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The first men around the moon

This is Earthrise! The distant blue Earth is seen above the Moon's limb.

This is Earthrise! The distant blue Earth is seen above the Moon's limb.   | Photo Credit: NASA

You definitely know about the first men who went to the moon. But do you know who were the first men to go around the moon? The credit for that goes to Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, the three-man crew of the mission. A.S.Ganesh takes you through the Apollo 8 mission, 50 years after humans went around the moon for the first time...

The year 1968 was terrible for the U.S. in more ways than one. Apart from the tension faced with North Korea, Vietnam and the Soviet Union, there were the assassinations of activist Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Bobby Kennedy. And yet, a year that was shaped by bloodshed is now best remembered for the Apollo 8 mission – a crewed mission around the moon in the last days of the year.

Ever since cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, the race was on between the U.S. and the Soviet Union as to who will first manage a manned moon landing. The Apollo program, in fact, was established in 1961 following President John F. Kennedy’s call to achieve the same by the end of the decade.

A huge risk

The Apollo 8 mission, however, was initially slated to test equipment in low Earth orbit and NASA had no intentions to fly it to the moon. Incorrect information from the intelligence web – stating that the Soviets were planning their own manned missions to the moon – forced NASA to accelerate the Apollo program and designate Apollo 8 for a journey to the moon.

The decision was taken in August, giving the three-man crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, the ground team and an estimated 4,00,000 people who had a hand in the lunar missions, about four months to decide how they were going to go about it.

It was a dicey decision as the Saturn V rocket, the only one capable of taking humans to the moon, had undergone only two test flights and had numerous issues. Add to it the fact that the crew of Apollo 1 had been burned to death during a ground test in 1967 owing to a launchpad fire, and it seemed that all the ingredients and a recipe for disaster were in place.

Escapes Earth’s gravity

As it happened, the six-day mission blasted off into space on December 21 with Borman, Lovell and Anders on board. The Saturn V launch rocket performed perfectly, getting the spacecraft safely into an orbit around the Earth. Once Lovell keyed in the necessary commands, the Apollo 8 began its three-day journey towards the moon, thereby becoming the first manned vehicle to escape the influence of Earth’s gravity.

The Apollo 8 reached its destination on December 24 and those on board eased it into a lunar orbit soon enough. This despite the fact that the engine firing to put the spacecraft in the right spot happened on the far side of the moon, when Apollo 8 was out of contact with the Earth.

After three of the 10 orbits around the moon during which the astronauts filmed and photographed craters and mountains on the moon, Borman rolled the craft away from the moon for the first time, pointing the windows towards the horizon to get a navigational fix.

Behold, the Earthrise!

It was thus during the fourth orbit that the astronauts first spotted the Earth rising from behind the moon, giving the world the now celebrated photograph, Earthrise. It was the first time humans recorded their home planet from another celestial body as the three astronauts saw the oasis that was Earth cradled in the vast black nothingness of space. The iconic image has highlighted the fragility and vulnerability facing our planet Earth and is widely credited in getting the environmental movement up and running.

By December 25, almost everyone on Earth was engrossed with Apollo 8. An estimated audience of 1 billion – one out of every three people alive – tuned into the feed when the astronauts pointed their TV camera to the lunar surface during their eighth orbit.

The only thing that remained of the mission was the trip back home. The mission controllers on Earth waited anxiously as the crew started the engine while in the far side of the moon, relieved only when voice communication was re-established. “Please be informed, there is a Santa Claus,” Lovell called out as they re-emerged from behind the moon.

The Apollo 8 splashed down in the Pacific on December 27, bringing an end to a six-day voyage that had turned human history. Seven months later, human beings set foot on the moon for the first time.


Who clicked Earthrise?

The Earthrise has been recognised as one of the best images in human history as it has not only proved influential as an environmental image, but has also been one of the most reproduced ever. It hasn’t been without its fair share of controversies, however, starting from who clicked the picture in the first place.

For the first two decades, it was believed that it was Borman who had taken the photograph, an account that was validated based on a number of evidences that were available.

A thorough investigation, including reconstruction of the scene as it took place, was then used to prove that the image was in fact taken by Anders.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 1:16:40 AM |

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