Fifty Years Later: A Look Back At the Mission That Looked Back At Us

On December 24, 1968, NASA’s Apollo 8 spacecraft hosted two of history’s most remarkable moments. The first: its rockets slowed three astronauts into lunar orbit, the first time that had ever been done before. If there’s no Apollo 8 that December, there’s no Apollo 11 the following July.

Second: as Apollo 8 emerged from the far side of the moon, one of those three astronauts, Bill Anders, snapped the iconic photograph used as today’s headline image. I’d argue it’s the greatest picture ever taken.

I’ve long been fascinated with the Apollo 8 mission, which acted as a sort of year-end pallet-cleanser at the end of a bitter 1968. You might recall that I dedicated my first post this year to 1968’s fiftieth anniversary, a piece that culminated in an overview of Apollo 8’s mission. Now, after another year of our lives whizzed by like a Saturn V rocket, I want to re-run the Apollo 8 portion of that column, now 50 years to the day after this heroic journey helped contextualize our planet. To everyone who lives on it: happiest of holidays.

Without question, most of 1968 was, to say the least, rough. We could forgive its people fearing the next morning’s headline. Dr. King gets shot, Bobby Kennedy gets shot, scores of young Americans return home in coffins each week, earthquakes kill hundreds, coups erupt across Latin America, protests and massacres rattle the world, a dormant volcano wakes up, planes are going down, subs are going missing, the Soviets are going into central Europe, and race relations tear at the fabric of the American quilt. Yes, 1968 was rough indeed.

But then. THEN!

Apollo 8

It was as if 1969 arrived a week early.

When it comes to NASA’s hallmark Apollo missions, most of our attention rightly rests on Apollo 11 (the first manned mission to land on the moon) and Apollo 13 (the first manned mission to feature Tom Hanks). However, I’ve long had a soft spot for Apollo 8.

Every Apollo mission was the first to do something. The one-line summary of Apollo 8’s achievement is that it was the first mission to orbit the moon. To me, however, it represents so much more.

It blasted off from Florida on December 21, 1968. (The winter solstice! A day that marks the end of creeping darkness and the beginning of longer, more promising days ahead.) Sitting on top of the harnessed explosion that is the Saturn V rocket were three astronauts: Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders. Three hours after achieving Earth orbit, Houston informed them they were a “Go for TLI” — the first trans-lunar injection in human flight. In one of the more remarkable and nervous course changes in history, Apollo 8 fired burners that, for the first time ever, rocketed three people on a path away from their home planet. On Earth, as the original Star Trek was in its third season (the forgettable “Elaan of Troyius” debuted the night before blastoff), these three men were truly going where no one had gone before.

Though Houston called the shots from the ground and Commander Borman had the last word in the capsule, I see CMP Lovell as the solar system’s most stressed individual. As the crew’s navigator, it would be his responsibility to set the course of the ship if the crew lost contact with Mission Control. The instrument of his trade: a sextant that could help him navigate by the stars. A sextantThis wasn’t Magellan crossing the Pacific in 1520; it was Apollo 8, four-and-a-half centuries later, crossing a quarter million miles of airless space.

Fifty-five hours into their 70-hour outbound journey, the crew of Apollo 8 crossed another unprecedented threshold: less than 40,000 miles from their destination, the moon’s gravity overpowered the earth’s. As a result, they became the first humans to not be pulled toward their home planet. Thirteen hours after that — Christmas Eve — they became the first humans to arrive at a heavenly body. The brightest disc in the night sky, an orb about which we had dreamed and over which we had theorized since the dawn of man hundreds of thousands of years ago, was almost within reach.

Then it was time for — you guessed it — another first: they rounded the moon to its far side. In the process, they lost contact with Earth. No one had ever been so isolated from their home planet. (Apollo 11’s CMP Michael Collins would soon usurp that claim when he, too, circled the far side of the moon and lost contact; however, unlike the three men in Apollo 8, Collins, whose crewmates Armstrong and Aldrin bounded below on the lunar surface, was truly alone with the universe.)

Making the moment all the more stressful for the Apollo 8 astronauts was that in order to achieve lunar orbit, they needed to be perfect with their next execution. They had to fire the right amount of fuel for the right amount of time to slow the craft into a perfect trajectory for orbit. Erring in either direction could crash them into the moon, or put them into a life-threateningly long elliptical orbit, or skip them into the vastness of space until their life support ran out. And, since they were on the far side of a massive rock, they had to do this without Mission Control walking them through it.

Then, in a year where everything went wrong, something went right. They executed the burn flawlessly. Mankind was in orbit around another celestial body.

As they emerged from the moon’s far side and back into radio contact, the crew snapped a series of photographs. One shot from Bill Anders is considered among the most iconic in history. As millions of humans celebrated Christmas Eve or squinted toward the moon with the impossible hope of seeing a piece of manmade technology circle around it, Anders took a picture of them.

That’s us.

Earthrise,” it was later called. Perfect. Anders not only took the famous photograph, he also gave us the mission’s best summation of this breathtaking moment: “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

After Voyager 1 later snapped our picture from further away, Carl Sagan called us the Pale Blue Dot. We could not have a better reminder — simple and profound, all at once — about who we were: one species as ambassadors for countless others living transient lives on a small, fragile blue pearl surrounded by the lifelessness of black space. How did we allow the Cold War, with its thousands of nuclear weapons, threaten that fragility? Who do we think we are dividing ourselves by race, politics, and religion? Apollo 8 saw neither borders nor skin colors. It saw one planet, and it was the only one we had.

For the rest of Christmas Eve and much of Christmas Day, Apollo 8 overcame a truly depressing year and gave humankind one of its greatest success stories. The three astronauts orbited the moon 10 times in 20 hours before departing for their homeward journey. They returned home without incident, splashed down on December 27th, and became 1968’s Time Persons of the Year. Seven months later, Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, but not before Apollo 8 had already made a giant leap for mankind.


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