On Christmas Eve, 1968 - fifty years ago today - the Apollo 8 went into orbit around the moon. The three astronauts inside it were the first humans to leave the direct gravitational influence of the Earth, the first to orbit the moon, and the first to look back on the entire Earth. Understandably, it has since been overshadowed by the first moon landing seven months later - but it’s still an incredibly impressive achievement.
In its essence, Apollo 8 was a big, deadline-driven gamble. President Kennedy had originally set the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and that deadline was drawing near. However, delays finishing the Lunar Module were putting those plans at risk.
In addition, the entire Space Race had been driven by the Cold War, and the Soviets had frequently upstaged the US. For example, they had put the first vessel in orbit, the first man in orbit, the first woman in orbit, and performed the first space-walk. The US was afraid that the Soviets might also put the first man in orbit around the moon.
As a result, Apollo 8 was changed from an Earth-orbit test of the Lunar Module to a moon-orbit test of the Command Module without the Lunar Module. This would allow them to scout possible lunar landing sites, test the various systems required for achieving lunar orbit, and give Mission Control experience interacting with a space-craft over a light-second away. From a deadline perspective, it made the Lunar Module a little less on the critical path, increasing the chance of a moon landing in 1969. It was perhaps the boldest decision NASA ever made, with a much lower margin for error than subsequent moon missions.
But it wasn’t just about the space program. 1968 had been a bad year for the US - the Vietnam War was going badly, there had been assassinations, and the Cold War was continuing. A successful lunar mission could turn the year round, and give the public the hope of a better 1969. Of course, a failed lunar mission would have made 1968 even worse. It would be particularly bad news if things had gone wrong on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, since that could mean the men never returned.
That was the gamble taken. And it worked so successfully that only three more missions were required: Apollo 9 to test the Lunar Module and rendezvous in Earth orbit, Apollo 10 to test it in Moon orbit, then finally Apollo 11 to successfully land on the moon (and return).
Apollo 8’s training didn’t focus on Earth - they were going to the moon, after all. And the mission certainly learned many important things about the moon, while the astronauts described it as a real thrill to be the first to see the mountains of another world up close and in person. But they found the moon itself didn’t look particularly interesting - they said it was more like “beach sand” or “gray plaster of Paris”.
Earth, on the other hand, was a very colourful blue planet, and the contrast with the moon made it even more spectacular. As Bill Anders put it:
We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.
When they first saw Earth rising over the moon, all three crowded to the viewport, and Bill Anders took one of the most iconic pictures from the entire Apollo program:
But it wasn’t just beauty they saw. They also saw the fragility of the Earth. As Bill Anders said:
You’ve got to remember, we were 240,000 miles away from home. And so, that’s home! … It’s very delicate. It reminded me of a Christmas tree ornament. Very fragile, delicate. … The only color you could see in the whole universe. Everything else was black or white or gray. But here was the only color: blue.
Frank Borman, the commander, struck a more sober note:
The moon was so desolate. … I think the moon resembled what the Earth must’ve looked like before there was life. Or what is could look like after an all-out nuclear war.
And Jim Lovell gave a perspective on how small the Earth really is when compared to the rest of the universe:
The fact that you can put your thumb up to the window of the spacecraft and completely put the Earth behind your thumb is a concept that gives you the insignificance of your own existence with respect to the universe. … You have to think about hiding the entire Earth. Everything that you’ve ever done. All the people you knew. Every place you’ve been. Continents. … And it turns out that it really made you feel humble, because everything shrunk in size.
I think that kind of cosmic perspective is fascinating, and the Apollo 8 astronauts were the first in a very small group of people who have actually seen Earth with their own eyes while orbiting another celestial body.
The Genesis reading
The astronauts were to do two TV broadcasts. Borman had been told “There will be more people watching those shows than have ever listened to a single human being in all of human history. Say something appropriate.” And so, in the final part of their second broadcast, coming from lunar orbit, the three astronauts read from Genesis 1:1 - 10, beginning with “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”. Which was perhaps the most controversial part of the entire flight.
