Reaching the moon - Gordon Caruana Dingli

Reaching the moon - Gordon Caruana Dingli

Earthrise. Photo taken by the Apollo 8 crew, December 1968. NASA.

Earthrise. Photo taken by the Apollo 8 crew, December 1968. NASA.

1968 was not a good year for the US. It was a year of violence. Senator Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. People were protesting against the Vietnam War and there were widespread riots. There was concern about the Prague Spring.

The space race was also not going well for NASA, as there were problems with the lunar module which was designed to take two astronauts to land on the moon. There were fears that the Russians might beat them to it.

The space race started in 1957 when the Russians sent the satellite Sputnik into orbit. In 1961, they launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit. Smarting from the ill-fated CIA-led invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, the young President John Kennedy was concerned that the Soviets were getting ahead of the Americans at the peak of the Cold War.

NASA had only just launched Alan Shepard on a 15-minute trip to space but Kennedy threw down a gauntlet to the Russians. On May 25, 1961, he addressed a joint session of congress:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

This was an audacious step and Kennedy would be proved right that it would be difficult and expensive. NASA’s first rockets were single manned Mercury capsules that researched the effects of space travel on astronauts. The two manned Gemini capsules explored the steps required to travel to the moon, such as docking two capsules to each other and space walks, among others.

In the meantime NASA embarked on the Apollo project where the Apollo spacecraft would be launched on the massive Saturn V booster rocket. Unfortunately the programme started with disaster when three astronauts were killed during a test while the rocket was at the launch pad.

The technological challenges were immense, they involved life support, communication and navigation besides the complex rocket firings

This delayed the programme, but it probably also saved it because the engineers reviewed the hardware and improved it, leading to the successful Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969.

However a moon landing seemed very far away in 1968. Apollo 7 was the first manned Apollo flight in October 1968. Three astronauts launched in the Command Service Module (CSM) aboard a Saturn 1B booster rocker.

The CSM was successfully flown but the part of the rocket that landed on the moon – the Lunar Module (LM) – was way behind schedule. The Saturn 1B was large enough to reach orbit but it could not launch a rocket to the moon.

Because of delays with the LM, Kennedy’s looming deadline and concerns that Russia might soon launch a rocket to the moon, NASA took a bold decision. Apollo 8 was originally scheduled to test flight the Saturn 5 booster and test the LM in earth orbit. 

NASA programme directors persuaded the NASA administrator James Webb that it would instead orbit the moon. This would be the first time that man would leave low earth orbit, leave Earth’s gravity and reach the moon 250,000 miles away from earth.

The technological challenges were immense, they involved life support, communication and navigation besides the complex rocket firings.

The crew of Apollo 8 were Commander Frank Borman who was an Air Force test pilot who had set a 14 day space flight record on Gemini 7. Jim Lovell had flown in space twice before and would later be well known as the Commander of Apollo 13. William Anders only flew on Apollo 8.

The night before launch the crew were joined for dinner by Charles Lindbergh, who was first to fly across the Atlantic in 1927.

They discussed how much fuel Lindbergh had used for his flight and they calculated that the Saturn V burnt 10 times this amount of fuel, every second.

Apollo 8 launched on December 21, 1968. The Saturn V performed flawlessly and reached orbit successfully. The crew checked out their rocket while orbiting the earth until NASA flight control informed the crew of Apollo 8 that they were “GO for TLI”. This is translunar injection or firing their rocket motor to reach enough speed to escape earth’s gravity to reach the moon.

On the way to the moon the crew fired their rockets to refine their trajectory and finally made a four-minute burn to slow the CSM to orbit the moon. This was a crucial burn. If it went wrong they might have flown off into deep space or crashed into the moon.

The rocket performed flawlessly and on December 24, 1968 they were orbiting the moon. They were the first to see and photograph earthrise, the earth rising over the moon’s horizon. This photograph would become one of the most reproduced ever.

On Christmas Eve 1968 the crew of Apollo 8 broadcast a live TV programme to earth. They described the moon and described what they felt. The crew had decided that such a momentous occasion would be best commemorated by reading the lines about the creation from the book of Genesis.

Borman closed the transmission: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good earth.”

The crew then burned the SPSS engine to build up speed to escape the moon’s gravity to return home. They splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on December 27.

Time magazine chose the Apollo 8 astronauts as Men of the Year but the importance of this flight was reflected in an anonymous letter sent to Borman:

“Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”

Gordon Caruana Dingli is a surgeon. He has followed manned spaceflight since the flight of Apollo 8.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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