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Good Night, Good Luck, and a Merry Christmas

December 24, 2013



Sometimes, in the “strum und drang” of historical experience, an event serves to raise a thing above its shabby origins. Such an event happened 45 years ago today.

The “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union was born of a strange synthesis of aspirational visions and base military considerations. Even before humans had conceived what the Moon was, it had been the stuff of story and religion. The Moon, whose full light was a boon for hunters and harvesting farmers, and smugglers, also lighted the way for lovers to meet when they could, and when they could not, to look skyward, dreaming that the other was looking upon the same Moon at the same time.

The story of lunar exploration is in a similar vein. Both the Soviet and the US space programs were literally built on the foundations of Nazism- the first rockets each side used were ones built by slave labor and captured in the closing days of World War II; the engineering and science teams were Germans who associations with the Nazi regime were explained away and conveniently forgotten.

The Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s, feted as a great scientific enterprise in both Soviet and US propaganda was equally an obsession for the respective military forces which were keen to gain the “high ground” of space. There was also the question of national prestige, of being the first to launch a satellite, to orbit the Earth, to send probes to other planet, to reach the Moon.

That was how, in 1968, the crew of Apollo 8- (Frank Borman, James Lovell, William Anders) found themselves the first humans to leave Earth orbit and venture towards the Moon; the reasons they were there had more to do with the realpolitik of the Cold War than the quest for scientific exploration. It was on the flight that they become the first humans to directly see the Earth rise above the Moon’s surface. And more importantly, they were able to share that view with those on Earth.

NASA has released a video recreation of the moments leading up to the iconic Earthrise photo . What is striking about the recreation (aside from the fact that it can be recreated at all) and the audio component is how workman like it all is. It is hardly surprising- like all scientists, like all explorers, they were there to do a job. Taking in the view was not part of the mission. Then, serendipity stepped in and quiet by accident, the rising Earth came into view. What is more important to us, is that serendipity allowed that a camera (and color film) be there to record the event. The wonder of it is evident in the voices of the astronauts, even as they continue with their work.

Later that day, Borman, Lovell, and Ander sent a live televised broadcast, during which they gave their impressions what they saw, and sent back a Christmas message, part of which was the reading from Genesis about the creation of the Earth.

Not long after, humans would walk on the Moon. In a few years, the wheels of realpolitik would turn and space exploration would no longer be deemed so important. Lunar exploration would be scrapped. Humans have not been there in over 40 years.

The world has changed considerably in the 45 years since Apollo 8. The United States no longer sends astronauts into space, but instead relies on others to get them into orbit. The computer technology that the NASA and the US military shepherded into being is so much a part of daily life that a whole generation of silicon libertarians has emerged who believes they invented it all, suis generis. China and India- no economic powers in 1968- build and service the information technology that did not exist in 1968; each have their own space programs and have sent probes to the Moon. As of old, science and exploration is tightly intertwined with questions of national prestige and earthly power; there is a short distance between the South China Sea and the Mare Imbrium.

One thing remains the same today as in 1968, and which was part of the Genesis message sent back by Apollo 8, is that the Earth is a unique and fragile place. In all the exploration done of other worlds in the last 45 years, there have been fascinating hints that other life may be out there, but so far we are it. So far, there is no evidence of other life of any sort, let alone minds that reflect and ponder upon their being.


Take a moment tomorrow to look out at the last quarter Moon and wonder, ever wonder. Think about those elsewhere on this world who are also looking upon the same Moon and also wondering. Take a moment on this Christmas Day, while you’re drinking down your wine, to recall the words from Apollo 8, far out in space, far away in time, and consider what they mean.

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