December 17, 2018

50 years ago, Apollo 8 mission kicked Space Race into full speed

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Suspended in darkness and surrounded by emptiness floats an oasis, vibrant with color.

Fifty years ago, Apollo 8 astronauts – the first ever to orbit the moon – captured the iconic “Earthrise” photo, exposing in greater detail than ever the vastness of space and the fragility of our planet, while also bolstering the United States’ role as a competitor in the Space Race with the Soviet Union.

“With a powerful cultural significance, Apollo 8 sent back a famous photograph of the earth from lunar orbit, cementing the popular image of a fragile planet in living color,” said Michael Smith, a professor of history at Purdue University who specializes in Soviet spaceflight history. “America's lunar orbiter had sent back a similar photo in 1966, but there was nothing like one taken by an actual crew, enhanced by their Christmas Eve messages of goodwill on December 24, 1968.  By that poignant moment, Americans had won a big part of the race to the moon.”

Originally planned as a scheduled test of the Command and Lunar modules in earth orbit, in the early fall of 1968, NASA administrators decided to accelerate Apollo 8 as a piloted circumlunar mission of the Command module alone, Smith said.

“NASA was partially motivated by concerns that the Soviets – buoyed by their own successes with the piloted Soiuz craft in earth orbit, and their unpiloted Zond spacecraft to lunar orbit – might get there first,” he said.

Months later, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would become the first humans to walk on the moon, largely overshadowing the giant leaps made during the Apollo 8 mission, Smith said.

“Apollo 8 was one of the signal ‘giant leaps’ of the Apollo program, much like the earlier successful test launches of the Saturn booster, and the coming mission of Apollo 11 to land on the moon,” Smith said. “It was the first piloted spacecraft to actually leave earth orbit, on a deep space mission to another planetary body.” 

Writer: Joseph Paul, 765-494-9541, paul102@purdue.edu  

Source: Michael Smith, 765-496-2420, mgsmith@purdue.edu

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