I find it hard to know what I think of this. I grew up with a fairly literal interpretation of the Genesis creation, and there is no way known that the Apollo missions matched with that world-view. Consider for example what Bill Anders said of first entering the shadow of the moon. First the stars came out, so many that he could hardly tell the constellations. Then:
I can remember looking back, and suddenly becoming aware that here were all these stars, and yet there was this very sharp line. Absolutely no stars. Total blackness. And - that was the moon. … Anyway, I can remember literally feeling a little bit of a hair-on-the-back-of-the-head [sensation], thinking, “Are we falling into this black hole?”
To me, this is totally different from the Genesis world-view. The moon was meant to be one of “the two great lights”. It was “the lesser light that ruled the night”. It wasn’t meant to be just a reflection of the sun, and it definitely wasn’t meant to be a black hole eating up the stars.
While Bill Anders wasn’t the one who chose the reading, I think his comments about why it was chosen make more sense:
To me [the Genesis reading] was that we’re trying to say something sort of fundamental. Something that will stop and grab people’s guts and say, hey this isn’t just a little whistle-around-the-Earth space shot; this is man’s … first step away from his home planet. I mean, we’re talking about a second Genesis, if you will.
And that’s an idea that I can appreciate - that humanity was taking a massive step forward by reaching the moon. But I’m not sure how significant this will be to humanity long-term.
We have done a lot in Earth orbit, and it hasn’t just been limited to the US either. We’ve had an International Space Station continually inhabited for the last 18 years. It is supported by many nations (including the two Cold War rivals that drove the 1960s space race), and it has been visited by people from 18 nations. To me, that is real progress.
We’ve also sent probes to all known planets in the solar system, and particularly explored Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. We even have two probes who have broken into inter-stellar space (Voyager 2 only weeks ago). The Apollo project was a start, and it’s exciting how much we’ve learned since.
However, since then we haven’t sent anyone beyond Earth orbit. There are certainly some here on Earth who are working towards creating a “multi-planet” civilisation, but I think that is a long way away.
Borman said the moon “would not appear a very inviting place to live and work”. It’s grey and a long way from us - but it’s positively close compared to the red and currently inhospitable Mars.
Remember, one of the things Apollo 8 discovered was Earth: The blue planet that supports us all here and now. We see great beauty here, and it would be a pity to lose it (not to mention that at this stage losing it would probably mean losing us).
And this is where I again want to consciously subvert the Genesis message: We should not continue multiplying, filling the Earth, and subduing it. And I’m not sure it’s a great idea to multiply to other planets (which don’t currently suit us) if we won’t protect this one. Human ingenuity brought us the space program, but it is also quite capable of dooming us. I value exploring space for the knowledge and opportunities it gives us, but the places we find are not a substitute for protecting our own world.
The Christmas spirit
After the reading of Genesis, the crew signed off the broadcast with “Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on that good earth”.
They weren’t sure what kind of Christmas dinner they would get, but in fact they had had real turkey prepared for them, with stuffing and cranberry sauce. Even tiny bottles of brandy, though they didn’t drink them for concern things would go wrong. They also received small Christmas gifts from their wives - gifts which had gone all the way to the moon.
Obviously, being far away from home meant Christmas wouldn’t be normal, but given they made Christmas better for millions it seems fitting they got something special.
The personal cost
Apollo 8 was a great achievement, but completing the mission had many personal costs. It was a rushed mission, and in the four months leading up to it, the astronauts were working seven day weeks. Any Christmas plans with family had to be cancelled. And obviously there was the risk that they would not come back, leaving their families bereaved and without support. These were sacrifices the astronauts were mostly happy to make, for various reasons: A sense of duty to country, wanting to explore, the opportunity to be the first.
But there was also a cost to their families and particularly their wives. The wives were now public figures, and were expected to answer reporters’ questions, even to let them into their homes. They weren’t being paid, but they still had a job they were expected to do without complaining. And even while worrying about the safety of their husbands they were expected to keep an appropriate outward demeanour.
There are probably other costs, too: Great achievements often have a significant human cost. I don’t think that should stop us seeking those achievements, but I do think we should acknowledge the costs involved as well as the triumphs.
For many in the US, the Apollo 8 astronauts saved 1968. Orbiting the moon as they did (and coming back with pictures) was a significant achievement for which they were named the Time People of the Year.
The mission also played an important role in the overall success of the Apollo program. I think it is a special mission because of its impressive list of firsts, only really overshadowed by Apollo 11’s moon landing. And without the bold gamble of Apollo 8 it would have been much harder for the US to reach the moon by the end of the decade.