|Man's First Trip Away from Spaceship Earth|
|Sunday, 23 December 2012 00:00 | Written by Rick Theis | Blog Entry|
It was just 44 years ago that humans first left the bonds of Earth and saw their home planet in its entirety. The 1968 space mission that accomplished this was NASA's Apollo 8. I was 12 years old and enthralled.
Apollo 8 was both an intentional springboard for the first moon landing the following year and an unintentional catalyst to the modern environmental movement, which was born with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, in 1962.
The space program and I shared our formative years; I took my first baby steps when it did.
I was barely a year old when the Soviet Union became the first country to put a satellite in orbit around the Earth. The craft was called Sputnik and the date was October 4, 1957.
This Russian space success startled America's leaders, who put together a crash program to catch up. Despite the USA's best efforts, however, Soviet Russia stayed ahead in the space race for some time.
The USSR's string of notable achievements over the following years included:
This being the Cold War era, the US was worried that the USSR's space dominance would give them the strategic advantage of being able to launch missiles from space. They also knew each Russian space success was a propaganda coup in the ideological war between communism and capitalism.
The US was successful in launching its first manned space mission less than a month after the Russians. This emboldened President Kennedy to declare just 20 days later that the US would, by the end of the decade, send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth. NASA's Apollo program was created to accomplish this task and Apollo 8 was its most crucial test.
I followed NASA's Apollo missions just as I'd followed the earlier NASA manned space exploration programs—called Mercury and Gemini. I was up early and glued to every moment of the continuous special coverage all three TV networks devoted to each US manned space launch. I'd grown up on science fiction films. To me this was science fiction come true.
Nationalist cheerleaders that they were, the networks barely mentioned the Russian achievements. Like many Americans, especially children, I erroneously thought that the first American in space, Alan Shepard, was the first man in space and that the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, was the first man to orbit the Earth. But, first or not, US space missions were full of drama—drama the networks played up to ensure ratings, but probably also to prepare their audiences for a potential grisly mishap, which both the Russian and US space programs eventually had.
1967 was a particularly bad year for space safety. In January the first Apollo crew, testing their ship on the launch pad, burned to death when an electrical spark ignited the pure oxygen filling their cabin. Then in April a Russian cosmonaut was killed when his ship crashed upon its return to Earth.
More recent generations of children and adults became familiar with the dangers of space travel, as well. Two horrific space shuttle accidents—the Challenger exploding just after lift-off in 1986 and the Columbia disintegrating during reentry in 2003—reminded us that, although space travel had started to seem routine, it could still be deadly.
The technology was much more primitive and the risks even higher in 1968 when the Apollo 8 crew became the first humans to leave the gravitational pull of the Earth and travel to another celestial body.
The crew had to travel through the Van Allen radiation belt encircling the Earth, the risks of which were unknown, although they had been calculated as acceptable based on tests by unmanned probes.
While the ship had early ground-based computers to guide it, one crew member had to be versed in navigation. Should communications with mission control be lost, he was responsible for manually charting their course—just as ancient mariners had—by using the stars.
Most daunting, the crew had to execute several tricky maneuvers with pinpoint accuracy in order to assure their safe return. These included:
Interestingly, it was necessary for both the LOI and the TEI to be performed on the far side of the moon—out of radio contact with the Earth. Talk about drama.
I, along with millions of others, watched breathlessly as the TV science reporters narrated the ship's disappearance behind the moon for their LOI. It would be 32 minutes until they would emerge from the other side and we would discover if the 4-minute and 13-second burn of their rockets had enabled them to achieve lunar orbit, or if perhaps they were doomed. If they slowed too much, it might mean a fatal collision with the moon; too little and they could be flung into deep space to drift to an equally devastating conclusion. They executed the maneuver perfectly.
Ironically, after taking three days to get to the moon, Apollo 8 circled it only 10 times over a period of about 20 hours. While there they hosted a Christmas Eve television broadcast that was the highest rated TV program up to that time. I knew exactly when the show would begin. Before it did, I gathered my family.
We watched and listened as the astronauts read from the Bible's Book of Genesis and described their feelings at seeing the moon so close up and their home planet so far away. They also pointed a television camera out their capsule window at the Earth so we, the Earthbound audience, could share their view.
It was astounding to see the Earth so small, so finite, and so far away. And that feeling only grew upon repeated viewings of the iconic color photos the crew took of the Earth from the moon, which soon showed up in magazines all around the world.
Man's first trip away from this Spaceship Earth could not help but affect the world's consciousness. It was a reminder that we are a small island in the immensity of space, an island that is perfectly suited to satisfying our needs. Not sterile and lifeless like the moon. Not hostile or habitable only with extreme difficulty, as would be the case with our planetary neighbors.
It became clear that this planet on which we took our birth, and which has sustained us from our emergence as a species, is our one, true mother—and that, at least for now, our long-term survival depends on our taking care of her.
This paradigm shift was instrumental in kick starting the fledgling environmental movement. It is no coincidence that Buckminster Fuller coined the term "Spaceship Earth" with the publication of his book, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, the following year, or that the first Earth Day occurred just 15 months later.
Forty decades on, the images of the Earth taken from the moon remain one of the strongest reminders to us to love, honor, respect and care for our one and only home, Mother Earth.
[If you have time, check out the detailed account of the Apollo 8 mission posted on Wikipedia. - Ed.]
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