James P. Freeman: How America achieved a beautiful dream in a famously ugly year

"Earthrise'' photo, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders on Dec. 24, 1968.

"Earthrise'' photo, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders on Dec. 24, 1968.

As in most other years, there were wars, riots and assassinations in 1968.  But here I write about something noble that happened that year. Three daring men circled the moon.  In its way, Apollo 8  redeemed mankind and 1968.

The drama, discipline and derring-do of the mission is marvelously documented in two recent books:  Apollo 8, by Jeff Kluger, and Rocket Men, by Robert Kurson.

Project Apollo was conceived in the waning days of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, in 1960, when Americans feared that they were losing the “space race” to the Soviets/Russians during the Cold War. But full commitment had to wait for President John F. Kennedy's grander embrace of  the challenge, which he expressed at Rice University in September 1962. That speech  galvanized the push for space exploration in general and a manned lunar landing in particular into a national calling. It was a superb expression of early 1960s idealism.

Kennedy said, “The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.”

His celestial aspirations included “new hopes for knowledge and peace.” He also sought divine guidance: “As we set sail, we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

Halfway through the decade, as America was bleeding in the Vietnam War, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration  and many thousands of people (including many scientists and engineers in New England) were preparing to meet the challenge.

But by mid-1968, with only 18 months to achieve Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth by decade’s end, the objective was in jeopardy. No Apollo astronauts had flown in space since the Apollo 1 launch pad fire killed three astronauts in January 1967. And the lunar lander wouldn’t be ready for the flight until early 1969.

Fifty years ago this summer, NASA made a bold decision: Apollo 8 would circumnavigate the moon in December. Everyone understood the risks: unlike future missions, there was no lifeboat should catastrophic failure occur aboard the spacecraft.

The journey would test the nation’s best engineers in such areas as navigation, communication, computation and instrumentation. Not to mention rocketry. And nerves.

(Today’s iPhone has more processing power than the guidance computer on Apollo’s command module.)

Apollo 8 circled the Moon on Christmas Eve.

During a live global broadcast (the largest audience in history), the astronauts recited words worthy of the moment. As the gray surface of the Moon passed by, William Anders, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell each read from the Book of Genesis. “We close,” said Borman, “with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.”

Yet it was a simple but starkly beautiful photograph taken by Anders and published around the world on Dec. 30 that captured the legacy of what The New York Times described then as “the most fantastic voyage of all time.” Simply called “Earthrise,” it became an iconic image of 1968. And of all history.

Apollo 8 would mark several historical firsts: The first time that humans left the Earth’s gravitational field; the first time  that men flew on top of the massive Saturn V rocket (nearly 60 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty; the most powerful machine ever built, it produced 160 million horsepower); and the first time that the dark side of the moon was seen by the naked eye. (The flight would also mark the fastest that people had moved; the astronauts re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere at 35,000 feet per second.) The crew became, rightly, international heroes.

Kennedy’s audacity was rewarded in July 1969 with the triumph of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. That could not have happened without the success of Apollo 8.

The national investment in Project Apollo cost $25.4 billion by its conclusion, in 1973 --  $206 billion in 2016 dollars. (America will spend $310 billion in debt service just in 2018.) Apollo may have been the last federal public-works program that would invest so much, and with such risk, to rise to a challenge of world-historical proportions.

James P. Freeman is a New England-based columnist and a former banker.