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Nasa’s greatest gamble Fifty years ago, for the first time, three humans foolhardily flew beyond the Earth's gravitational pull

Credit: NASA

December 20, 2018   5 mins

Fifty years ago, Americans got the Moon for Christmas. The Apollo 8 crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968. To mark that momentous event, they conducted a religious service to a television audience of 500 million people, reading from the Book of Genesis.

“From the crew of Apollo 8”, Borman ended, “we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good earth.” When asked on his return whether the moon was made of green cheese, Anders replied “No, it’s made of American cheese.”

“That was probably the most magical Christmas Eve I’ve ever experienced,” Gene Kranz, the Apollo Flight Director, recalled. “It was literally magic. It made you prickly. You could feel the hairs on your arms rising.”

For Americans, it was a glorious end to a terrible year of assassinations, riots and war. One woman wrote to Nasa: “Thank you for saving 1968.” Time made the three astronauts its Men of the Year. “The voyage of Apollo 8”, wrote the Washington Post in its roundup of the year, “did more than any single event … to restore man’s faith in himself.”

Apollo 8 was originally supposed to test the complete lunar package in earth orbit, but the lunar module was not yet ready. Rather than delay the mission, Nasa decided to send the command and service modules to the moon, to test the worthiness of the craft for the long voyage.

When the navigation numbers were crunched, it was discovered that the orbit would begin on Christmas Eve. Nasa, always obsessed with publicity, could not believe its luck. Going ahead was nevertheless foolhardy. The veteran astronaut Alan Shepard later claimed that it was “the single greatest gamble in space flight then, and since”. Crucial systems were not remotely ready. “Shit, we didn’t even have the software to fly Apollo in Earth orbit, much less to the Moon”, Deke Slayton, another astronaut, claimed. In the race to the moon, however, risks seemed worthwhile.

Nasa still feared the Soviets might get there first, for good reason. On 8 December, 1968, the Russian cosmonaut Pavel Belyayev was waiting on the launch pad at Tyuratam, in Kazakhstan. His itinerary was to go to the moon, circle it, and come back – just like Apollo 8. Four hours before the scheduled launch, however, he was removed from the Zond 7 capsule when problems developed with the rocket. After a long inspection, Russian officials decided to make the mission unmanned. The rocket blasted off, reached 27 miles and then exploded. NASA enjoyed an early Christmas.

“What is it you want, Mary?”, George Bailey asks his sweetheart in the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. “You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it … I’ll give you the moon, Mary.”  That bright white orb had always been the stuff of romance. Apollo 8, however, threw a big bucket of cold water over that nonsense. “We don’t know if you can see this on the TV screen,” Anders reported, “but the moon is nothing but a milky waste. Completely void.” Borman then added: “it’s a – a vast, lonely, forbidding expanse of nothing … It makes you realize what you have back there on earth.”

The first manned mission to the moon revealed what everyone already knew, but few were prepared to admit: there’s nothing very special about it. C. S. Lewis, musing on what Apollo would mean, predicted that

“The moon of the myths, the poets, the lovers – will have been taken from us forever. Part of our mind, a huge mass of our emotional wealth, will have gone. … he who first reaches [the moon] steals something from us all.”

The moon’s romance had always been a figment of the imagination, but a rather lovely one. The same could be said for space travel in general. Space is cold, forbidding, rather boring and deadly. Its beauty and attraction are figments of the imagination.

That Christmas flight proved that the Americans would win the race to the moon. But did that race have any meaning? It was not about advancing science, nor was it really about the moon itself. If the moon had real value, there’d have been a war over it by now.

Its importance lay only as an arbitrary symbol of supremacy in the Cold War. John Kennedy, who first announced the moon mission on 25 May 1961, recognised as much. In a brief moment of candour, he once asked: “Don’t you think I would rather spend these billions on programs here at home, such as health and education and welfare? But in this matter we have no choice. The Nation’s prestige is too heavily involved.”

On another occasion, he told his cabinet: “I’m not that interested in space. … We’ve wrecked our budget … and the only justification for it … [is] getting on to the moon ahead of the Russians.”

The shallowness of the space race rendered it difficult to assign meaning to Apollo 8. Some tried to turn the mission into a defining moment, a watershed in the human story. “This is the last day of the old world,” Arthur C. Clarke remarked. “If there is an ultimate truth to be learned from this historic flight,” President Lyndon Johnson surmised, “it may be this: There are few social or scientific or political problems which cannot be solved by men, if they truly want to solve them together.” At times like this, Americans seem to like tripe.

The poet Archibald Macleish desperately tried to give the event sacred meaning: “To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold – brothers who know now that they are truly brothers.”

Meanwhile, back on Earth, those brothers were killing one another with ever increasing ferocity in wars, riots and random murders. Much as astrologists like to think that the moon affects our behaviour, this was one instance when it clearly did not.

So what did it all mean? The Apollo 8 astronauts travelled to the moon and discovered the earth. “The vast loneliness of the moon … makes you realize just what you have back there on earth,” Lovell remarked. All that effort and money on the space programme had shown that it was actually the earth that was special.

That was the message behind those spectacular pictures of Earthrise taken by the crew. Compared to the desolation of the Moon, the earth was an exquisite pearl floating in vast emptiness. The environmental lobby loved the photos even if it condemned the wasteful industry that had produced them. “Earthrise” was used on countless posters encouraging people to respect their planet. Some ecologists even began to speak of “Spaceship Earth”.

In other words, Apollo 8 qualified as the most expensive trip to a viewpoint ever undertaken. It did not change us. It did not solve our problems. It did not enhance the brotherhood of man. It simply showed us the earth, in all its vulnerable beauty. Shoving aside all the romantic tosh, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Gerard DeGroot recently retired from the School of History at St Andrews. He has written books on various aspects of twentieth century history, including moon landings and the nuclear bomb.

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