Boldly going where no man has gone before


Boldly going where no man has gone before

Almost fifty years since we first slipped Earth's terrestrial constraints and saw our planet from space, Christopher Potter has taken on the history of the space race in The Earth Gazers. Even today only 24 people have had that experience, but we do have photographs, such as Earthrise and The Blue Marble, which reveal to us the beauty and fragility of our planet. 

Read on for the story of how three men captured the most iconic images of the planet we call home.

On 21 December 1968, at around 10.30am Eastern Standard Time, three men saw what no human being had ever seen before, the Earth as a sphere in space. Only 24 human beings have seen the Earth from the outside: the Apollo astronauts who went on the nine manned missions to the moon that took place between 1968 and 1972.

On 20 December 1968, the day before the launch of Apollo 8, the first of the manned missions, Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne were given a tour of Cape Kennedy, a ‘city’ of 30 launch towers built in the heart of a nature reserve. They were shown around the Flight Crew Training Building where the astronauts practised flight and landing manoeuvres in Apollo and Lunar Module simulators. They walked through the Vehicle Assembly Room where, like some exceptionally complex puzzle, the rockets were assembled out of parts that had been made elsewhere by thousands of companies all across America. It was then the largest building in the world: ‘The lower bay alone is the size of the United Nations Building,’ their guide informed them. They were taken, too, on a tour of what felt like a city within a city, a region of Kennedy where the many NASA administrators, scientists, engineers and technicians were making the final preparations for tomorrow’s launch. As they moved between one region of the vast launch site and another, dotted here and there they saw various vintage rockets repainted to preserve them against the salt air. Anne wrote later that already these post-Second World War rockets looked as dated as Civil War cannon come upon in a country graveyard.

With a sense of relief they arrived at the astronauts’ quarters, the last stop on the tour. A notice on the door warned anyone with a cold, or symptoms of a cold, not to pass beyond that point. On the other side of the door was a small reception room decorated with an artificial Christmas tree. A real one would have been a fire risk, they were told. In an adjoining room Charles and Anne surprised a group of astronauts and geologists bent over celestial maps. After some animated talk, they were asked if they would stay to lunch.

On the walls of the otherwise unornamented, bleak room that served as a dining room was a coloured photograph of a Greek temple, and a view of the White House showing the Washington Monument. They were about fifteen to lunch, seated around a single rectangular table; among the party was the crew of Apollo 8, whose last lunch this would be before the launch.

During lunch Charles told the astronauts about his youthful experiences of wing-walking. They told him about their experiences of walking in space. Charles wondered how much fuel the rocket would burn on takeoff. Someone said around 20 tons in the first second. Ten times the amount of fuel, Lindbergh said, that had taken The Spirit of St Louis all the way from New York to Paris in 1927. He told them about a conversation he had had with the plane’s designer, Donald Hall, about the size of the fuel tanks. Hall had said to him, ‘Say, how far is it to Paris ?’ And Lindbergh had realized that he didn’t know for sure. He thought they could get a good estimate of the planned route by scaling off a globe. ‘Do you know where there is one ?’ he asked. ‘At the public library,’ Hall said. ‘It only takes a few minutes to drive there. My car’s right outside.’ At the library Lindbergh rummaged in his pockets and found a piece of white grocery string. He placed one end on New York, ran the string up the coast to Newfoundland, from where he would begin his Atlantic crossing, and across to Paris. He pulled the string tight and measured it: 3,600 miles, they calculated. The estimate would turn out to be surprisingly accurate.

Charles told his attentive audience about how, later in that same year of the first solo crossing of the Atlantic, he met Robert Goddard, America’s first – and at the time only – rocket engineer. Goddard believed, when few others had, that a rocket might one day take human beings to the moon. Goddard told him during their first conversation that though he thought it was possible to send men to the moon, he worried that the venture might prove to be too expensive. It might cost as much as a million dollars, he said.

‘Think,’ one of the Apollo 8 astronauts at the table said, ‘it’s hard to believe, this time tomorrow we’ll be on our way to the moon.’ There was something boyish about these young men, Anne later wrote. She was reminded perhaps of her young husband when she first met him, soon after his triumphal tour of every American state. He was in his mid-twenties and she 21, but both childlike; both, too, intelligent and brave. Now, they had grown up into messy, complex adult lives.

After a long day, Charles suggested that he and Anne go and look at the Apollo rocket on its launch pad: the tallest, heaviest and most powerful rocket ever built – the masterpiece of the German–American engineer Wernher von Braun. It was midnight and they would need to be up at 4.30am for the launch, but she readily agreed.

Anne thought that distance and night had simplified the rocket ‘into the sheer pure shape of flight, into beauty’. She was reminded of Henry Adams’ reaction when the historian had first walked into the ‘great hall of dynamos’ at the Great Exposition of 1900. He had stood before the giant machine half in awe and half repelled; so shaken that he had begun to pray to this ‘silent and infinite force’. Here at Cape Kennedy, Anne acknowledged the presence of another such ‘dynamo’.

A few hours before takeoff, a helicopter flew around the site in an attempt to persuade as many birds as possible temporarily to leave the area; the Cape was on their migratory route. Around the launch sites, 50,000 acres had been preserved as a wildlife sanctuary.

The three Apollo 8 astronauts were in their eyrie capsule. Now, with only moments to go before takeoff, the nearest other human being was at least 3 miles away.

With the gaze of hundreds of thousands of spectators fixed on it, the rocket began to rise slowly: ‘as in a dream,’ Anne wrote, ‘so slowly it seemed to hang suspended on the cloud of fire and smoke’. A number of recalcitrant birds took flight. Instinctively, Anne turned to watch them, only to find that when she turned back the rocket had left the launch tower. Nearly 40 years after Goddard and Lindbergh had first met, and 23 years after Goddard’s death, the world’s first manned journey to the moon had begun. Three men were being transported to the moon on top of a multistage liquid-fuelled rocket just as Goddard had predicted.

On Christmas Eve 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 saw the Earth rise over the horizon of the moon, and took photographs to bring back for the rest of us. We, stuck here on our home planet, know intellectually that the Earth is a sphere falling through space, but to know it is one thing, to see it – even in a photograph – is something else. Later that same day, during their final broadcast to Earth, each member of the Apollo crew read in turn from the Book of Genesis. The next day, Christmas Day, the New York Times reported that here in the manned missions to the moon was an opportunity to bring the sacred and secular together into some new kind of alliance suitable to the modern age.

The photographs that came back from the Apollo missions immediately catalyzed the rapid growth of what were then nascent fields of ecology and environmentalism. The Genesis reading, however, had been quickly protested by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists, and at the time the country’s most powerful defender of the separation of church and state. Because of her objections, future Apollo astronauts were warned against making any kind of religious observance from space. As a result of O’Hair’s challenge, familiar battle lines would be drawn up between fundamentalists on both sides of the religious divide. Was the opportunity to acknowledge the numinous in a secular way lost, or has the battle, even now, hardly yet begun ?

The Earth Gazers is available now in hardback and ebook