Apollo 8 and the ‘grand oasis’ of Earth

Jenny Rowan

1968 was, by all accounts, an extremely turbulent year for the United States.

Once the blows started, they seemingly didn’t stop. The Tet Offensive; the seizing of the USS Pueblo; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F. Kennedy; the sinking of the USS Scorpion; clashes at the Democratic National Convention; civil rights struggles; the ever-escalating Vietnam War – the list goes on. As 1968 neared its end, the American public turned to NASA for even the smallest ray of hope to cling to. NASA’s answer was Apollo 8, the first ever flight to the Moon with humans on board. Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders left the launch pad at Cape Canaveral on 21 December 1968. The Saturn V rocket they were riding generated 7.6 million pounds of thrust – roughly the equivalent of 160 million horsepower, or 800,000 times the power of the average road car. If it were to explode, it would do so with the force of a small atomic bomb. Borman, Lovell and Anders launched knowing that there was a not-insignificant chance that they wouldn’t make it back. One estimate gave the mission a 33% chance of being a complete success, a 33% chance of it not achieving its objectives but still returning safely to Earth, and a 33% chance of it failing and the crew being lost in space. Before Apollo 8, the furthest any astronauts had been from the surface of Earth was 850 miles. If Earth were the size of a basketball this was the equivalent of having ventured only an inch off the surface. Borman, Lovell and Anders broke this record 282 times over during their three-day outward journey to the Moon. Out of their spacecraft’s windows, they were able to see Earth shrink to the size of a tennis ball. They were the first humans to be afforded such a view. Then, during their second orbit of the Moon, they saw a sight that came to define their mission. While taking photographs of the Moon’s surface, something caught Anders’s eye. He looked up and immediately exclaimed, “Oh my god, look at that picture over there!” Borman and Lovell joined him to peer out of their spacecraft’s windows. There was Earth, slowly rising above the lunar horizon.
Apollo 8 and the ‘grand oasis’ of Earth
Apollo 8 leaves the launch pad. Credit: NASA

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Apollo 8 and the ‘grand oasis’ of Earth
Anders’s famous ‘Earthrise’ photo. Credit: NASA

Although the mission plan called for photographs to be taken almost exclusively of the Moon, this was too good to miss.

Anders took a series of photos, among them a shot that would become one of the most famous of all time – ‘Earthrise’. The blue, green, white and brown of Earth was the only colour that the crew could see and it struck them just how fragile the planet looked, especially compared to the battered, pockmarked, meteor-bombarded surface of the Moon. During a series of live TV broadcasts, they tried to articulate the grandeur of what they were seeing. NASA had told them they could expect up to a billion people – a quarter of the world’s population – to tune in. More people would be listening to their voices than any other in history. During one of these broadcasts, Lovell said, “The vast loneliness up here of the Moon is awe-inspiring, and it makes you realise just what you have back there on Earth. The Earth from here is a grand oasis in the big vastness of space”. Upon their return home after a total mission duration of 6 days, 3 hours and 42 seconds, the crew were inundated with congratulatory telegrams. Borman received one from an anonymous sender which simply read, ‘You saved 1968’. Apollo 8 changed the way people viewed Earth, highlighting its fragility and delicacy and instilling in many people a need to do something to protect it. Anders’s photo was cited as one of the inspirations for the establishment of Earth Day in 1970, and Galen Rowell – one of the world’s most famous landscape photographers – even called it ‘the most influential environmental photograph ever taken’. The irony wasn’t lost on Anders. Apollo 8 had travelled 240,000 miles to the Moon and yet the most important thing that it discovered was Earth.
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Apollo 8 and the ‘grand oasis’ of Earth

Jenny Rowan

Jenny wrote for Edition 3, Key events that shaped history.
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