Looking Back: Apollo 8

I’m going to elaborate on something I tweeted earlier this weekend as I was re-watching the Ron Howard/Tom Hanks historical drama about the Apollo program, From the Earth to the Moon. And yes, I’ll bring back around to technical writing before I finish.

Today in History…

Fifty years ago today, the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sent astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders on the first human voyage to the Moon. The mission was Apollo 8, and the year was 1968, not a particularly good one in our recent history. In addition to sending men to the Moon, this country was conducting an increasingly bloody and unpopular war in Vietnam; ramping up a “war on poverty,” and dealing with tumultuous revolutions among young people, racial minorities, and women. Two prominent political figures–Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy–were assassinated. The Soviet Union crushed an anti-communist revolution in Czechoslovakia. Riots like those in America also rocked much of Europe. And much of this unrest and human chaos was being brought into people’s homes via television.

And yet, on the 21st of December, NASA launched Apollo 8 on the Saturn V rocket, which had only flown twice before, with some serious problems on one of those flights. The machine was monstrous in its dimensions: 363 feet (110 meters) tall, 33 feet (10 meters) in diameter at its base. Fully fueled, Saturn V weighed some 6.2 million pounds (2.8 million kilograms). Its five engines produced 7.6 million pounds (33.8 million newtons) of force at liftoff. The entire massive contraption was taller than a 30-story skyscraper. Most of the weight came from the stages and fuel needed to push the command and service module (CSM) beyond Earth’s gravity and toward the Moon.

It appeared absurd, a wild gamble. But we were in a Cold War with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and our President had issued a challenge to the nation (and the USSR) that we could put a human on the Moon and return him safely “before this decade is out.” We were trying to compete in the Cold War in a way that didn’t result in a hot war.

Apollo 8 was a precursor to the “big show,” which was landing astronauts on the Moon. It was an awesome test of the procedures needed for that eventual landing. Miraculously, given all the challenges involved, it worked. Apollo 8 reached the Moon and went into orbit around it.

The Power of Images and Words

Upon coming around from the far side of the Moon on their first orbit, the astronauts took a photograph that would change people’s perspective of their home forever: “Earthrise.” The blue, white, and brown globe of Earth seen above the desolate surface of the Moon.

“Earthrise.” Photo by Bill Anders. [Source: NASA]

The photo would eventually become a key image of the environmental movement, as people saw their home as a tiny, fragile oasis of life in a vast, lifeless universe. Surely, such a beautiful place warranted our protection and wise stewardship! But that was later–after the mission.

On Christmas Eve, in a broadcast the astronauts were told would be heard by more people than anyone in history, Anders, Lovell, and Borman chose to read from the opening chapter in the Bible, the book of Genesis.

I admit to getting a little misty-eyed hearing or watching the Apollo missions. You might not be a believer in or reader of the Bible (NASA was later sued by an atheist). Still, the reading resonates, as it taps into some of our earliest myths and stories, and puts the mission in the context of human history and meaning. When Chinese or Indian travelers finally set foot on the Moon, we will hear other texts quoted and other thoughts shared. Until those days, we have Apollo 8’s example as a way of tapping into the emotional meaning of an important moment.

Neil Armstrong, upon setting his boot onto the lunar dust eight months later, (mis)spoke about his moment this way: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Again, he put the technological and physical act into a broader context.

And yes, you could say that the words of those long-ago space voyagers inspired me in my career…not to be an engineer for space, but a writer: someone who could help find the words to give a “mere” technological achievement some human meaning, some emotional heft.

Tying This Back to Technical Writing

Obviously not all of us have an opportunity to do something with such impact (I haven’t, even after 12 years in aerospace). Sometimes we take technical writing jobs merely to pay the bills. There might not be any transcendental resonance or redemptive force to our work (one U.S. citizen sent a telegram to NASA saying, “You saved 1968”).

Fair enough.

You can still give your subject matter something approaching a human meaning. It’s not all megabits, chemicals, valves, or propellants. Humans develop technologies to serve and advance human purposes and even human values. Once again, we’re translating technological outcomes into communications that resonate with our audience. That’s worth doing, and doing well.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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3 Responses to Looking Back: Apollo 8

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    Great post, Bart. Did you see Dennis Overbye’s piece in the NY Times this weekend on the legacy of Apollo 8? If not, I think you’ll enjoy it. Watching that transmission from the moon, 50 years ago tonight, was a very emotional, very human experience. I love how you’ve tied that humanity to our role as technical writers.

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