Article by Michael Burton, Director of Armagh Observatory and Planetarium.
Christmas Eve of 1968 saw the arrival of the first humans at the Moon – the crew of Apollo 8. A truly momentous event in history, the arrival of humans to another world for the very first time. However the event has been largely overshadowed in our minds by Apollo 11, which, seven months later brought the first humans to the very surface of another world. In this astronotes article we look back to the epic journey of Apollo 8, 50 years ago. It was a journey that is inscribed into the history books as much as those of Marco Polo, of Captain Cook, of Roald Amundsen in earlier eras, one that transfixed humanity at the time.
Apollo 8 was one of the essential space missions that made possible the six successful Moon landings of Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17, trailing key stages in the technology that enables the journey from Earth to Moon. The three astronauts on board, Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders, became the first humans to leave Earth orbit, to see the Earth as a whole planet as they journeyed to the Moon, and the first to enter the gravitational well of another body as they entered lunar orbit.
They were also the first humans to see the far side of the Moon directly, forever hidden from view for those left on Earth due to the Moon’s tidally-locked synchronous rotation as is orbits our planet. And they were first ever to see Earth rise as their lunar orbit returned from the far side. The images they took of the Earth and Earthrise have engrained themselves on human consciousness, enabling our species to visualise our world as a single entity, and enshrining in us the concept of our fragility set against the vastness of space, of a tiny vista of sublime beauty set against the deep blackness of space.
Apollo 8 spent nearly three Earth days travelling to the Moon, then 20 hours orbiting it ten times, before another three days for the return journey home. The TV broadcast from the crew that Christmas Eve, while orbiting the Moon was, at that time, the most watched TV programme ever. It included the crew reading out the first ten lines from the Book of Genesis, with gave a special poignancy to phrases such as “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“.
All these epochal achievements, yet originally NASA had planned Apollo 8 as a test flight for the lunar and command modules that was not to leave Earth orbit. However delays in the design and building of the lunar module led NASA to re-schedule their overall mission schedule in order to achieve President Kennedy’s bold vision of bringing a man to the surface of the Moon before the end of the decade. This first lunar flight, proving technically easier to accomplish than the completion of the lunar module (the space ship to be used for the descent and return to the Moon’s surface), thus came first. Apollo 9 and 10 subsequently completed the commissioning of all necessary pre-cursor stages to Apollo 11, but from Earth orbit.
Apollo 8 came at the end of a year of great upheaval on planet Earth – the Prague Spring and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassinations of civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy, of anti-Vietnam war protests. Despite this global unrest, Time Magazine chose the three crew members of Apollo 8 to be its “Men of the Year“, recognising them as the people who had most influenced events of the year. Let us not forget their achievement as the even greater one of Apollo 11 approaches!