Apollo 8 Around the Moon and 45 Years

apollo 8

December 21, 1968, 45 years ago, at 6:30 a.m. Apollo 8–the tallest, most powerful rocket, the cutting edge of human technological advancement at that time–pushed out into outer space for a three day flight around the moon. The moon’s orbit was reached Christmas Eve, and the craft orbited the moon three times while the three astronauts filmed the lunar landscape as the reconnaissance aspect of their mission. On the fourth orbit the astronauts pointed the craft toward the horizon and saw the earth.

“Oh my God! Look at the picture over there. Here’s the Earth coming up,” shouted Borman. This is the moment when the famous Earthrise image was taken by astronaut Bill Anders, who, with fellow astronauts, remarked at the smallness of the earth in its black, fathomless environment.

The craft orbited the moon 6 more times, for a total of 20 hours, before the three astronauts took turns reading the first 10 verses of Genesis before a live television camera. The camera broadcast the lunar sunrise to a million TVs, and, after a final “Merry Christmas and God Bless all of you” to all on Earth, the crew restarted the engine and pushed for home, splashing down December 27.

1968 was a troubled year in Western Culture. Civil unrest was energizing and confusing the Western world. Major battles were being waged in Vietnam. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been shot. Johnson opted not to run for re-election. Nixon took office in November. The Soviet menace had reared its head again in the crushing of the Prague Spring. In Paris college students were rioting in numbers exceeding on million. Many were relieved to have such an exciting and encouraging note to end the year on.

However, questions about the safety of the rocket dominated the launch. The launch had a rushed start. Information that the Soviet Union was preparing its own mission–information which was false–spurred the mission, although NASA had not planned to fly to the moon in 1968. The Apollo 8 craft had been scheduled merely to test equipment. The landing hardware was not ready, so no moon landing was possible. The huge Saturn V rocket had a list of problems, and there had been a fire the year before in which three astronauts had been burned to death in an almost identical spacecraft. The astronauts themselves only rated the probability of success for the mission at 50 percent.

The astronauts were told that on Christmas Eve they would have the largest audience ever to watch or listen–1200 journalists, with BBC coverage broadcasting in 54 countries and in 15 languages. Even the Soviets covered it as an “outstanding achievement of American space sciences and technology” in Pravda. The astronauts had been tasked for this part of the mission merely to do “something appropriate.”

The second most widely covered news event had been the first American orbital flight, Mercury-Atlas 6, in 1962.

Apollo 8 was part of the greater Apollo mission, the goal of which was to put a man on the moon before the end of the 60’s decade. The next summer Apollo 11 did land men on the moon, the first of six successful American missions to do so. The goal of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade had been Kennedy’s. In 1961, after the Soviet Union had showed up the United States by orbiting the Earth weeks before America’s own shorter suborbital flight, Kennedy announced to a special joint session of Congress the ambitious resolution.

Although a testimony to American enterprise and cooperative achievement when set to a goal, after the Apollo flights of the 60’s and 70’s the moon was never revisited by humans.

The technological accomplishments in space flight have been built on, however, and were recently used in the Martian photography rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, that showed Earth as a small dot in the Martian night.

The most recent moon landing, by China’s Chang’e 3 robot, has led the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group, chartered by NASA headquarters to organize a letter writing campaign, called “Destination Moon,” to Congress. LEAG is looking to get the signatures of all U.S. House of Representatives, Senate committees, and lawmakers.

LEAG is highlighting the value of the moon. The moon, according to LEAG, could be a footstep to the further solar system, an arena for technology development and pioneering as well as economic incentives that would stem from advancing and growing technology. LEAG further pointed out that the moon is the most accessible of all our extraterrestrial options, that fuel and life support can be harvested from the moon’s resources, that the Earth’s history can be learned from the moon, which has been changed less by the years, and that collaborations between countries can be fostered and nurtured through space projects.

This last point was noted in a letter from Rep. Frank Wolf in a letter to the President December 19 urging the President to hold a conference in 2014 to initiate a U.S.-led return to the moon, a mission which would bring together “the best minds from around the country and among our international partners.”

The original trip of the Apollo 8 around the moon 45 years ago paved the way for such achievements, but also inspired humans to believe “if humans could walk on the moon, we can do anything.”

By Day Blakely Donaldson