You’re looking at the first image of the object at the heart of our galaxy, Sagittarius A—pronounced “Sagittarius A-Star”, and abbreviated Sgr A—courtesy of over 300 researchers from more than 80 institutions across the world.
The image was produced by a global research team called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration, using observations from a worldwide network of radio telescopes, some of which are among the most powerful scientific instruments ever built.
The global scale of the project reflects massive ambition: The nature of what laid at the heart of our galaxy was uncertain, though a black hole was widely suspected.
Mustering humanity’s best and brightest astronomers, and its most potent tools, we now know for certain it is a supermassive black hole, the largest type of its class.
To get a sense of its scale—however possible that is—Sgr A* is four million times more massive than the Sun, which is one million times bigger than Earth. The center of the galaxy is 27,000 lightyears away, with just one lightyear stretching close to 6 TRILLION miles. So yeah, this was a hell of an achievement, and it took hundreds of people using purpose-built tools and supercomputers over the span of five years to confirm it.
Black holes have gravity so immense that not even light can escape—hence why images of them are so hard to capture. (As @voxdotcom put it, trying to get a photo of a quarter in Los Angeles from Washington, D.C.)
Hence, we cannot the black hole itself, but only the glowing gas and other material swirling around its massive gravitation; the stuff that falls into the black hole is unseen and basically erased from the observable universe.
This is a groundbreaking moment in our understanding of these mysterious, dark giants, which are thought to reside at the center of most galaxies. Indeed, the EHT is also responsible for the very first image of a black hole, M87*, at the center of the more distant Messier 87 galaxy over 53 million lightyears away.
Such incredible achievements are only possible with collaboration and curiosity that transcends political and cultural boundaries—something we need now more than ever.
Russia’s anti-satellite (ASAT) test, which took out an old but large Soviet satellite, garnered widespread condemnation for the risk it posed to the International Space Station—and the wider problem of mounting space debris threatening human endeavors in space. But it also reflects yet another battleground among the world’s major powers.
Russia is one of just four countries—along with the U.S., China, and India—to have anti-satellite capabilities; this test exceeded Indian and American altitudes, but fell short of China. No doubt yet another race is in the works.
In addition to clogging up space with more deadly junk, such technology also serves as a demonstration to rivals: In a highly digital world, the ability to take down satellites can greatly weaken an enemy’s recon and spying capabilities, as well as disrupt disrupt the lives of billions.
Ironically, all four anti-sat players are also competing in the development and/or launching of satellites, which are in greater demand than ever.
On this day in 1967, the Outer Space Treaty entered into force, becoming the first effort to establish universal principles and guidelines for activities in outer space. It was created under the auspices of the United Nations based on proposals by the world’s two principal space powers, the United States and Soviet Union.
Naturally, I took the opportunity to improve the Wikipedia article about it, which deserves greater justice (See the before and after photos below.)
It may not be a household name — then again, few treaties are —but the Outer Space Treaty remains one of the most relevant texts in international law today. It is the foundational framework for what we now know as space law, a legal field that is more relevant than ever now that dozens of countries and companies are actively involved in space activities.
The Outer Space Treaty forms the basis of ambitious projects such as the International Space Station (the biggest scientific endeavor in history) and the Artemis Program, a U.S.-led international coalition to return humans to the Moon and to ultimately launch crewed missions to Mars and beyond.
The main crux of the Outer Space Treaty is preventing the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space; broader principles include allowing all nations to freely explore space; limiting space activities to peaceful purposes; preventing any one nation from claiming territory in space; and fostering goodwill and cooperation in space exploration (such as rescuing one another’s astronauts or preventing our space probes from damaging others).
I know, I know, it is all quite idealistic. But all things considered, the treaty has held up fairly well: Most of the world’s countries, including all the major space powers, have ratified it and abided by its terms (after all, it is in everyone’s self-interest to keep everyone else from putting nukes in space). Naturally, some provisions were written vaguely enough to allow some workarounds — for example, space forces are still allowed so long as they are not armed with WMDs and belligerent.
