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What’s in the Sky: December

The Apollo 8 Mission to the Moon occurred 50 years ago this month  — the first time humans left Earth orbit. This photo is of the Earthrise from that mission.

The Apollo 8 Mission to the Moon occurred 50 years ago this month — the first time humans left Earth orbit. This photo is of the Earthrise from that mission.

I am taking a break this month from a “What’s in the sky” report to talk about a bit of history. We have a landmark this month: 50 years ago, humans left the vicinity of Earth for the first time, traveling to our natural satellite, the Moon.

The December 1968 mission was Apollo 8, the second manned flight of the Apollo program that would land astronauts on the Moon the next year. Apollo 8 was significant in that it was the first time we left low Earth orbit. At that time, we had become accustomed to having astronauts circle the Earth, as part of the initial Mercury program, and the following Gemini program. The Mercury program put the first Americans in space, and the Gemini program featured the first American Space Walk and the first docking of capsules in Earth orbit. But Apollo 8 brought a new horizon, with astronauts leaving the relative nearness and safety of Earth orbit.

Apollo 8 carried 3 astronauts, Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders. The mission lifted off on Dec. 21, 1968, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Saturn V rocket carried only the Command Module, and did not have a Lunar Module, the vehicle later used to land on the Moon’s surface. The Lunar module was not yet ready for flight. It took the mission 68 hours to reach the Moon. They orbited the Moon ten times during the mission.

Apollo 8 was not only the first mission to leave Earth orbit, but it also was the first time humans had seen the far side of the Moon. Our Moon’s rotation is locked in with its orbit, so we always see the same side. Borman, Lovell, and Anders thus were the first humans to experience the Moon’s far side.

Apollo 8 orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve. The Astronauts made a live television broadcast, showing the Earth rising above the gray surface of the Moon. The Astronauts recited verses from Genesis. It was an event I will always remember.

The television view was black-and-white and quite grainy. But the Astronauts also took some color pictures from the Spacecraft during their mission, to be processed upon return to Earth. No digital photos in those days! The astronauts were particularly stunned when, as they orbited the Moon, the blue Earth rose on the horizon. They scrambled to get pictures. One photo, taken by Astronaut Anders, became one of the 100 most influential photographs of the 20th Century, per Life Magazine. You have almost certainly seen the photo, called “Earthrise”.

“Earthrise” was particularly iconic, as it presented a new perspective of our Earth to many people. The world on which we all live appeared as a little blue oasis, contrasting with the gray of the Moon’s surface, and the stark emptiness of space. From afar, we did not see different nations, peoples, and conflicts. We saw one little blue planet, with its thin atmosphere, harboring all humans and all life. That perspective helped serve as an impetus to the first Earth Day in 1970 – it helped show us how important it was to protect and value the planet on which we all live.

I like to call the photo “Serendipity.” Serendipity is an unexpected, positive outcome of an event or happening. With Apollo 8, we left Earth to learn more about our Moon. But we also developed a better appreciation of our own home, a new perspective made possible by simply viewing Earth from afar.

I am sure some of you reading this can recall Apollo 8 and the other Apollo missions. For those of you too young, I can only say it is hard to describe how enthralling it was, both the scientific discovery and the emotion it brought to many.

Next year we’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Moon Landing. I’ll have a few words to say about that too.

In the meantime, Happy Holidays and clear skies.


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