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.

The Psychological Impact of Sputnik

A technician with Sputnik in 1957. Credit: NASA

Today marks 55 years since the Soviet Union launched history first artificial satellite, Sputnik. It was, by all accounts, an innocuous satellite; it weighed about 184-pounds and it beeped. It wasn’t broadcasting secret messages or pinpointing the locations of major U.S. cities. But it was big, which meant the Soviets had a big rocket to launch it. No one could deny the implications of the Soviets’ having big rockets.

Sputnik came on the heels of a successful Soviet ICBM test in August of 1957 and was followed into orbit by the 1,120 pound Sputnik 2. Also in November, the presidential-ordered “Gaither Report” was released and warned that the Soviets might have substantial ICBM capabilities. All of these individual events, compounded with the Cold War mentality, created panic among Americans. Read more about the psychological impact of Sputnik on Discovery News, and how the story of Sputnik broke in the Soviet Union and America on Motherboard.

Plan X; or, Planning White’s Small Step

The Gemini 4 crew in training, White on the left and McDivitt on the Right. Photo credit: NASA

In 1964, the launch schedule for the Gemini program was set and it was tight. Missions with new objectives would launch every eight to ten weeks taking NASA a step closer to the Moon each time. But hardware setbacks and some surprising feats by Soviet cosmonauts took a toll on the schedule. In the first half of 1965, NASA developed a plan that would see Gemini match and begin to overtake the Soviet Union in space. It was done largely in secret and known internally as Plan X.  [Read more...]