Apollo 8 and Inspiration Mars: Context Matters

AS08-earthrise

The Earth as seen from the Moon by the crew of Apollo 8. Credit: NASA

We have an amazing ability to selectively read history, and it’s something that happens a lot with the Space Race. We see the inspirational effects of bold missions to the Moon and use them as a benchmark for future exploration. But too often these bold missions are taken out of context. Most recently the Inspiration Mars Foundation announced in a press conference its plan to send a married couple on a free-return trajectory around Mars in 2018, citing the mission as a sort of Apollo 8 for a new generation. It struck me that not one person spoke to the motivation behind Apollo 8; the refrain was that it’s the outcome that matters in this case, an influx of students interested in the sciences and a nation wide love-in about America’s “can-do” spirit.

But context does matter. If we’re going to point to history as our guide for the future it’s important to understand where these big decisions came from and equally important to understand the context in which, in the case of spaceflight, a certain mission was so inspirational. We need history in context to have a clear understanding of where we were, where we are, and how we can possibly move forward. I’ve put Apollo 8, history’s inspirational first manned mission to the Moon, in context in my latest article for Al Jazeera.

Jack Schmitt’s Christmas Poem

Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt (upside down) during Apollo 17's 1972 mission. Credit: NASA

Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt (upside down) during Apollo 17’s 1972 mission. Credit: NASA

NASA didn’t give its Apollo astronauts too much free time during missions. Crews had to go through multi-stage checklists before any manoeuvre and had experiments to run during the three day transits to and from the Moon. Everything, down to meal times and sleep periods, was scheduled. But as Apollo 17’s Lunar Module Pilot Jack Schmitt found out, you can’t schedule poetic inspiration. Even when you’re on the Moon.  [Read more…]

Taking Gemini to the Moon

Apollo 8 is usually synonymous with Christmas — at least among spaceflight enthusiasts. In 1968, NASA made the daring decision to send Apollo 8 into lunar orbit in the name of getting American men to the moon ahead of the Soviet Union. On Christmas eve, the crew – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders – famously read from the book of Genesis. (Left, an artist’s concept of Apollo 8 firing its main engine to return to Earth.)

Sent with only a Command and Service module, the mission is often considered one of NASA’s greatest risks of the space race. But there were other equally audacious lunar missions in the planning stages long before NASA had a viable mission with Apollo 8. As early as 1961, the agency considered sending men to the moon, and even landing them on the surface, with a Gemini spacecraft. [Read more…]

The Lost Art of the Saturn V

I’ve previously mentioned that once the Shuttle program ends this year, there will be no way for NASA to launch manned missions. It simply doesn’t have the necessary rockets to launch such a heavy payload into orbit, let alone a rocket capable of launching a heavy payload to another planet. A good example is the case of Mars. The Delta II hit its payload limit with the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and that’s with each rover launched separately. The upcoming Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity is significantly larger and will use an Atlas family launch vehicle. For NASA’s Martian exploration plan to progress, as well as for the continuation of manned spaceflight, the organization needs a heavy lifting vehicle. (Pictured, the first Saturn V to launch: Apollo 4, 1967.)

But NASA doesn’t necessarily need a new launch vehicle. The organization had the means to launch a manned mission to Mars in the 1960s using only technology of the day. The whole mission, however, depended on the titanic Saturn V rocket, a technology that is lost to the current generation. [Read more…]

Genesis of a Lunar Christmas

I am not generally one to commemorate a holiday with a themed post. Nevertheless, I thought it would be an appropriate occasion to discuss the only Apollo mission to fly on Christmas – the 1968 lunar orbital mission of Apollo 8. (Left: the first view of the Earth taken by Apollo 8 on its way to the moon. 1968.)

I’ve mentioned before that the sheer speed at which NASA accomplished the steps leading to and culminating in a lunar landing is one of the fascinating aspects that led me to study the era in the first place. The methods of choosing, launching, and bringing home the astronauts were all determined based on what could be done fastest and easiest, with the goal of staying one step ahead of the Soviets in the background.

The first flight to the moon was no different. Apollo 8’s lunar orbital flight was not in the initial Apollo schedule. It was undertaken, like so many aspects of the early space program, as a crash response to an immediate need. The story of its origin is as interesting as the flight itself. [Read more…]