Apollo 8: An Epic American Journey for the Ages

At the height of the 1960s Cold War struggle against a communist nation to win the hearts and minds of the world, America diligently worked to set sail on the cosmic ocean with the flight of Apollo 8, accomplishing the seemingly impossible. In December, 1968, America literally changed our world when it removed a page of history from the middle of the 21st century and placed it in the mid-20th century with this voyage, giving mankind a new perspective of our exciting future possibilities.  Clearly, with the epic flight of Apollo 8 sending humans from the Earth to the Moon and safely back again, America ushered in a new era of great promise as we became a human species no longer Earthbound and seemingly without limits. 

With great excitement, about one-fourth of the Earth’s population tuned in that Christmas Eve to watch the historic telecast live from the Moon as the Apollo 8 astronauts each read from the Holy Bible, as their black-and-white television camera peered at the ancient, foreboding, blasted and cratered lunar surface which paraded majestically and silently past their spacecraft windows. Apollo 8’s view of the Moon just sixty miles away was a truly awe-inspiring, spellbinding telecast.  After his crewmates Jim Lovell and Bill Anders  recited passages from the Book of Genesis, Commander Frank Borman completed his passage and signed off that Christmas Eve with, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you- all of you on the good Earth.”

An astounding American technological triumph by over 400,000 engineers, technicians, program managers, and scientists, Apollo 8 remains a thought-provoking achievement and a reminder our nation can accomplish extraordinary things when working together on a common goal.  While it is true there were many earthbound problems around our world in 1968 just as there are today, there were also all kinds of problems when explorers such as Christopher Columbus first set sail for the New World in 1492, and when Ferdinand Magellan set sail over the edge of all the world’s known maps in 1519. From those expeditions came a tremendous advancement of mankind from the increased knowledge and understanding of our universe around us.  

The epic flight of Apollo 8 contains numerous valuable lessons for Americans and our world 50 years later.  One significant lesson comes from the crew themselves who flew Apollo 8 -- Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders -- all humble men of character who have each led exemplary public and private lives despite a crushing fame which would have undone many lesser individuals. 

A second significant lesson, the Apollo 8 crew’s voices (and those remaining voices of the aging Apollo program veterans who worked tirelessly to achieve these landmark human expeditions) remind us to never forget that our nation can accomplish any task or solve any problem whenever it sets out to do so in a united effort, and it was a free nation that first accomplished this extraordinary feat (“I want future generations to remember it was a free nation that did this,” Mission Commander Frank Borman once emphasized to this author at a Smithsonian reunion gathering).  The Apollo 8 crew wished they could have brought all the world’s leaders on their voyage to lunar distance to look back from that foreboding, deadened, blasted moonscape horizon to discover our incredibly beautiful, frail and living home planet Earth, suspended like a multicolored jewel -- a tiny grand oasis as Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell observed in the vastness of space -- which could be covered with their thumbs.  “Magnificent!” and “Stupendous!” were the first words of our intrepid American lunar explorers.

Jim Lovell reflected decades later, “We all better learn how to get along with each other on Earth…” his voice trailing off with the added perspective of the last surviving human who has made the mind-altering journey from the Earth to the Moon not once, but twice.  Another key lesson from the bold and daring American Apollo 8 triumph reminds us in our current time what an optimistic, forward-looking, deep-space faring nation -- which viewed the future with great anticipation and joy -- we once were. 

Now entering his tenth decade, Captain Lovell’s advice still beckons us fifty years after the passing of this epic event, “God has given mankind a stage upon which to perform.  How the play turns out is up to us.”

The author is a former National Air and Space Museum docent and research assistant to Dr. Farouk El-Baz at the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies from 1976-79.  He has maintained a 42-year affiliation with NASM, which he helped open in July 1976.

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