December 21st will mark the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 8, the first time humans left earth orbit to reach another celestial object. While the landing on the surface of the Moon by Apollo 11 dominates the public’s view of America’s lunar program, it was the orbiting of the Moon by the terrifically dangerous and milestone-making Apollo 8 mission that actually marked the triumph of the USA in the 1960’s “Space Race” with the Soviet Union.
I recently listened to Bob Zimmerman’s book, Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8: The First Manned Mission to Another World. An audiobook version was released this year with a excellent reading by Grover Gardner. Bob nicely weaves a narrative of the Apollo 8 mission, from its conception to capsule splashdown, with captivating portraits of the three astronauts and vivid descriptions of the political and social upheavals of the time, especially the many dreadful events of the tumultuous year of 1968. (The book should disabuse young people of the notion that political polarization in the US today is something new or reaches the levels of other angry periods in the country’s history.)
The three astronauts – Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders – were the first to see earth from beyond low earth orbit. How the famous EarthRise photo came about is described in the book and answers the question of who actually took the picture.
The astronauts made a surprising but very appropriate reading during a widely viewed broadcast from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve. The book tells the background story of how this came about.
The three space pioneers are still alive for the half century remembrances of Apollo 8 and Bob attended an event held in their honor last October at the Museum of Science and Technology in Chicago: Honoring the Apollo 8 astronauts | Behind The Black
We are blessed to still have them. Once again during the dinner presentation they talked of their mission, kidding each other repeatedly about what had happened, and talking about why they went and what they thought the future might hold. Borman was pessimistic about the future of space, but then he remains fixated on the concept of a government program for space. Anders meanwhile was in touch with the rise of private commercial space, and advocated that it is where the future lies.
Lovell was Lovell, as always a space cadet, enthused for the future exploration of space, no matter how we do it.
This event is likely only the beginning. Over the next year there are going to many similar events, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary the 1960s Apollo triumph, right through to the landing in July. To me, however, it will always be Apollo 8 that had the most historical impact. Everything that happened afterward merely reinforced what that flight taught us.
BTW: I had thought that George Mueller, head of the Office of Manned Space Flight during the Apollo era, played the key role in the decision to go to the Moon with Apollo 8. Mueller did successfully push the “all-up testing” approach in which the entire Saturn V would be tested altogether rather than incrementally, starting with dummy upper stages. This greatly reduced the number of test flights needed before the lunar missions could begin and was crucial in achieving JFK’s goal of reaching the Moon “before this decade is out“. However, as made clear in the book, it was in fact George Low, chief of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office (ASPO), who proposed and championed the radical idea of going all the way to the Moon on just the third flight of the Saturn V, the first flight with a command module, and the first flight with a crew. For more about Low and his role in Apollo 8, see The Man Who Won the Moon Race – Air & Space Magazine.
Today NASA has little of its 1960’s daring and risk-taking culture demonstrated by Apollo 8. The agency, for example, indicated recently after another Russian Soyuz failure, that it would rather let the 100 billion dollar International Space Station fall into the atmosphere for destruction rather than permit astronauts to travel to the station in new American vehicles whose builders have not yet checked every last box in the mountains of certification requirements created by the agency’s vast multi-center bureaucracy.
Space exploration, development, and settlement will require endless risk-taking in the coming years but it appears the risks will be taken by participants in the private space sector, not by NASA.