My Favourites 5

My Favourites


Back to My Favourites Index


When Men First went to the Moon – Apollo 8


One of my favourite “Space stamps” is that issued by the U.S.A. on 5th May 1969, which featured the spectacular “Earthrise” photograph, together with the words “In the beginning God…” which were read on Christmas Eve 1968 by the crew of Apollo 8 as they became the first human beings to orbit the moon.

The stamp had been designed by Leonard E. Buckley, and was printed in four colours, yellow and light blue by offset, and black and blue by Giori press. First day ceremonies were held at the Johnson Space centre in Houston, Texas, on the 5th May, the 8th Anniversary of Alan Shepard’s first American sub—orbital flight, with all three of the Apollo 8 astronauts present.

The Mission itself had proved for the first time that man could escape the gravitational force of the earth and travel to other celestial bodies. But what a step it had been.

The original plan had called for another earth—orbiting flight, but then months before launch, the plans were changed, and Frank Borman, James Lovell, and rookie William Anders were scheduled to become the first human beings to attempt to fly to the moon.

It was an audacious gamble, not just flying to the moon, but the fact that up until they left the launch pad at 7.51 a.m. on December 21st 1968, the Saturn V launch vehicle had not been used on a manned flight. (Apollo 7 on 11th October had used a Saturn 1B) It was only the Saturn Vs third flight, and it’s previous one had been near disastrous, when in April on an unmanned flight (designated Apollo 6) it seemed as if there were still major problems that needed dealing with. In their book “Journey to Tranquility — A history of mans assault on the moon”, authors Young, Silcock and Dunn explained…

“The first stage apparently performed without fault, but soon after the second stage ignition the flight controllers at their consoles saw the thrust of the engine number two falling off. Then it cut out completely, to be followed by engine number three. When its turn came the single engine in the third stage ignited perfectly, but a few hours later, for no obvious reason, it failed to restart in orbit.”

Other problems were later found as engineers analysed the data, which in a more extreme form could actually have destroyed the rocket. Had the first successful flight been merely a fluke? Did the Saturn V rocket have serious design defects?

It is staggering to think that three weeks after this NASA were informing the Senate State Space Committee that they planned to put men on the next flight of the Saturn V, but that’s what they did. They knew what had happened, how to prevent it from happening again, but why did it happen was another question, which was at that time unanswered.

What thoughts then went through the minds of the three Astronauts as they sat atop the 363foot high rocket on 21st December, only they really know. What we know is that later Frank Borman was to say.. “It was a very exciting ride on that Saturn, but it worked perfectly.

I asked him last year what his lasting impression of the Apollo 8 flight was, and this was the reply he gave me…..“My single most vivid impression from Apollo 8 in December 1968 was the view of the earth from the vantage point of the lunar horizon. From the perspective of 240,000 miles – no boundaries, artificial barriers or national or political separations of any kind existed. In many ways, the earth seemed similar to our spacecraft. It, too, mandates resources management, environmental protection, crew size limitations and the requirement for peaceful coexistence of its inhabitants; and like a spacecraft, planet earth journeys continuously in space.

While we were circling the moon, my thoughts invariably reflected on that beautiful, fragile blue sphere which obviously meant so very much to our crew and on the dedicate people who had sent us on our mission and eagerly awaited our return. The concept of “spaceship earth” created for me a new awareness of our common destiny and of our responsibility to preserve the quality of life on our planet.

That brings us nicely back to where we began, considering the spectacular view as it appears on the 6 cents stamp. Perhaps now, every time we see it in our collections, or on cover envelopes, it will mean just a little bit more, as to what it took to get it in the first place. I certainly hope so.

By Tony Bird

Back to My Favourites Index