Fifty years ago on Christmas Eve, a spacecraft carrying three astronauts was orbiting the Moon.
The Apollo 8 mission had started three days earlier, on December 21st, 1968, when a Saturn V rocket launched three men beyond low Earth orbit for the first time in history. Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders also became the first men to be captured by the gravity of another celestial body.
Not only that, but three human beings would also see the far side of the Moon with their own eyes for the first time ever.
As if this were not enough, things were about to get even more interesting.
They didn’t know they would witness something totally unexpected: a view of the Earth rising above the Moon’s horizon.
Luckily enough, astronaut William Anders managed to frame that lovely sight in an unforgettable picture, called Earthrise – still considered to be one of the most influential photographs ever taken.
When the USA chose to go to the Moon
In the 1960s, the United States of America were in a rush to reach the Moon before the end of the decade.
President Kennedy himself set the challenge in 1961 and made it clear with his speech “We choose to go to the Moon”.
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.John Fitzgerald Kennedy, September 12th, 1962
Actually, the President carefully avoided to say a Moon landing had the purpose of beating the Russians in the Space Race – a race the USSR was gloriously winning.
Until then, the USSR could proudly claim to be the first nation to reach two major achievements in history.
Not only did they launch Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite (on October 4th, 1957), but they also sent the first human into orbit on April 12th, 1961. Yep, humankind will always remember Russian cosmonaut Jurij Gagarin as the first man ever to reach space.
In the meantime, the United States seemed doomed to be the perennial runner-up.
The first US satellite, Explorer 1, eventually reached orbit on January 31st, 1958.
And even if Alan Shepard will be remembered as the second man in space, it was actually John Glenn the first American to orbit the Earth like Gagarin did – almost a year later.
Still, the USA wanted to be the first nation to set foot on the Moon.
The way things were at that time, it must have seemed impossible – not just a hard thing to do, as President Kennedy said.
But the USSR was the first nation to reach low Earth orbit in any possible way, so the Moon was going to be the next big step – and the only way to keep up with the Russians in the Space Race.
A very brief history of the Apollo 8 mission
The dream of going to the Moon deserves the credit for boosting NASA’s budget, which consequently sparked project Mercury, Gemini and Apollo – i.e. the first, second and third US crewed space program. Project Mercury, Gemini and Apollo had to safely launch one, two and three men into space and back, respectively.
The three projects were quite successful, except for a few major setbacks – one being the Apollo 1 accident, in which the whole crew died during a launch test.
Going to space is hard, and fifty years ago it was definitely harder.
Those were the days in which every single step was a huge obstacle and everyone involved was a pioneer.
Most things were unknown, and even what was known could very easily go wrong.
The Apollo 8 launch
The Apollo 8 mission hadn’t been easy to put into practice – nor had the previous ones, actually.
In April 1968, the Saturn V rocket failed quite a few critical tests, among which it had three engine failures. Engineers spent the whole summer and autumn trying to fix all of those problems, and they finally did on December 18th – three days prior to launch.
On December 21st 1968, three astronauts were boarding a spacecraft that passed its very last test on the previous day.
The crew itself believed the chances of success would be no higher than 50%.
Luckily enough, the launch went incredibly well (except for a slight delay) and while in flight, the Saturn V rocket separated its three stages correctly. Things were going as planned.
Two days and almost eight hours after launch, the three astronauts aboard the Apollo module entered Moon orbit.
The Apollo 8 mission was critical to the development of the whole project. Besides checking the feasibility of going to the Moon and back, the crew was given the task of taking pictures of the Moon’s surface, which would serve the purpose of finding an ideal spot for the actual landing. In order to gather enough data, they would orbit the Moon ten times.
Once the astronauts got to the Moon, they didn’t seem particularly impressed by the view, though.
As it was planned, they had spent the first three orbits taking pictures of the surface, which Frank Borman described as “a vast, lonely, forbidding expanse of nothing”.
Then, a blue marble appeared beyond the greyish lunar horizon…
To capture an Earthrise
What they should’ve sent was poets because I don’t think we captured, in its entirety, the grandeur of what we had seen.Frank Borman, Apollo 8 astronaut
By looking at Earthrise, we can only imagine the sense of wonder the three astronauts felt. No one had ever seen our planet from that perspective, nor were they expecting that.
What’s even more interesting about this image, is that it was captured almost by chance. In fact, it was due to a series of coincidences which had not occurred during the first three orbits.
In that moment, Frank Borman had just started to roll the spacecraft according to the mission plan, while Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were busy observing and taking pictures of the lunar surface. If Earth entered their view, it was purely thanks to Borman’s (unintentional) perfect timing.
On the occasion of Apollo 8’s 45th anniversary, NASA shared this interesting video about how the three astronauts managed to capture that beautiful Earthrise.
Just notice how excited those three humans were! They were circling a new world for the first time in history, yet it was the sight of the Earth that amazed them the most. Three astronauts had gone where no man had gone before, but still, they were more impressed by the view of their home planet.
Why is Earthrise so important?
Let’s look again at that picture. It’s the result of a massive undertaking which involved thousands of people. It was a huge effort for many, and some even gave their lives for the project.
And those efforts seem to be so big and so small at the same time, when we realise they were all carried out on that blue and white globe lost in the blackness of space.
The astronauts who lived aboard the International Space Station often talk about the fact you cannot see national borders from up there – and the ISS is about 400 km above ground.
At Moon’s distance, not only we cannot see borders, but we also realise how small and delicate the Earth is with respect to the cosmos.
Earthrise is a precious gift from three humans to billions of humans, as it shows us how beautiful our planet is (even from space!), and most importantly, it reminds us we have no other home besides this fragile sphere.
Our survival depends on the Earth’s well-being, so why don’t we take care of our home planet as much as we should?
It might just be a tiny dot in the universe, but it’s everything we’ve got.