The Outer Space Treaty is influential enough to still be referenced by the major space programs, and has enough legitimacy that every government feels the need to at least pay lip service to its terms. Whether this holds up in an ever-intensifying rivalry among both countries and companies is a different story — but it is certainly better than nothing.
Half the ISS—which involves five space agencies and fifteen countries—is Russian-built and operated, and to this day Russia does most of the legwork in launching both crew and cargo. It was a rare and enduring example of cooperation between two erstwhile rivals, an interesting if fragile antidote to the petty politics on the ground. (Scientists and astronauts from both countries get along pretty well and have consistently collaborated even through the worst flareups of tensions and hostility.)
China was never part of the ISS—a notable absence given its hefty financial resources and technical knowledge—due to a controversial NASA policy implemented by Congress in 2011 that excludes any form of cooperation with any Chinese institution or organization. So I imagine its ambitious attempt at a national space station, like so many of its actions abroad, clearly has a triumphalist “We’ll show you!” aspect to it.
But China’s Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace”, which is set for completion in just a year, will have only one-sixth the mass of the ISS, and roughly a quarter of its habitable space. This isn’t to say it won’t be an impressive feat—especially for a developing country that remains a byword for cheap consumer goods—but its full potential is likely limited given the sheer costs and complexity of building (and regularly maintaining) a human habitat in space.
Meanwhile, Russia’s plans are less clear: Though it holds many records in space stations—including launching the first one, having the most in total, and having the most experience with space walks and the like—it no longer has the financial resources to back this knowhow. (That’s what made the ISS so successful: What Russia lacked in America’s vast resources it made up for with its proven expertise, and visa versa.)
Even the otherwise prideful U.S.—albeit namely its pragmatic scientists at NASA—has now seemingly realized that space is too big, costly, and complex an endeavor for even superpowers to handle.
Aside from being a key founder of the ISS, which was created to replace a planned U.S. station that would have been too costly, NASA plans to return to humans to the moon for the first time in fifty years through the Artemis Program—a decidedly international effort.
While it will be led primarily by NASA and its mostly American commercial contractors, it will include personnel, tech, and resources from Europe, Japan, Canada, Italy, Australia, the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, and Brazil. (Believe it or not, those last three do carry a lot of technological heft in space; the UAE has a probe orbiting Mars as we speak, and India is notable for accomplishing many difficult space ventures at fairly low cost.) More countries have been invited and are are expected to join.
The Artemis Program not only aims to put humans (including the first woman) on the Moon by 2024, but has the long-term goal of establishing a lunar base that will be a launchpad for crewed missions to Mars.
Surprisingly, all this was promulgated during the tenure of a Trump-appointed, former Oklahoma congressman as NASA Administrator, who explicitly modeled the “Artemis Accords”, which broaden international participation in the program, on the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (on which most space law is grounded).
To be sure, neither the Artemis Program, nor the Accords that essentially “internationalize” it, are without their criticisms. Many international legal scholars see them as a way for America to apply its own self-interested interpretation of space law that permits commercial exploitation of celestial bodies; as The Vergereports:
[The] Outer Space Treaty is pretty vague — purposefully so — which means there is a lot of room for interpretation on various clauses. The goal of the Artemis Accords is to provide a little more clarity on how the US wants to explore the Moon without going through the slow treaty-making process. “We are doing this in keeping with the Outer Space Treaty,” said Bridenstine, adding that NASA is trying to “create a dynamic where the Outer Space Treaty can actually be enforced.”
One big thing NASA wanted to make clear in the accords is that countries can own and use resources that are derived from the Moon. As part of the Artemis program, NASA hopes to extract lunar materials, such as the Moon’s dirt or water ice that’s thought to be lurking in the shadows of lunar craters. The Outer Space Treaty forbids nations from staking claim to another planetary body, but the policy of the US is that countries and companies can own the materials they extract from other worlds. “Article II of the Outer Space Treaty says that you cannot appropriate the Moon for national sovereignty,” Bridenstine said. “We fully agree with that and embrace it. We also believe that, just like in the ocean, you can extract resources from the ocean. But that doesn’t mean you own the ocean. You should be able to extract resources from the Moon. Own the resources but not own the Moon.”
