Apollo 8 After Thirty Years

by Mark Wolverton


It sits on a platform, encased in plexiglass to protect it from curious hands, in the Henry Crown Space Center of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. Judging strictly by looks, it seems fairly crude, almost primitive. The rivets and metal panels and workmanship don't quite have the smooth perfection of the assembly line; the object seems handmade, one of a kind, something designed for a singular and special purpose. A ramp leads up to the open hatch (also blocked by plexiglass) so that visitors can look inside and wonder how even one man, much less three, could live inside such a tiny and utilitarian space.

But thirty years ago, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and Bill Anders did live inside the Apollo 8 Command Module for nearly a week, doing something no human beings had ever done before. On December 21st, 1968, after Borman, Lovell and Anders reached the familiar and almost routine environs of Earth orbit, Mission Control in Houston sent an order no other spacecraft had ever received: "You are go for translunar injection." The crew fired up their S-IV-B booster and broke free of the comfortable gravitational embrace of Earth in which, until that moment, humanity had spent its entire existence. Houston's message was more than a simple command to a spacecraft crew--it was a proclamation, an announcement of intent and of accomplishment, which spoke both to ourselves and to the universal void humankind was challenging.

Three days later, in lunar orbit, the Apollo 8 crew were the first to witness the Earth, an oasis of color and life in a black abyss, rising above the bleak and lifeless surface of the Moon. Despite all the planning and training for every conceivable contingency and danger, nothing had prepared the astronauts for this sight, or for the realization that everything and everyone they had ever known was on that blue-and-white globe, so small across the 240,000 mile distance that, as Jim Lovell observed, it could be blotted out completely by holding his thumb against the spacecraft window. The famous Earthrise photograph taken by the crew went on to provide a new icon, an image of unity, for the environmental and peace movements. And in one of the most famous Christmas Eves in history, the Apollo 8 crew acknowledged the profoundly spiritual nature of what they were doing by reading the first few verses of the Book of Genesis. All over the world, even in the Communist bloc, people watched ghostly black-and-white television pictures of the Moon drifting beneath the orbiting spacecraft and listened to three men trying to describe something no human eyes had ever seen before, from a place no one had ever been before. And just for those moments, the strife of 1968 eased, the painful divisions blurred, and the millions who watched and listened were united in awe and humility for what had been achieved. Just for those moments, the tableau of violence and conflict that had been the year 1968 paused, and somehow the idea of global unity no longer seemed a foolish and quixotic fantasy.

I visited the Apollo 8 Command Module exhibit at MSI recently, watching children playing on the ramp and peering inside the craft. I wondered if their parents remembered Apollo 8, whether they witnessed it as I had back in 1968, as a kid sitting in a living room before a big black-and-white TV. I wondered if they realized that thirty years have now passed since humanity first left the cradle of the home planet, and what a truly profound step it was--the first baby step into infinity.

The Command Module at MSI is all that is left physically of Apollo 8's mission, but the legacy of its voyage is still alive, thirty years later. Although the images Apollo 8 gave us from space may have sunk so deeply into our collective consciousness that they now seem routine, almost banal, the new perspective of Earth as a fragile and precious world and of its people as a single species has also sunk in, changing our awareness of our planet, our environment, and ourselves. Even more than the courage of Borman, Lovell and Anders or the technological achievement Apollo 8 represented, it's that awareness of our essential unity and Earth's delicate beauty which we should remember and cherish as we prepare to enter the next millennium.

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(C) 1998, 2001 Mark Wolverton. All rights reserved.

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