One of my most vivid childhood memories is of watching the first moon landing live on TV. But of the Apollo 8 mission which happened only seven months earlier, I recall little. In fact so little that when I watched a PBS special the other night about Apollo 8 I was both astonished and inspired and ultimately brought to tears several times.
While Apollo 11 is the most famous of the missions, for obvious reasons, the number of "firsts" that happened on Apollo 8 are no less incredible and perhaps even more courageous. While I was aware that the Apollo 1 mission ended with the deaths of all three crew members in a horrific fire atop the launch pad, somehow I thought there were Apollo missions 2 though 7, each building on the last. There were not. Some of those numbers were given to unmanned rocket launches, and Apollo 7 was a manned launch which orbited the earth, but when Apollo 8 blasted off, it was the first time humans had ridden in a Saturn V rocket. Ever.
The crew members were also the first humans to leave Earth's orbit and to orbit the moon. Watching cabin footage showed the aptness of David Bowie's "tin can" description, with the earth receding rapidly in the craft's viewport. The crew brought the command module into lunar orbit with a maneuver that had never been done before, using an engine that had malfunctioned earlier. To top it off, the maneuver was done facing the dark side of the moon, completely cut-off from the Earth, both visually and by radio-contact. Ultimately the crew orbited the moon ten times before returning home and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.
All through the program I was struck by how many times the crew had to face the unknown and just believe that everything would work out right. Throughout history, other explorers have also faced the unknown, but never so far from home in an environment so inhospitable. It must have been terrifying as well as wondrous. And the crew's spouses were equally courageous, handling their roles as military wives with the same cool and sense of duty that their husbands displayed.
Counting from Apollo 8, NASA sent five rockets to the moon in the span of a year, including two lunar landings. That's a rate of activity unmatched since. The Cold War fueled this pace as much as scientific interest, but it still shows how much we can do when the support is there for space exploration.
Beyond all the firsts the crew experienced, the peoples of the world experienced their own first : to see the Earth as a planet, a beautiful orb of blue and white hanging in the black of space. And so for a moment in 1968, Apollo 8 brought a sense of unity and peace to a world bound up in war and social upheaval.
It's been almost forty years since the Apollo 8 mission, long enough for the sense of awe at what we accomplished to fade, long enough for new generations to be born that never knew it at all. And that's a shame, because with everything that's going on in the world today, we could use another dose of awe right now.