Around 10 pm last night, Christmas Eve, our dark bedroom grew noticeably brighter. From behind the trees in the east, a full moon gazed down from its perch in the bleachers, a quarter million miles away. My eyes had already adjusted to the dark, and the moon seemed impossibly bright. I stared at it for a long time, trying to make out the mountains and maria. It occurred to me that fifty years ago, three voyagers from earth were orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve.
Back in April, I read Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made the First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson. I’ve read just about every book on the Apollo missions that exists, but this one was new, and I decided to give it a go, and I’m glad I did because I really enjoyed it. Nothing fills me with a sense of wonder as much as the idea that we have actually visited the moon.
Many of NASA’s most famous astronauts have passed away. None of the Original Seven are alive today. Neil Armstrong is gone. 2017 saw the passing of Dick Gordon, and in 2018 we lost Al Bean so gone is the entire crew of Apollo 12–my personal favorite. As of this writing, however, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders–the crew of Apollo 8–are all still alive. I imagine all of them gazing up at the moon last night, somewhat in awe of the fact that half a century ago, they were there making ten orbits around the moon. Last night, as I looked up at the moon that brightened our room, I tried to imagine what the earth would look like from there tonight.
1968 was a tumultuous year. In his book, Kurson writes about an anonymous telegram sent to the crew of Apollo 8 which purportedly read, “You saved 1968.” I wonder if NASA hadn’t given up on the moon, if Apollo 18, 19 and 20 hadn’t been canceled, if we continued to have stretch goals in science and engineering, how would things be different today? 2018 has also been a tumultuous year, but humans haven’t been to the moon since 1972; the space shuttle hasn’t flown since 2011; and there doesn’t appear to be anything on the horizon on the scale of Apollo.
Fifty years after Apollo 8, I am desperate for something hopeful, something like returning to the moon, even if it is just to show that we can still do it. I’d love to wake up on Christmas morning to the news that three humans are once again in orbit around the moon. If telegrams still existed, I’d be the one to send: YOU SAVED 2018.