- NASA’s Apollo 8 mission was the first lunar voyage with a human-crewed spacecraft.
- The moon mission launched on December 21, 1968, and captured the famous “Earthrise” photo exactly 50 years ago – on Christmas Eve of 1968.
- Astronaut Jim Lovell was flew on Apollo 8 and Apollo 13. He was one of the first three people ever to see Earth rise over the horizon of the moon.
- Seeing our blue-marble planet from deep space forever changed Lovell, who realised “you go to heaven when you’re born.”
Apollo 8, the first crewed mission to the moon, launched 50 years ago. Now once again, planet Earth has a case of moon fever.
NASA recently announced that it’s working with private companies to buy space on their commercial lunar landers. It’s good timing, because a majority of Americans think returning to the moon should be a priority for the space agency.
Other nations are also planning moon missions. On January 3, China may become the first nation ever to gently land a spacecraft on the moon’s far side with its Chang’e-4 mission. The first corporate moon mission is imminent as well, with an Israeli nonprofit called SpaceIL hoping to launch a probe there in mid-February.
Farther down the line, SpaceX plans to send a Japanese billionaire (and a crew of artists) around the moon in 2023 with a gigantic new spacecraft called the Big Falcon Rocket. Even Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who founded the aerospace company Blue Origin, has big lunar-exploration intentions.
Prior to this buzz of lunar activity, we called up Jim Lovell, a 90-year-old retired NASA astronaut who visited the moon twice during the Apollo program. Though he never landed on the moon, Lovell flew on the Apollo 8 mission and again on Apollo 13, which required a storied effort to rescue the crew from disaster.
During a wide-ranging interview in March 2017, we asked Lovell if there was a moment on Apollo 8 that he wished he spoke more about. His response floored us.
But first, a little setup.
Earth was rife with problems when Apollo 8 launched
Apollo 8 lifted off aboard a gigantic Saturn V rocket on December 21, 1968.
Lovell jokingly called that point in history “a hilarious time” for America and the rest of the planet.
“There was the Vietnam War going on, it was not a popular war, especially with the younger people,” Lovell told Business Insider. “There were riots, there were two assassinations of prominent people during that period, and so things were looking kind of bad in this country.”
At the end of the year, he said, NASA was working toward its commitment, made in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, to send people to the moon before the end of the decade.
“And it happened. So in the last few weeks or days of 1968, we accomplished something that we set out to do that was favourable and approved by just about every body in this country,” Lovell said.
“You have to remember we brought back a picture of the Earth as it is 240,000 miles away. And the fact is, it gives you a different perspective of the Earth when you see it as three-dimensional between the sun and the moon, and you begin to realise how small and how significant the body is,” he said. “When I put my thumb up to the window I could completely hide it, and then I realised that behind my thumb that I’m hiding this Earth, and there are about 6 billion people that are all striving to live there.”
‘You go to heaven when you’re born’
Lovell said this moment planted a seed that would germinate into full blossom once he was back on Earth.
“You have to really kind of think about our own existence here in the universe,” he said. “You realise that people often say, ‘I hope to go to heaven when I die.’ In reality, if you think about it, you go to heaven when you’re born.”
Lovell was referring to the remarkable situation we find ourselves in: floating on a cosy rock that is drifting through the seemingly endless void of space.
“You arrive on a planet that has the proper mass, has the gravity to contain water and an atmosphere, which are the very essentials for life,” he said. “And you arrive on this planet that’s orbiting a star just at the right distance – not too far to be too cold, or too close to be too hot – and just at the right distance to absorb that star’s energy and then, with that energy, cause life to evolve here in the first place.”
“In reality, you know, God has really given us a stage, just looking at where we were around the moon, a stage on which we perform. And how that play turns out is up to us, I guess,” he said.
Trapped on a cosmic stage together, and at a time when the US is again painfully divided, we could all take Lovell’s words to heart.
This story has been updated. It was originally published on March 11, 2017.