Apollo 8: Holding the Mirror Up to Our Planet—Milestones of Innovation 16

Opinion

The fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 8’s orbital visit to the moon underlines the importance of emotion and changes of perception in the history of innovation.

Then and later, commentators said that the technological marvel reversed some of the gloom from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Chicago police beating of dissidents in the streets near the Democrats’ national convention, and the continuance of the Vietnam War. It ratified John Kennedy’s “bet” on a moon landing ahead of the Russians. And it intensified interest on the scientific exploration of space, including by streams of robots guided from Earth, while building new appreciation for the fragile balance of the natural world.

Three American test-pilot astronauts, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders, thrilled a global audience on Christmas Eve 1968 by reading passages from the Bible’s Book of Genesis as viewers across Earth saw the “plaster of Paris” desolation of the moon’s surface passing 69 miles beneath their spacecraft.

Catching sight of a bright blue crescent Earth rising above the lunar horizon, Anders took the famous color photo of humanity’s refuge in the blackness of the cosmos. Moments earlier, Borman had snapped the same view, but in black and white. The message was of beauty, fragility, and a common fate. Within a year, the photo was on an environmentalist poster that read, “Love It or Lose It.”

The daring mission—with potential to beat the Russians to the punch—arose from a decision in the summer of 1968 by two leading NASA officials, George M. Low, the manager of spacecraft development, and Chris Kraft, the overall chief of flight control. Civilian field generals in a vast enterprise, they concluded that after just two tests of the Saturn V rocket, it was ready to carry astronauts. They felt they could gain more margin on John F. Kennedy’s December 1969 deadline by telescoping the schedule before the climactic first landing. Spurring their decision was intelligence that the Russians were preparing a giant rocket to send cosmonauts to the moon’s vicinity as soon as possible.

Borman was happy that he was assigned to the first Saturn V test of the Apollo spacecraft in space. It had been tested in Earth orbit just once, on Apollo 7’s two week shakedown cruise in October 1968. Borman had served on the NASA committee to redesign the conical Command Module after three astronauts had been asphyxiated in it during a ground test in Florida in January 1967. The fixes, including discarding flammable items and abandonment of a pure oxygen atmosphere at higher than sea-level pressure, took a year and nearly a billion dollars.

Borman and his crewmates, as well everyone else in the enterprise, were very interested in the view they would see, including the exact shadowing on the airless lunar surface of rocks and craters that would dot the eventual landing path a few months later on Apollo 11. This meant they had a “window” of just a few days to blast off on their quarter-million-mile journey to reach the moon at the right point in its 29-day pathway around earth, and its roughly equal slow turning on its axis.

Everyone was also conscious that three critical maneuvers of the flight, with the help of their compact, on-board computer, would involve firing a rocket on the spacecraft, the Service Propulsion System, to slow it down into lunar orbit, adjust the orbit to roughly a circle, and then blast it back out onto a return journey to Earth. All these maneuvers, involving 20,000 pounds of thrust, would be behind the moon, invisible from Earth and out of radio contact.

Just before 5 a.m. EST on Christmas Eve, 1968, Apollo 8 fired its SPS rocket for four minutes and six seconds to enter an elliptical lunar orbit, between 69 and 194 miles above the lunar surface.

Tension built in Mission Control in Houston as controllers awaited news of what had happened. The deadline passed for signals they would hear if the astronauts had decided not to go into orbit. Then they waited for the moment for signals that would indicate the astronauts were in orbit, nervous that continued silence beyond that point would indicate they might have crashed.

Then, astronaut Jerry Carr, the astronaut on duty to conduct all conversations with the crew, cried out, “We’ve got it. We’ve got it. Apollo 8 is in lunar orbit. There is a cheer in this room.” Then, after a moment of further silence, Jim Lovell’s voice rang out, “Good to hear your voice.”

He radioed down calculations of the maximum and minimum heights of his orbit from on-board instruments, closely matching what Mission Control had figured. This was reassuring, because it meant that the astronauts could chart their courses on their own if communications faltered. As it happened, he would have to use these skills to recover from pushing a wrong button on the way home to Earth.

Then, over the next 20 hours, Borman, Lovell, and Anders made 10 orbital laps around the moon. They excitedly described features on the moon and conducted a 17-minute television broadcast to a vast audience on Earth. Using a portable television camera, they showed views of the surface below and sent a greeting to all the people back on “the Good Earth.”

Then they relived the drama of firing their SPS rocket, this time to leave lunar orbit for the journey home. When they came back on the air from behind the moon, Lovell observed, “Please be informed there is a Santa Claus.”

As I wrote in The Boston Globe, the astronauts had “abruptly changed the moon from a decorative lantern in man’s evening sky to a territory for explorers to survey.” They “had opened a new window for the human imagination.”

Two weeks after Apollo 8 splashed down, the three crewmen were decorated in the White House by President Lyndon Johnson, and cheered again and again in a joint session of Congress. Borman said he and Lovell and Anders had stood on the shoulders of giants, including the Russian theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov (who had been killed returning to Earth the year before). He hoped for multi-nation explorations of the moon’s surface in “the spirit of Antarctica.” He quoted the poet Archibald MacLeish’s urging that humans would “see ourselves as riders on the earth together.”

[Editor’s note: This is the sixteenth of a series of notes about major anniversaries in innovation and what they teach us. Earlier notes have highlighted Dupont chemist Stephanie Kwolek’s invention of Kevlar in 1965 and the triumph of signals intelligence in winning the Battle of Midway in 1942. You’re invited to suggest other Milestones of Innovation for the Xconomy Forum.]

Xconomist and science reporter Victor McElheny of MIT is author of Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution (2003) and Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project (2010) Follow @

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