It’s an interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty that not everyone may agree on. A pair of researchers writing in the journal Science last week have called on countries to speak up about their objections to this interpretation, and that the United States should go through the United Nations treaty process in order to negotiate on space mining. “NASA’s actions must be seen for what they are—a concerted, strategic effort to redirect international space cooperation in favor of short-term U.S. commercial interests, with little regard for the risks involved,” the researchers wrote in Science.
Still, the overall substance and spirit of the Accords — which at just seven pages, makes for an easy read) — seems like the sensible way forward. I know, I know count on the internationalist to reach that conclusion! But really, if we want to maximize humanity’s potential in space, we must do so as, well, humans: unified in our resources, knowhow, innovation, and vision. Given how much has been accomplished by just a handful of nations on their ow — and the number of countries joining the space club grows annually — imagine what a united front can offer?
Given that China and Russia have lunar aspirations of their own—including a joint lunar base that sort of speaks to my point—it will be interesting to see which vision will play out successfully: The Star Trek-style pan-humanist approach, or the more familiar competitiveness and nationalism that characterized the Cold War or even the colonial era.
Across different times, cultures, and places, food has always been a unifier. This is especially salient in space, where the tough environment and complete detachment from Earth makes a good meal both comforting and psychologically affirming.
Some endearing examples: pictured below are American astronauts holding what appear to be tubes of Russian vodka given to them by Russian cosmonauts in a gesture of goodwill. This followed the famous “handshake in space” of 1975, when the two political and scientific rivals docked one another’s flagship space vessels in an unlikely display of cooperation and mutual respect (notwithstanding continued rivalry in and out space). The “vodka” was actually Russian borscht, a sour but hearty beet soup.
Flashforward to this photo of a typical dinner night aboard the International Space Station, which by some measures is the largest and most expensive scientific project in history. Not much has changed otherwise.
Once again, the U.S. and Russia have come together in space exploration, despite their very real political differences, this time joined by Japan, Canada, and over eleven European nations. This makes the creature comforts of space all the more enjoyable, as Smithsonian Magazine notes:
One big perk of international cooperation on the station is the advancement of the space food frontier. Astronauts and cosmonauts regularly gather on both sides of the station to share meals and barter food items. Roscosmos’ contribution to the food rations is the unique assortment of canned delicacies from traditional Russian cuisine. Perlovka (pearl barley porridge) and tushonka (meat stew), dishes familiar to the Russian military veterans since World War II, found new popularity among the residents of the station. Cosmonaut Aleksandr Samokutyaev says his American counterparts were big fans of Russian cottage cheese.
The cosmonauts, meanwhile, have few complaints about sharing meals with a country that flies up real frozen ice cream (not the freeze-dried stuff made for gift shops), as the U.S. did in 2012. Ryazansky has also spoken fondly of the great variety of American pastries. “We should say,” he clarified, “our food is better than the Americans’…. Despite the variety, everything is already spiced. But in ours, if you wish you can make it spicy; if you want, you can make it sour. American rations have great desserts and veggies; however, they lack fish. Our Russian food has great fish dishes.” The cosmonauts’ cuisine benefits when European and Japanese crew arrive. Both agencies brought unique flavors from their culinary heritages—including the one thing the cosmonauts really wanted. “Japanese rations have great fish,” Ryazansky wrote.
Every new cargo ship comes with fresh produce, filling the stale air on the station with the aroma of apples and oranges. Deprived of strong flavors in their packaged food, cosmonauts often craved the most traditional Russian condiment: fresh garlic. Mission control took the request seriously. “They sent us so much that even if you eat one for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we still had plenty left to oil ourselves all over our bodies for a nice sleep,” Suraev joked on his blog.
