Lessons From Apollo 8: The Fragility Of Earth As Seen From Space

1968 was a year full of volatile and socially chaotic events for our nation. In April of that year the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee; in June Bobby Kennedy was gunned down while campaigning for the presidency in Los Angeles, California. The Democratic Convention in Chicago was marred by chaos both in the Convention Hall and out in the streets. It was also the bloodiest year in the ongoing war in Vietnam in terms of American casualties. In the fall of that year, as an FMF Corpsman, I was still going out on 6-8 man Recon patrols with my Bravo Co. 3rd Recon, 3rd Mar. Div Marines.

In the midst of all of this chaos, NASA was involved in the Apollo Program to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. There were political and military implications associated with the Soviets, both sides competing against each other in the effort to get there before the other. But that is not the focus of this article. The focus of this piece is something else, something seemingly small and insignificant that, upon reflection, and minus all of the political hubris and bravado, reveals a profound truth, and like all such truths, it struck the minds of the thoughtful as an existentially important insight into our shared common humanity on this planet. Again, as is common in our shared humanity, while it is often easy to see the truth, it is always much harder to develop the courage, the habits, and the skills that are necessary to live by it.

The Apollo 8 Crew (L to R) Frank Borman, commander; William Anders, Lunar Module (LM) Pilot; and James Lovell, Command Module (CM) pilot pose in front of the Apollo mission simulator during training.
The Apollo 8 Crew (L to R) Frank Borman, commander; William Anders, Lunar Module (LM) Pilot; and James Lovell, Command Module (CM) pilot pose in front of the Apollo mission simulator during training.
    
 
NASA’s Apollo Program was a government/civilian science and engineering project, but the three men in the command capsule, like all of the astronauts to that point, were military men, war veterans, all test pilots with lots of hours and experience flying in the most advanced machines to that date. Two were Air Force pilots, Frank Borman and William Anders. The third man was Navy pilot, James Lovell. Like all of the astronauts in those early Mercury and Apollo programs, it could be said of them that they had “the right stuff” for these endeavors.

I watched the documentary of the Apollo 8 flight on PBS last night. It dealt with how that particular mission evolved, the new technologies that were being developed, the incredible complexities of the engineering, the sciences of rocketry and the mathematics involved to break free from earth orbit for the first time and to travel to the moon, to maneuver into orbit there and then to break free again of that gravitational pull in order to return to Earth. It was impressive for its complexity. And it was all done with a computer that was more like an early Texas Instruments calculator with, in today’s terms, very simplistic software capabilities.

Apollo 8 crew in training.
Apollo 8 crew in training.
 
 
That was the major part of the story, but the part I want to focus on here happened in a few short moments on the last of the ten orbits around the moon. Lovell, the pilot, had maneuvered their craft so that they were able to see the horizon and surface of the moon. Then, suddenly, they saw something that took their breaths away. In that small moment, for the first time in human history, these three men witnessed the earth “rising” over the lunar horizon. For the first time in human history, humanity was able to see the earth as it is, a small planet, isolated, alone in the unspeakable immensity of space. It came over the horizon, bright and colorful, glowing blue and white against the black backdrop of space.

The Apollo 8 rocket lifts off from Earth.
The Apollo 8 rocket lifts off from Earth.
 
 
The three military men, engineers and test pilots, war veterans all, were moved deeply by the experience. There before them was our mutual “home”, a small, insignificant planet in the vastness of space. Anders was the one taking the pictures. He asked for some color film and took several shots fiddling with the exposure each time, hoping that he could capture that image. He got lucky. That image is considered by many the most profound photo of the 20th century, maybe in human history.

Earth as seen from the Lunar Horizon.
Earth as seen from the Lunar Horizon.
 
 
The truth they saw in that “earthrise” was that this small planet is humanity’s only home in the infinite expanse of the ever expanding universe. They saw its fragility and its solitary smallness in the incomprehensible expanse of the universe. They saw that this beautiful lonely, small, life-charged sojourner in the vast emptiness of the universe, is all we have.

Apollo 8 went into orbit around the moon over the Christmas holidays. The three astronauts were told to make a statement of some kind. They had a camera with them to broadcast the event on television. They would have billions of people, all over the world watching. What to do? What to say? They joked about what they could do, like maybe change the words of a Christmas carol, or a children’s ditty. But they settled on something else in the end. They read the creation story from the first chapter of Genesis from their small craft rushing through space far away from the earth. It couldn’t have been more appropriate.

Earth as seen from space on the Apollo 8 mission.
Earth as seen from space on the Apollo 8 mission.

Suffice it to say, that mission, for all of its scientific and technological prowess, was in a very significant way, overshadowed by that one simple, but powerful photograph of the earth rising over the horizon of the moon. We have learned so much and advanced so rapidly technologically and scientifically as a result of the Apollo Program and others. But the questions that hang in the background all the time, like the earth over the lunar horizon, are as yet to be answered: Have we advanced in our knowledge and ability to live together peacefully, and: Have we advanced in our knowledge and responsibility to steward the resources of this small blue marble in space for the good of all of us who share it together?

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