This week brought the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11 and our landing on the moon. However for me, Apollo 8 actually holds a much deeper meaning…
NASA history is filled with amazing stories and adventure. For most people the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about NASA is Apollo 11 and landing on the moon or maybe the space shuttle Challenger. However there is so much more to the history of NASA that only being aware of these 2 events is doing yourself a disservice. I have read many books about the history of NASA and there are countless “wow” moments of astonishment and wonder. Perhaps my favorite moment in NASA’s history so far is the adventure of Apollo 8.
Apollo 8 launched on December 21, 1968 and for many this is an incredibly important milestone in the history of mankind, and I am often surprised how few people actually remember much about it. Just think about this. Before this moment in 1968 no human had ever left the influence of low earth orbit, let alone travel to another world. There were many incredible “firsts” involved in this mission and if only one went wrong the 3 astronauts would have been lost and perhaps our dream of exploring the moon ended.
Once launched on the incredible Saturn V rocket the crew found themselves speeding on a course for the moon. The crew looked back and saw their world not as a landscape but as a planet: a vivid, deep-blue ball wrapped in brilliant white clouds. For each crew member this was a unique moment and each was impacted in their own way by it. Bill Anders has said many times that he first found the sight breathtaking and little confusing, at least at first. As a schoolboy Anders prided himself as being something of a geography expert, but the real Earth looked nothing like the schoolroom globe, and as he said years later, it took him several minutes to figure out which part of the world he was looking at. At first, it appeared about the size of a basketball held at arm’s length, but as Apollo 8 sped moonward it dwindled rapidly; 11 hours into the mission it looked no bigger than a baseball.
The crew of Apollo 8 were the first humans to see the Earth from deep space.
Jim Lovell on the other hand a veteran of two Earth-orbit space missions, the change in perspective was profound. Circling Earth on two prior missions his frame of reference had been continents and oceans; through Apollo 8‘s windows he now saw celestial bodies. Our world was a little ball off in one direction, the brilliant sun was off in another, and near it, all but lost in its glare, was their goal. Barreling along in its orbit at 2,300 miles per hour, the moon was a moving target, some 234,000 miles from Earth at the time of the astronauts’ departure. In an extraordinary feat of marksmanship, they would have to fly just ahead of its leading edge and then, firing the Apollo spacecraft’s rocket engine, go into orbit just 69 miles above its surface. All three men knew there was precious little room for error, and for Frank Borman the most amazing moment of the flight came when Apollo 8 lost radio contact with Earth as it flew behind the moon at the precise time mission control had predicted. Losing radio contact at the predicted time meant they were right on target.
Apollo 8 Orbits the Moon
Once orbiting the moon and after a perfect engine firing, Borman, Lovell and Anders were looking down at a sight no human eyes had ever seen before: the far side of the moon, a bleached and desolate landscape pockmarked by craters of all sizes. From 69 miles up, looking down at this barren expanse, Borman was reminded of a battlefield; Anders thought of a deserted beach that had been churned by footprints during a volleyball game. Years later, Anders confessed that he had expected a more dramatic scene, thanks mostly to the spectacular moonscapes depicted in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he’d seen before the flight. In comparison, the pummeled terrain he saw through Apollo 8‘s windows was a disappointment.
The famous “Earthrise” image taken by the crew of Apollo 8 as they orbited the Moon. (credit: NASA)
However there was nothing disappointing about what the astronauts saw as the spacecraft quietly coasted around from the lunar far side on its fourth orbit. There for the first time was Earth, rising beyond the battered surface of the moon, on the horizon, so tiny that the men could hide it behind an outstretched thumb. The distance, and the contrast with the moon’s lifeless desolation, magnified our planet’s beauty as well as its rareness as an oasis of life in the endless void of space.
On a flight in which every event had been planned to the second and practiced until it was second nature, here was an unveiling the astronauts had never anticipated. Anders, whose photograph of Earthrise (above) would become an icon of the 20th century, found his image a paradox. This is because NASA had sent him and his crew to explore the moon, but the most important thing they had actually discovered was Earth. The “Earthrise” photo came to symbolize the leap humans had taken with the first voyage to another world.
If you want to learn more about Apollo 8 check out “Genesis – The Story of Apollo 8”.
Even before the astronauts had returned to their home world, the impact of that leap was already being felt. The day they spent circling the moon was Christmas Eve, and for many, that added to the wonder of the event, especially when the astronauts read the first 10 verses of Genesis during a live telecast from lunar orbit that night. For the first time in the history of exploration, millions of people witnessed the event as it unfolded. And for NASA, Apollo 8 turned out to be the mission that won the space race with the Soviet Union. Seven months remained before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would eventually walk on its surface and Apollo 8 had cleared the way for that next “giant leap for mankind.