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A Look Back at Apollo 8 and the Race to the Moon

Early this morning the American Space Shuttle program ended. When the Atlantis shuttle landed at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, it brought to a close 30 years of American innovation and leadership in space exploration. When I look back on the Space program, one particular initiative comes to mind -- the Apollo program. Apollo is known for its many success and failures, particularly Apollo 1 and Apollo 13 but it was Apollo 8 that instilled faith that the United States might actually reach the moon.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy had set the ambitious goal of landing on the moon within the decade. He wanted to beat the Soviets, and time was running out. The first manned flight to orbit the moon, Apollo 8 launched in 1968, and with it, NASA was taking a huge risk. Crewmembers Frank Borman, James Lovell and Bill Anders had trained for only four months prior to launch, instead of the typical year. Their journey to the moon was untested, the possibility of failure high, but it was the only hope of reaching Kennedy's goal on time. Had the flight failed or ended in tragedy, it would have altered the entire history of the U.S. Space Program.

On the website for the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE film Race to the Moon you can read interviews with the crewmembers, see awe-inspiring photographs and hear audio recordings made by the crew. The immense number of technological advances accomplished by the mission staff directly impacted the medical, communications and computing fields around the world. I was surprised to learn Apollo 8 advanced the technology to remotely monitor patients' vital signs from a hospital nurse's station.

One of the most significant images that came from the Apollo 8 mission is the Earthrise photo. It was the first time people had seen images of the entire planet Earth.  In the film Earth Days, crewmember Jim Lovell marvels: "I realized at that time just how insignificant we are in the universe." The photo taken by Bill Anders shows Earth seemingly rising from the Moon's horizon, and it would become the iconic image of the environmental movement. This image continues to inspire us all to look beyond borders at the world as a whole.

In a decade wrought with tragedy and division, the success of Apollo 8 brought together the American people with a renewed pride in their nation. The public support for the Space Shuttle program allowed the U.S. to continue exploring space and ultimately changed the way the world thinks about the universe. The end of this chapter in American history certainly will not mean the end of America's efforts to reach beyond our Earthly boundaries. 



Meredith Gabrilska is a history major at Northeastern University and is currently an Intern at AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

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