There’s something endearing and downright adorable about astronauts — perhaps the world’s toughest and gruffest folks, one would think — excitedly exchanging meals with one another like kids trading candy on the playground. It almost makes you forget all the petty and vicious squabbles back on Earth. (As I understand it, scientists, space explorers, and visionaries of these nations tend to operate on a different level than their politicians.)
I was so busy reeling from the results of my cursed Bar Exam that I forgot April 12 was also a much happier occasion: International Day of Human Space Flight, which commemorates the 1961 flight of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin—the first man to enter outer space and the first to orbit the Earth. He spent 108 minutes aboard the Vostok 1, which was basically one big cannonball with rudimentary, if resourceful, technology.
Gagarin subsequently became the most visible and iconic Russian in the world, a far cry from dour and disreputable figures that were more familiar to outsiders. His natural charm and friendliness—both personally and in every media spotlight—earned him the moniker “the Smiling Soviet“, as it contradicted the popular image of Russians as gruff and sullen.
How does one become the first human in space, especially as the son of peasants in a country as seemingly blighted as Soviet Russia? After personally enduring the grief and hardship of the Second World War—including having his home occupied by a German officer, and serving in the resistance—Gagarin returned to normal life; he loved math and science in school, and was fascinated with planes, building model aircraft and eventually a local flying club. Unsurprisingly, he joined the Soviet Air Force, where his confidence and knack for flying were matched only by his astute technical knowledge; as a youth, he worked in a steel factory and later went to vocational school, learning about industrial work and tractors.
As the Soviet space program went into high gear in the 1960s, Gagarin and other talented pilots were being screened for their fitness and aptitude as “cosmonauts”—something no one had ever been before. (There was only so much we could know about the effect of space travel on a human.)
When it came down to him and 19 other candidates, an Air Force doctor made the following evaluation of him:
Modest; embarrasses when his humor gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuri; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings; a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics; does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends.
Gagarin was also heavily favored by his peers—even those otherwise competing with him for the glory of first man in space. When the 20 candidates were asked to anonymously vote for which other candidate they would like to see as the first to fly, all but three chose him
Another favorable factor was, of all things, his short stature (at least partly a product of his rough and impoverished childhood). At just 5’2″, Gagarin could easily fit in the small, rudimentary cockpit of the Vostok 1. (Being the first into space is scary enough—imagine in something that cramped.)
As Valentina Malmy wrote beautifully in the book Star Peace:
He was like a sound amplified by a mountain echo. The traveler is small, but the mountains are great, and suddenly they merge into a single whole. Such was Yuri Gagarin. To accomplish a heroic exploit means to step beyond one’s own sense of self-preservation, to have the courage to dare what today seems unthinkable for the majority. And to be ready to pay for it. For the hero himself, his feat is the limit of all possibilities. If he leaves something “in reserve”, then the most courageous deed thereby moves into the category of work: hard, worthy of all glorification, but — work. An act of heroism is always a breakthrough into the Great Unknown. Even given most accurate preliminary calculations, man enters into that enterprise as if blindfold, full of inner tension.
I can’t wrap my head around being the first person to venture into something as unknown and terrifying as space—to be able put your thumb up in front of you and our big planet as small as your fingernail.
Little wonder why Gagarin became such a worldwide celebrity, touring dozens of countries in the years following his fateful flight. The geopolitical implications melted away in the face of this impressive feat, and the man’s genuine charm and affability—this was something all humankind could celebrate.
Of course, this was still the Cold War: As a living symbol of Soviet triumph, Gagarin could not be risked on another spaceflight, given their inherent danger even today, let alone fifty years ago. Ironically, he died unexpectedly just a few years later during a routine training flight, an event subject to much secrecy and rumor (one conspiracy theory is that newly installed Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev ordered his death due to being overshadowed by the gregarious cosmonaut at public events).
