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.