40 years since Apollo 8. Hard to believe it. I can still remember being entranced by the photographs from the mission, I can even remember how elated I was when my grandfather gave me a first day cover with the stamp of the photograph. Anders, Borman and Lovell were writ large into my brain long before the astronauts of Apollo 11.
You see, Apollo 8 was the first manned mission to see the dark side of the moon; in order to do that, it became the first to leave the earth’s gravity, the first to enter the moon’s gravity, all this done at a time when NASA was still learning about manned moon missions. As a boy of 11, I thought it was incredibly brave of the trio to pioneer those things, and found the whole mission enthralling.
Without them, there couldn’t have been an Apollo 11. Someone had to pave the way. See what it felt like to go through the Van Allen belts for the first time. See how good the telemetry was when contact was reacquired after going round the dark side of the moon.
Without the experience gained in Apollo 8, Lovell may have found the challenges of Apollo 13 a lot harder; instead, Jim Lovell, one of the most experienced astronauts ever, was on hand to help deal with one of the mst unusual crises ever. Incidentally, as a result, Jim holds the unusual record of having been to the moon twice without getting off and setting foot there.
History may look at Apollo 11 as the mission to note, or for that matter Gagarin. But for a young boy in Calcutta, the idea of someone leaving the earth’s gravitational field for the first time, of passing through the Here Be Dragons worlds of the Van Allen radiation belts for the first time, of being captured by another body’s gravitational attraction, of doing all that and coming back home safe and sound, every one of these ideas represented a pioneering scientific spirit that lit something within him.
And that is why this photograph still sends shivers down my spine.
A coda. Noticed a tweet from @jerrymichalski retweeting @mitchkapor indicating the existence of this video clip, which also includes photographs of a far more recent mission.