I’ve always thought space travel was cool and interesting, particularly as a kid, but I seldom romanticized it like so many other people do.
I think it’s a generational thing. The Space Shuttles of the ‘80s and ‘90s were neat but those didn’t travel very far and they seemed too practical and utilitarian to me. Working on the Hubble Telescope and taking photos of earth and other planets was cool, but most of the news I heard about the Shuttles came when they blew up. The moon landing was amazing, but it was 49 years ago! So that has generally felt kind of “been there done that” for me.
I just read Rocket Men by Robert Kurson, a book documenting the story of NASA’s Apollo 8 mission in 1968, and my perspective on NASA and space travel has changed. I doubt most people nowadays even know what the Apollo 8 mission was. They know about the mission that landed men on the moon, though probably not by name (Apollo 11). Apollo 13 was the only Apollo mission I myself could name before I read this book because I had seen the great Tom Hanks movie about it.
Apollo 8, launched 50 years ago, is arguably the NASA mission that most changed the world. It was the mission that sent a manned spacecraft to the moon and orbited it 10 times, not the mission that landed men on the moon. Apollo 11 was momentous, but Apollo 8 was the bigger achievement. Space travel had begun only a little more than a decade before it, and until that point in time the farthest any manned space flight had traveled was 800-some miles. To get to the moon’s orbit and return back to earth a spacecraft had to travel almost 250,000 miles at speeds up to 25,000 miles per hour. The ship had to have the power to break out of Earth’s orbit, enter the moon’s orbit, then break away from the moon’s orbit again and return to earth. Its instruments had to make extremely precise life or death calculations using computing power a micro-fraction of that found in a modern smartphone. The spacecraft’s so-called Apollo Guidance Computer was more basic than electronics in modern toasters that have computer controlled stop/start/defrost buttons. Upon reentry to the earth’s atmosphere the Apollo 8 spacecraft traveled in excess of 24,500 miles per hour and the computer took over flying duties. Some compared finding the entry corridor to throwing a paper airplane into a public mailbox slot from a distance of four miles.
Had a trip to the moon developed in conventional NASA fashion there would have been several missions prior to it in order to incrementally overcome the challenges of such a voyage, perhaps over the course of two years. It made sense to proceed with caution because just a year before, the Apollo 1 mission had ended tragically in a fire on the launchpad, killing the mission’s three astronaut crew members. In the summer of 1968 the odds of reaching John F. Kennedy’s goal of sending a man to the moon before 1970 and beating the Soviets in the Space Race seemed bleak. But on August 3, 1968, while sitting on a sandy Caribbean beach, George Low, one of the most important engineers at NASA at the time, had an epiphany. Suddenly it dawned on him that with the right plan and some good fortune it actually was possible for NASA to send a manned spacecraft to the moon in four months, arriving at the moon on Christmas eve. Remarkably in a matter of days he was able convince NASA and the U.S. government to attempt this audacious goal.
Had the Americans not shot for the moon in 1968 they likely would have lost the Space Race. Many accounts say the Soviets would have been capable of attempting a similar mission only two weeks after Apollo 8 launched. By September of 1968 the Soviets had already successfully completed a circumlunar voyage carrying passengers of tortoises, wine flies and meal worms. Why not a person?
Around the world many people said the idea of sending a manned spaceship to the moon by Christmas of 1968 was a reckless suicide mission. Imagine if the mission failed. A person could never look at the moon the same way again on Christmas. They questioned risking innocent people’s lives by rushing a mission just to win bragging rights. And it was the MOON! I try to place myself at that time period and I think I might have thought the idea crazy as well. It’s still hard to fathom. The MOON—that sphere in the sky, literally another world. A person had to travel 250,000 miles in a tin can to get there. At the time, deep space was only something in science fiction, but it is a mind boggling and surreal concept for me even today.
Not to mention, this pie in the sky mission was conceived in the midst of one of the most turbulent years in United States history. Americans were divided. The war in Vietnam was escalating. Race riots and assassinations filled the news, and people feared the Soviets were ready to start World War III.
But when Apollo 8’s Saturn V rocket launched Dec. 21, 1968, the world looked up and united for a moment. The mission was unprecedented and in its own way, bigger than all the conflicts raging on the ground. The Pope blessed the voyage before takeoff, and 65 countries tuned in on Christmas Eve to witness the ship’s broadcast from the moon’s orbit, including the Soviet Union and East Germany. Apollo’s three man crew had agonized for weeks prior to the trip about what to say to the world if they indeed reached lunar orbit on Christmas Eve. They consulted with just a few people to prepare a speech, and the wife of one of the writers they contacted finally gave them an idea of what to say. The speech was kept in complete secrecy from everyone, including NASA and their own families.
The three astronauts read the opening passage from the first book of Genesis.
“We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.”
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.”
And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.”
They ended with the captain Frank Borman saying, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.
We find ourselves in another divided United States right now, maybe the most divided since the time of Apollo 8. Russia is still an adversary but seemingly less of an immediate threat to our existence. The U.S. now collaborates with the Russians and other nations on the International Space Station. NASA doesn’t launch its own manned rockets or Shuttles anymore. It hasn’t sent a man to the moon since Apollo 17, 46 years ago.
Elon Musk says he hopes his company, SpaceX, will send a crewed mission to Mars in 2024. How much will I care about it? Is that mission as hard to fathom today as sending a man to the moon was in 1968? Would reaching Mars be more of an achievement than Apollo 8 reaching the moon? Will such a voyage take a leap of faith like that of Columbus or Apollo 8? Will sending people to Mars unite today’s world temporarily like sending men to the moon did?
Question: Is sending people to Mars important to you?