For his part, the “Smiling Soviet” seemed above such politics, notwithstanding his (likely symbolic) stint as a member of the Soviet legislature. As to be expected, being the first man in space really changes you and puts things in perspective; you’re literally looking down on everything you, and all your fellow humans, have ever known. I wonder if it was surreal or even lonely being the only person with that sort of view.
Despite being banned from the U.S. by the Kennedy Administration—perhaps because his popularity among average Americans undermined the competitive spirit of the Space Race—Gagarin was honored by the Apollo 11 crew (ironically the same mission that ended the race in America’s favor). Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left a memorial on the surface of the moon commemorating him and fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, the first human to venture into Outer Space, and the first to die there. (Another memorial was left by Apollo 15 in 1971 to commemorate the Americans and Russians who died in space.)
Though untimely and cruelly ironic—an expert pilot dying from a routine flight rather than the first space mission—Gagarin is survived by one hell of a legacy: The almost banal regularity of human spaceflight in the 21st century is a testament to his courageous and spirited embrace of the ultimate unknown.
On this day in 1957, the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (the first, largest, and most active space port to this day). Thus, began a series of pioneering Soviet firsts—from nonhuman lunar landings to explorations of Venus—that would in turn trigger the Space Race with America culminating in the Moon landings.
Ironically, despite the centralized and authoritarian nature of the Soviet political system, the U.S.S.R. never developed a single coordinating space agency like NASA. Instead it relied on several competing “design bureaus” led by brilliant and ambitious chief engineers vying to produce the best ideas. In other worlds, these Cold War rivals embraced space exploration with the other side’s philosophy: the Americans were more government centered, while the Russians went with something closer to a free market. (Of course, this oversimplifies things since the U.S. relied and still relies on independent contractors.)
Hence Sputnik was the product of six different entities, from the Soviet Academy of Science to the Ministry of Defense and even the Ministry of Shipbuilding. The satellite had been proposed and designed by Sergei Korolev, a visionary rocket scientist who also designed its launcher, the R-7, which was the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. He is considered the father of modern aeronautics, playing a leading role in launching the first animal and human into space, with plans to land on the Moon before his unexpected death in 1966—three years before the U.S. would achieve that feat (who knows if the Russians would have made it had Korolev lived).
As many of us know, Sputnik’s launch led to the so called “Sputnik crisis”, which triggered panic and even hysteria among Americans, who feared the “free world” was outdone by the communists and that American prestige, leadership, scientific achievement, and even national security were all at stake. (After all, the first ICBM had just been used to launch the satellite and could very well do the same with nukes.)
Surprisingly, neither the Soviet nor American governments put much importance in Sputnik, at least not initially. The Russian response was pretty lowkey, as Sputnik was not intended for propaganda. The official state newspaper devoted only a few paragraphs to it, and the government had kept private its advances in rocketry and space science, which were well ahead of the rest of the world.
The U.S. government response was also surprisingly muted, far more so than the American public. The Eisenhower Administration already knew what was coming due to spy planes and other intelligence. Not only did they try to play it down, but Eisenhower himself was actually pleased that the U.S.S.R., and not the U.S., would be the first to test the waters of this new and uncertain frontier of space law.
But the subsequent shock and concern caught both the Soviet and American governments off guard. The U.S.S.R. soon went all-in with propaganda about Soviet technological expertise, especially as the Western world had long propagandized its superiority over the backward Russians. The U.S. pour money and resources into science and technology, creating not only NASA but DARPA, which is best known for planting the seeds of what would become the Internet. There was a new government-led emphasis on science and technology in American schools, with Congress enacting the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which provided low-interest loans for college tuition to students majoring in math and science.
After the launch of Sputnik, one poll found that one in four Americans thought that Russian sciences and engineering were superior to American; but the following year, this stunningly dropped to one out of ten, as the U.S. began launching its own satellites into space. The U.S.-run GPS system was largely the result of American physicists realizing Sputnik’s potential for allowing objects to be pinpointed from space.
