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Apollo 8 astronaut’s visit had Illinois Wesleyan University on the moon | Story

Throughout the 1960s, the nation was gripped by “moon fever” as the United States and the Soviet Union raced to become the first to land a human on the moon. On March 18, 1969, the “Space Race” was brought to Bloomington and the campus of Illinois Wesleyan University when Apollo 8 commander Air Force Col. Frank Borman II visited and shared his experiences during his own lunar mission.

This first manned NASA mission to leave low Earth orbit and travel to the Moon took place from December 21 to 27, 1968. Just three months later, on March 18, 1969, the three Apollo 8 astronauts – Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders – received their first honorary doctorates at the IWU Founders’ Day convocation in 1969. Lovell and Anders were in reserve for the Apollo 11 mission and therefore received their degrees in absentia .

Borman came to Bloomington to accept the degrees on their behalf and to dedicate the Mark Evans Observatory, which was still under construction. The walls of the structure were just high enough to accept a time capsule that would be part of the dedication ceremony.






A crowd watches as Air Force Col. Frank Borman II, commander of the Apollo 8 lunar mission, prepares to place a time capsule into the wall of the under-construction Mark Evans Observatory, March 18, 1969.


Ames Library Tate Archives and Special Collections, Illinois Wesleyan University


On March 16, The Pantagraph published a detailed article on how the visit took place. The idea originated with Lee W. Short, IWU Director of Public Relations and Admissions, and grew to involve other IWU staff, a 1913 graduate, then president of the ‘IWU, Robert S. Eckley, and U.S. Representative Leslie C. Arends, R-Melvin. , who was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a trustee of the IWU.

While on campus, Borman spoke at a press conference, made brief remarks during the summons, and placed the time capsule in the observatory wall. His final event that day was narrating a film about the Apollo 8 mission and answering questions during a board luncheon. Bloomington Mayor Robert J. McGraw closed the event by presenting Borman with a key to the city.

The IWU archives contain printed materials related to these events, three reel-to-reel audio recordings of the entire summons, remarks made by Eckley during the placement of the time capsule, and Borman’s full presentation to the trustees. Remarkably, in 2016, IWU received a dozen silent home movies from that era, made by an unidentified community member, which included clips of Borman’s activities that day.

Eckley concluded his remarks at the inauguration by acknowledging representatives from several local corporations who “have played a role in supporting American space accomplishments” and provided samples of those contributions to the time capsule. These included a vacuum tube and an Admiral Corp circuit board. TV, Paul F. Beich Co.’s “space food,” a Eureka Williams Co. thermal battery “like the one that goes to the moon” in the lunar excursion module, and five General Electric Co. electrical relays used in surveillance on the ground of Apollo.

The list of time capsule contents also showed that several other companies and local departments within the IWU community provided materials that were not directly related to the space program. Borman also contributed something but it was not named on the document attached to Eckley’s speech.







Apollo 8 Medallion

The flight path of the Apollo 8 mission is depicted in relief on the front of a medallion that Borman contributed to the time capsule.


Ames Library Tate Archives and Special Collections, Illinois Wesleyan University


The IWU Department of Physics commemorated the 50th anniversary of the observatory’s inauguration by retiring the time capsule in 2019. The tradition of this type of event at IWU is to bring interested parties together to witness the removal from the box, then to open the welded seal in the maintenance shop away from crowds. The lid is taped shut, and then a formal opening event takes place the next ride home.

However, the tradition got slightly complicated when the staff member who broke the seal noticed a strong smell emanating from the copper box. The university archivist was contacted to determine what part, if any, of the content was recoverable.

It was determined that the probable cause of the odor and damage was the interaction of humidity with the thermal battery and the food inside the box. The damage to the contents of the box was quite extensive because of this.

All of the paper-based content had congealed into a solid mass. Fortunately, most of these publications were widely available from the university and local businesses. And fortunately, the archives staff were able to separate two unique paper documents from the mass: a copy of the remarks given by Nan Evans (the wife of E. Mark Evans, the building’s namesake) and a description of the Beich Candy Co. “space food”, which they called survival rations.

In her remarks, Ms Evans expressed her pleasure at being able to commemorate her “husband who was so interested in the Illinois Wesleyan, gave him so much of his time and had such high hopes for him”. Mark Evans led several construction projects at IWU and even placed the time capsule of the Memorial Gymnasium, now the Hansen Student Center, in 1921.

Several unique artifacts have survived their 50-year odyssey, and one even participated in the Apollo 8 mission, circling the moon 10 times! Although corroded by moisture and a chemical reaction, the unnamed object brought personally by Borman turned out to be a medallion which depicts the mission flight path embossed on one side and the names of the three astronauts and the name and dates of the other’s mission.

Along with moisture in the box and battery, one of the causes of the damage – or at least the smell – may have been that pack of survival rations. The food itself had disintegrated; all that remained was a company label and a description of the product by its chief researcher, Justin J. Alikonis, a 1935 IWU graduate.

A native of southern Illinois, Alikonis entered IWU in the fall of 1931 as a chemist, held several jobs in the local community during the Great Depression, did graduate work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, then returned to Bloomington and began a long career with Beich. Next week’s column will tell the story of the man behind “space food”.

Digitized recordings and other sources related to these events are available at https://digitalcommons.iwu.edu/guests/2/

Pieces From Our Past is a weekly column from the McLean County Museum of History. Guest contributor is Meg Miner, Illinois Wesleyan University Archivist and Special Collections Librarian.

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