By the summer of 1968, a sense of deep unease had engulfed the American republic. Early in the year, the Tet Offensive smashed any lingering illusions of a quick victory in the increasingly bloody Vietnam conflict. Race relations boiled over in April when a single rifle bullet took the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Two months later, as Bobby Kennedy walked through a hotel kitchen, he was shot in the head. The red, white, and blue threads that had bound America for nearly two centuries were faded and fraying.
Amid this national turmoil, senior planners at the country’s space agency were also having a difficult year. Late that summer they quietly faced their most consequential decision to date. If NASA was going to meet the challenge laid out by President John F. Kennedy, its astronauts would soon have to take an unprecedented leap by leaving low-Earth orbit and entering the gravity well of another world—the Moon. Should they do it?
Such a bold step could provide a glimmer of hope to a fractured nation. It would cement America’s lead in the “Space Race” against the Soviet Union and remind Americans of their potential for greatness on the world stage. But a romp around the Moon also carried tremendous risks. If NASA failed, its Moon dreams would expire. The agency might, too. NASA had already lost three astronauts during a launch pad fire in early 1967. Neither the public—nor Congress—would accept three more dead astronauts.