The response to Sputnik was not entirely political, fearful, or worrisome. It was also a source of inspiration for generations of engineers, scientists, and astronauts across the world, even in the rival U.S. Many saw it optimistically as the start of a great new space age. The aeronautic designer Harrison Storms—responsible for the X-15 rocket plane and a head designer for major elements of the Apollo and Saturn V programs—claimed that the launch of Sputnik moved him to think of space as being the next step for America. Astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and Deke Slayton, one of the “Mercury Seven” who led early U.S. spaceflights, later wrote of how the sight of Sputnik 1 passing overhead inspired them to pursue their record-breaking new careers.
Who could look back and imagine that this simple, humble little satellite would lead us to where we are today? For all the geopolitical rivalry involved, Sputnik helped usher in tremendous hope, progress, and technological achievement.
On this day in 1986, the Soviet Union launched Mir, the first modular space station, the largest spacecraft by mass at that time, and the largest artificial satellite until the International Space Station (ISS) in 1998.
Assembled in orbit from 1986 to 1996, the station was the result of efforts to improve upon the Soviet Salyut program, which produced history’s first space station. It served as a microgravity research laboratory where crews conducted experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and spacecraft systems, all with the ultimate goal of preparing humanity for the permanent occupation of space.
Through the “Intercosmos” program, Mir also helped train and host cosmonauts from other countries, including Syria, Bulgaria, Afghanistan, France, Germany, and Canada.
Mir was the first continuously inhabited long-term research station in orbit and held the record for the longest continuous human presence in space at 3,644 days (roughly 10 years), until it was surpassed by the ISS in 2010. It also holds the record for the longest single human spaceflight, with Valeri Polyakov spending 437 days and 18 hours on the station between 1994 and 1995.
This is all the more remarkable considering that Mir lasted three times longer than planned, and even survived the Soviet Union itself, which collapsed just years after it was launched. The fact that Russia managed to keep it afloat despite its tumultuous post-Soviet transition speaks to both ingenuity and the goodwill of global partners like NASA.
In fact, the U.S. had planned to launch its own rival station, Freedom, while the Soviets were working on Mir-2 as a successor. But both countries faced budget constraints and a lack of political will that ultimately quashed these projects. Instead, the erstwhile rivals came together through the Shuttle–Mir, an 11-mission space program that involved American Space Shuttles visiting Mir, Russian cosmonauts flying on the Shuttle, and an American astronaut flying aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for long range expeditions aboard Mir.
With various other nations, from Canada to Japan, also cancelling their own space station programs due to budget constraints, Russia and the U.S. soon brought them into the fold to create a new international space station—today the ISS we all know and love.
Thus, by the time the aging Mir was finally cut loose and allowed to deorbit in 2001, the ISS had already begun taking occupants, building upon the old station’s technical, scientific, and political legacy. (In fact, Russia has contributed most portions of the ISS after the U.S., and both its spaceport and its spacecraft serve as the primary—and for many years, only—source of crew and supplies.)
In its detailed tribute to Mir, NASA notes its importance to all of humanity as a milestone for human space exploration:
“The Russian Space Station Mir endured 15 years in orbit, three times its planned lifetime. It outlasted the Soviet Union, that launched it into space. It hosted scores of crewmembers and international visitors. It raised the first crop of wheat to be grown from seed to seed in outer space. It was the scene of joyous reunions, feats of courage, moments of panic, and months of grim determination. It suffered dangerous fires, a nearly catastrophic collision, and darkened periods of out-of-control tumbling.
Mir soared as a symbol of Russia’s past space glories and her potential future as a leader in space. And it served as the stage—history’s highest stage—for the first large-scale, technical partnership between Russia and the United States after a half-century of mutual antagonism.”
Despite all the geopolitical rivalry and grandstanding that motivated incredible breakthroughs like Mir (and for that matter the Moon landing), the value and legacy of these achievements go far beyond whatever small-mindedness spurred them. Wrapped up in all this brinkmanship was—and still is—a vision of progress for all of humanity.
