the landscape. It was terribly tortured and disturbed with meteorites and volcanoes. And there was no color at all. It was either a black or white or different shades of grey. It was a very lonely—I would say hostile-looking—place.

While orbiting, the crew rotated the spacecraft to photograph possible lunar landing sites. In the process, the Earth became visible over the lunar horizon. Mr. Borman recalled the moment they first saw the “Earthrise,” memorialized in Bill Anders’s iconic photograph.

We looked up over the lunar horizon, and there was the Earth...the only thing in the universe that had any color. And, of course, it was home and all our families were back on that blue planet. I think that captured our attention more than the moon ever did.

Apollo 8 is also remembered for its Christmas Eve broadcast. Mr. Borman recounted wryly, “When we were told we would have the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice, the only instructions we got were to ‘do something appropriate.’” Fortunately, the wife of one of Mr. Borman’s friends suggested the men read the first 10 verses of Genesis. So the crew took turns reading from the Bible, and as the broadcast ended, Mr. Borman closed by saying, “God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

“I am not a superstitious person, never have been,” Fred Haise told me. “The number 13 never bothered me at all.”

With Apollo 8, NASA had made it to the moon’s orbit. Three missions later, Apollo 11 landed men on the moon for the first time. But the Apollo program was far from over.

After Apollo 12 landed on the moon and gathered additional lunar samples, Apollo 13 was scheduled as the third lunar landing, a mission that by this point seemed routine. One of the astronauts flying the mission—his first in space—was Fred Haise, who was scheduled to be the sixth man to walk on the moon. He, along with Jim Lovell and Jack Swigert, were launched into space on April 11, 1970, at 1:13 p.m.—or 13:13 in military time, NASA’s wink at superstition.

“I am not a superstitious person, never have been,” Mr. Haise told me. “The number 13 never bothered me at all.”

Apollo 13’s flight went well until April 13, when one of its oxygen tanks exploded. Mr. Haise recalled: “When I got to look at the instrument panel, very quickly I realized that we had lost one oxygen tank of two.... I knew right then that we had lost the landing mission.”

“The awe, the beauty of the moon, all of these emotions and feelings were flowing through me during that time. I never did lose that wonder.”

Apollo 13 was halfway to the moon in a crippled spacecraft, venting oxygen into space and losing power fast. The crew had to power down the command and lunar modules: no electricity, minimal light and no heat. The temperature fell to near freezing inside the crippled spacecraft. NASA determined that Apollo 13 would need to swing around the far side of the moon in order to get on a trajectory back to Earth. During that swing around the moon, the crew was farther from Earth than any human being has even gone.

After days in a cold, powerless spaceship, Apollo 13’s crew was ready to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. There was still some concern the explosion had damaged the heat shield, meaning the crew could burn up upon re-entry. As the world watched anxiously, Apollo 13 made it safely back to Earth.

Apollo 14 completed Apollo 13’s mission, landing in the lunar highlands. Later, Apollo 15 was the first ship to land a lunar rover on the moon.

On April 16, 1972, Apollo 16 lifted off and headed toward the moon. On board were John Young, Ken Mattingly and a young former fighter pilot named Charlie Duke. As on previous flights, the crew of Apollo 16 was able to look back on the entire Earth. Mr. Duke recalled to me: “We left Earth orbit and saw the Earth, the whole circle of the Earth, about three and a half hours after lift-off. That was incredibly beautiful, breathtaking.”

When my phone rang in Spanish class that morning, a legend was on the other side, ready to share his story of exploring a brand new world.

After three days, Apollo 16 was ready to land on the moon. Mr. Young and Mr. Duke flew their lunar module, nicknamed Orion, to the lunar surface, becoming the ninth and 10th men, respectively, to walk on the moon. Mr. Duke recalled:

It was really a wonderful experience to step onto the moon. Our landing site was very rough, it was rolling topography, craters and rocks. And the excitement, the wonder, the awe, the beauty of the moon, all of these emotions and feelings were flowing through me during that time. I never did lose that wonder, that enthusiasm, that excitement.

Apollo 16 was equipped with a lunar rover for collecting samples from far-off mountains and craters. Mr. Duke told me: “I’m sure glad we had seat belts. It was very bouncy across the moon. The suspension system of the rover was very springy, so the thing bounced a lot. Also, it was like driving on ice. The back end kept sliding side-to-side because of the very sensitive steering. But it was really fun riding the rover.”

The final mission to the moon, Apollo 17, landed in December 1972. As Eugene Cernan took humanity’s last step on the moon to date, he remarked, “We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and with hope for all mankind.”

•••

As we look back on the Apollo missions 50 years after NASA first took us to the moon, we remember the heroes that made it possible, both in space and on Earth. Their numbers, though, are slowly dwindling.

Those dwindling numbers inspired me to capture the stories of these men who have traveled higher, farther and faster than any other humans. Many were kind enough to reply, ready to share their stories with the next generation. As Charlie Duke put it: “Only 12 of us walked on the moon, and it’s getting more special now as there are only four of us left alive. Eight of the moonwalkers have died since the end of Apollo. So we are very few, but we still have opportunities to share our experiences.”

When my phone rang in Spanish class that morning, a legend was on the other side, ready to share his story of exploring a brand new world.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Chris Thomas
3 months 1 week ago

Congratulations on a well written article, Mr. Buscarino. The astronauts' appreciation and awe of the beauty of the Earth and the moon comes through in your writing. I can only imagine how life changing it was for each of them to see their home so far away and yet to know the thrill of accomplishment in discovery and exploration. I can remember my father waking me up to come downstairs to watch a human's first step on the moon in July of 1969. The awe and the imagination it sparked in my 9 year old self still carries on today when I read about space exploration. Thank you for sharing the astronauts' words and stories.

Stanley Kopacz
3 months 1 week ago

Thanks for sharing your adventure of interviewing these excellent men, Mr. Buscarino. I was 20 when the first landing was made. It was a high point as an American for me to witness these accomplishments of the best of our country. The rock samples from the moon have taught us much about the early formation of the moon and earth and still speak to us. The cessation of manned moon exploration was a big disappointment to me. But maybe we'll resume manned landings on the moon and even set up a permanent manned station. And you, the author, may have the pleasure of witnessing this adventure in your early lifetime, as we old folks did in ours. Perhaps you can even be a participant. You can't get better role models than your interviewees.

Kathleen Nilles
3 months 1 week ago

Matthew, this article is wonderful. The moon landing was on my birthday so I’ve always been curious about it but the personal revelations of the astronauts were so interesting. I’m sure you have other interests that you plan to write about and I look forward to reading your fine, well composed words.

Judy Cardamone
3 months ago

Well written, young man. You brought back many memories for those of us old enough to have been alive then. I was a young teacher, having completed just two years in the classroom. I was inspired then and you reminded me of how much I relished the words that a young president told us years before when I was still a young student: ""We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills," His words, as well as the words and memories of these accomplished astronauts, will hopefully inspire and guide us again during these trying times. The mission now is different: to take what we saw through the eyes of the travelers to the moon, the beauty of our planet, our home, and remind all that our challenge is to keep our earth, peaceful, beautiful and healthy for future generations.

Bill McGarvey
2 months 3 weeks ago

This is incredibly well done. Great idea to bring these voices together in celebration of the moment in time when people around the world were united by a sense of wonder and possibility.

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