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Monday, December 21, 1998

Astronauts look back 30 years after historic lunar launch

 "To see Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold -- brothers who know now they are truly brothers."
                       --Archibald MacLeish, writing about Apollo 8.

By RICHARD BENKE -- The Associated Press

 ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- Lunar sunset, Christmas Eve 1968. The world watches shadows crawl across the moon's lonely landscape for the first time.

 And as the stark scene is telecast live, Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders reads from Genesis: "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep."

 Jim Lovell and Frank Borman take turns finishing the Old Testament reading aboard the firstmanned spacecraft to orbit the moon.

 Then, after a flawless Pacific splashdown on Dec. 27, a flurry of public appearances and a brief outcry over the use of a religious text on government time, Apollo 8 sails quietly into the history books.

 After retiring as an astronaut, Borman went on to run Eastern Airlines. Now 70, he owns an auto dealership in Las Cruces, 220 miles south of Albuquerque, and stays fit by working out three times a week. At 163 pounds, he weighs less than when Apollo 8 was launched from Cape Canaveral on Dec. 21, 1968.

 Borman stays in touch with Lovell and Anders, with whom he restores old airplanes.

 Lovell and Borman flew two missions together. The first was Gemini 7, which rendezvoused in space with Gemini 6 in December 1965, closely enough to dock if docking had been an option.

 "We were very, very close -- one foot away," Borman said by phone Friday from Las Cruces. "We came back and said docking would be no sweat."

 The astronauts also learned from two weeks aboard Gemini that Apollo 8 would be roomier.

 "Gemini was a tough go," Borman recalled. "It was smaller than the front seat of a Volkswagen bug. It made Apollo seem like a super-duper, plush touring bus."

 Apollo 8 lessons also helped Lovell handle near tragedy on Apollo 13 in 1970.

 Lovell, reached at his office near Chicago, said Friday he accidentally erased navigational data from Apollo 8's computer. He had to manually reposition the capsule for re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

 "That training really helped us on the second time around," said Lovell, who had to manually reposition Apollo 13 for re-entry as well. "It was one of those acts of fate."

 Before their launch, the Apollo 8 crew met aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh at Cape Canaveral.

 They all laughed, Borman said, when Lindbergh related how pioneering rocket researcher Robert Goddard once told him he could build a rocket that would reach the moon for only $1 million.

 As described in a new book, "Genesis, the Story of Apollo 8" by Robert Zimmerman (Four Walls Eight Windows, $25.95, New York), Lindbergh and wife sat on a dune and watched Apollo 8 rise into the Florida sky.

 "I was 15 when the mission happened, and I remembered it very distinctly," Zimmerman said from his home in Laurel, Md. "I remember how it really was the mission with the most cultural and historic impact at the time. The later missions really just repeated what Apollo 8 had already accomplished."

 "The feedback was overwhelmingly positive," Borman said. "1968 was a bad year -- riots, assassinations, the Vietnam war."

 The former astronaut said one telegram stood out: "Thank you, Apollo 8. You saved 1968."

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