A fun note about the name: The word mir is Russian for “peace”, “world”, or “village”, and has historical significance: When Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom (virtual slavery) in 1861, freeing over 23 million people, mir was used to describe peasant communities that thereafter managed to actually own their land, rather than being tied to the land of their lord.
On this day in 1968, the photo known as “Earthrise” was taken by the Apollo 8 crew, consisting of commander Frank Borman, navigator Jim Lovell, and rookie Bill Anders.
Better known as the first time humans had visited the moon, via ten lunar orbits, the mission led to an unexpected iconic photograph. “We have astronauts on a spaceship in another place, looking back on this beautiful planet with another heavenly body in the foreground—it’s stunning. It checks all the boxes.”
After looping around the moon three times and taking several photos of its surface, the crew famously greeted citizens of Earth during a Christmas Eve broadcast. On their fourth loop later that evening, they encountered something that totally surprised them: A striking view of home sliding out from behind the moon like the sun over Earth’s horizon.
It’s all the more remarkable when you consider that Apollo 8 — at that point the biggest rocket ever built — could have been a disaster. It was initially delayed due to hardware issues, but was pushed to December under the fear that the Soviets would beat the U.S. first (as they had seven years earlier when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space). The crew was basically “riding a controlled bomb that had not been completely checked out, inside a spacecraft that had not been tested to everyone’s satisfaction.”
But not only did it go off without a hitch, but it produced an image that dramatically highlighted “the paradoxical context in which we exist: Our planet is simultaneously cosmically insignificant, and the most important thing we share as a species.”
National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry describes it as “the most important photograph ever made” and likens it to humanity seeing itself in a mirror for the first time.
“When something happens like that, it speaks to us on a level that we don’t maybe fully understand You can’t—as an artist, as a photographer, as a writer—you can’t necessarily predict it. It just happens. And that’s kind of the magic of art, isn’t it? We create things as human beings that speak to people in different ways.”
On this day in 1969, the U.S. launched Apollo 8, the second manned spaceflight mission in the Apollo space program and the first crewed launch of the Saturn V rocket. Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit, see all of Earth, orbit another celestial body, see the far side of the Moon, witness and photograph an “Earthrise” (first photo), escape the gravity of another celestial body (the Moon), and reenter Earth’s gravitational well. Apollo 8 was also the first human spaceflight from the Kennedy Space Center, located adjacent to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Originally planned as a test of the Apollo Lunar Module, since the module was not yet ready for its first flight, the mission profile was abruptly changed in August 1968 to a more ambitious flight to be flown in December. Thus, the crew led by Jim McDivitt crew, who were training Apollo Lunar Module, instead became the crew for Apollo 9, while Borman and his men were moved to the Apollo 8 mission. This meant the new Apollo 8 crew had two to three months’ less training and preparation than originally planned, not to mention having to take up translunar navigation training. The crew themselves believed there was only a 50% chance of the mission succeeding.
Fortunately, things went off without a hitch: after almost three days, Apollo 8 reached the Moon. The crew orbited the Moon ten times in 20 hours, during which they made a Christmas Eve television broadcast in which they read the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis—at the time the most watched TV program ever. (In fact, it is estimated that one out of four people alive at the time saw it either live or shortly after.) Even the Chairman of the Soviet Interkosmos program was quoted describing the flight as an “outstanding achievement of American space sciences and technology”.
Although largely forgotten today, Apollo 8 was seen as the joyful culmination of a tumultuous year, rife with political assassinations, instability, and other tragedies worldwide. For a moment, humanity received a well needed morale boost. the success of the mission paved the way for Apollo 11 to fulfill America’s goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. The Apollo 8 astronauts returned to Earth on December 27, 1968, when their spacecraft splashed down in the northern Pacific Ocean. They were later named TIME’s “Men of the Year” for 1968.
The iconic Earthrise photo has been credited as one of the inspirations of the first Earth Day in 1970; it was selected as the first of Life magazine’s 100 Photographs That Changed the World.