Perhaps, forty years later, it is time to put the self-aggrandizing myth of 1968 to rest. Much as I’d like to believe that 1968 was a great moment for the Left, it was actually a point of closure, not of opening.
Instead, when we think of 1968, for tonight at least, let’s think about not the rebellion of a hip generation coming of age but about a product of technology originated under the Nazis and finished by a government waging a Cold War. If the origins were bathed in innocent blood, the circumstances all wrong, the moment is still one of the greatest achievements of humanity.
Forty years ago the crew of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders, became the first men to fly around the moon. It was a feat of great audacity, the first manned flight of an Apollo capsule atop the mighty Saturn V stack, a Hondo Civic-sized capsule atop a structure taller than Lever House packed full of compressed explosives. On lift-off, the rocket produced more sound than any other man-made phenomenon save the Bomb. If its origins were in military technology, unlike any other manned rocket built, the Saturn V was effectively useless for military purposes (the Vostok rocket that launched Gagarin, the Redstone and Atlas that launched Mercury, the Titan that launched Gemini, the Proton which launched Soyuz were all derived from ICBMs and the Space Shuttle was envisioned as having a military role). The race for the moon may have been mad, but it was as good as madness could get. Instead of building bombs, we raced to the moon.
To the 68ers, the moon shots seemed ridiculous, what could such an expensive effort tell us about the problems of Earth, they asked?
But, then, on December 22, 1968, the inhabitants of the Earth gazed back on it for the first time.
Below is the image of Earthrise, as taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts. Is there another image from the twentieth century as moving, as important?
We realized ourselves, alone on a fragile blue sphere adrift in space together. Is it beyond imagination to think that without this photograph we would have blown ourselves up? All at once, during the darkest time of winter (for those of us in the Northern hemisphere) it became apparent that the world was one. Soon after the flight, Borman received a telegram, "You saved 1968." And perhaps a whole lot more.
Here’s to Apollo 8 and to all that was good about the space program.