Forty years ago, three men left for the Moon

Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of the Apollo 8 mission.

The view from the Apollo 8 CSM, Christmas 1968

Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of the Apollo 8 mission, America's first human mission to the Moon and by any measure, still a remarkable achievement. It’s difficult from our position so many years later to appreciate what a bold, giant leap this mission was, in some ways even greater than the subsequent lunar landing of Apollo 11. Before Apollo 8, no one had ever ventured more than a few hundred kilometers above the Earth. No one had ever seen, with their own eyes, the glowing disk of a full Earth nor the cratered dusty surface of the Moon up close. And no one had ever experienced the isolation of being on the far side of the Moon, cut off from all contact with the Earth and everything the human race has ever known.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Apollo 8 changed everything. It won the race to the Moon for the United States, although most didn’t realize it at the time. Apollo 8 was supposed to test the lunar module (LM) in Earth orbit, but technical problems meant that delivery of the LM was going to be late. Planned originally as a repeat of the Apollo 7 mission (the Command Module in Earth orbit), the lunar orbital mission was substituted instead because NASA had intelligence that the Soviets were planning a human lunar flyby before the end of the year. The successful flight of Apollo 8, coupled with the catastrophic explosions of their N-1 lunar rocket, convinced the Soviets that they had lost the Moon race.

The Apollo 8 mission was a positive, uplifting development for both the lunar program and the nation as a whole. The program had been resurrected from the ashes of the Apollo 1 fire by the successful flight of Apollo 7 in October, 1968, but serious questions remained about the reliability and space worthiness of the system. Apollo 8 demonstrated that the hardware and architecture devised for lunar flight would work well, boosting confidence in continuing forward with the goal of a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. Moreover, after a 1968 full of nothing but bad news, the Apollo 8 mission, coming at Christmastime, charmed even the famously cynical American press corps, enough so that Time magazine changed their choice of “Man of the Year” (from “The Protester”) to the crew of Apollo 8.

Although it took some time to develop, Apollo 8’s most lasting legacy was a permanently changed human perspective. Much had been written about how the various scientific revolutions (Copernican, Darwinian) removed man from the center of the universe. This is true enough, but so often, the most lasting changes come from images. The famous Apollo 8 picture of Earthrise over the lunar horizon was a stunningly beautiful image. Even though it had been photographed earlier by the first robotic Lunar Orbiter mission, both the magnificent color of the Apollo 8 picture and the fact that a human had taken it changed our view of the Earth and ourselves. Earth became “a grand oasis in the big vastness of space” to use Jim Lovell’s memorable phrase. This single image did more to raise a “global consciousness” -- for good and ill -- than did the tons of books, protest marches and pamphlets produced by the environmental movement.

The flight of Apollo 8 changed the way we perceive our world and the cosmos. For the first time in human history, people had traveled beyond the gravitational sphere of Earth and looked back upon it. That event changed history in many ways, some of which we are still trying to comprehend. What similar change in perspective and history awaits when people actually live on the Moon, and routinely look into the black sky to watch a constantly changing Earth?

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.