Where no one had gone before

I recently watched and enjoyed For All Mankind on Apple TV. The series presents an alternate history in which Soviet cosmonauts landed on the moon before American astronauts. The first season is excellent; the second is a mixed bag, but at times excellent.

The series got me curious about the actual history of the space program, so I picked up Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon by Jeffrey Kluger (2017).

Though the Apollo 8 mission is the centerpiece of the book, Kluger also recounts the history of the U.S. space program leading up to the first lunar flight, and he spends time getting to know Apollo 8’s crew: Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders. Kluger does so in a clear, narrative form, even throwing in some dialogue to bring the scenes to life.

The book goes into gritty detail about how challenging and claustrophobic space travel can be—the constant danger, the cramped quarters, the stale air, the utter lack of privacy, and the absence of proper restroom facilities and the resulting indignities. At first glance, biological necessities do suck much of the romance out of exploration, but such details help illustrate what a tremendous, aspirational feat this whole mission was, with an abundance of courage, effort, intelligence, ingenuity, humility, and competence needed to make this voyage happen.

NASA achieved something unprecedented by sending three people far enough into space to view the entire Earth as a single, whole entity. Previous astronauts and cosmonauts had seen the Earth from space, but never so completely.

Kluger writes, “Now, however, Borman, Lovell, and Anders could see the planet floating alone, unsupported, in space. The Earth was no longer the soil beneath their feet or the horizon below their spacecraft. It was an almost complete disk of light suspended in front of them, a delicate Christmas tree ornament made of swirls of blue and white glass. It looked impossibly beautiful—and impossibly breakable.”

The mission occurred in the context of the Cold War, and competition between the United States and Soviet Union provided a motivating factor. But it seems to have quickly become about much more than trying to one-up a rival power.

Ultimately, Apollo 8 became an achievement for humanity, one that tapped into a shared thirst for exploration and discovery. The 1968 Christmas Eve broadcast from the moon’s orbit brought together the then-largest audience to view a single broadcast. Never had so few been heard by so many. For that matter, never had anyone been heard by so many. Interest in this mission united people from varying countries, backgrounds, and beliefs. Men were flying around the moon, and it was amazing.

The crew chose to read a Bible passage during the broadcast, one from Genesis. I appreciate the choice, not so much for the religious context, but just the idea of reading an ancient text while doing something that had never been done before. When the Genesis story was first written down, the idea of sending people into the heavens was nothing but a distant fantasy, utterly unobtainable.

But what was once impossible is now part of history.

After the flight, Borman predicted that scientists would someday station themselves on the moon, like they do in Antarctica. “I’m convinced it is no longer whether we’ll do these things, it’s a question of how long it will take and how much we’ll spend,” he said. “Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit, and I hope we will never forget that.”

Outside of fictional TV shows, that moon base clearly hasn’t come to pass … so far.

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