What Every Engineer and Coder Owes to Apollo 8
The space mission that saved tech innovation and the spirit of adventure
There comes a point in every discovery where it seems like time stops and the scale ever so slightly tips toward victory.
That moment is like riding an old wooden roller coaster, the train of carts slowly clicking up that first, massive hill until the car you’re sitting in reaches the crest. Right then, for one slow second, there is quiet. There is stillness. Then the car tips over the edge and all bets are off. Rushing down. Into the unknown. Faster and faster. This is the moment of breakthrough.
For technology and science in the last century, that roller coaster crest moment came on the cold winter morning of December 24, 1968. On that Christmas Eve, the people of the world collectively experienced the rareness of tipping over the peak as the crew of Apollo 8 went to the moon and then came back home.
As Robert Kurson describes in his book Rocket Men, the impact of this mission went far beyond the exploration of another celestial body. Because of where this mission fell within the timeline of the space race of the 1960s, and the way that technology was advancing both in the private and public sectors of the United States and the world, there has perhaps been no greater moment that defined the extent of possibility and the positive effects of advancing technologies in reaching that great new horizon.
More than any other event in the last 50 years, the Apollo 8 mission and its success changed the public opinion of technology in a way that we are still experiencing today.
As the 1960s began, the United States found itself in a cold war with the Soviet Union. Though allied with the United States during World War II, the USSR had risen from the ashes of Stalingrad to become a global superpower, backed by its prestige in rocketry and space exploration.
The 1950s saw the rise of batteries, microwave ovens, remote controls for televisions, and satellites.
While the USSR grew, the United States found itself with trouble on the home front. President John F. Kennedy knew that the American people needed a big dream and vision to rally around. And so, in an address on May 25, 1961 to Congress, President Kennedy boldly proclaimed:
“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
With that vision, the United States set off to accomplish the impossible: a lunar landing before 1970.
At about this same time, technology was growing and becoming more of a staple of everyday American life. The ’50s saw the rise of batteries, microwave ovens, remote controls for televisions, and satellites. The 1960s would prove to be just as revolutionary, giving birth to computer graphics, e-commerce, and the programming language BASIC.
NASA itself was branded and set in motion in 1958.
The stage was set like never before; 1961 looked ripe with technological potential.
However, there was trouble brewing.
Although technological innovation was on the rise in the ’50s and ’60s, as people returned from overseas and started building new lives after World War II, they primarily had two things on their minds: safety and comfort. People started seeking out what would soon be known as “the American dream.” They enjoyed the convenience of their newest gadgets, but deep down, people wanted a life that wasn’t driven by change. After so much chaos in the ’40s, they wanted security and stability.
In 1962, just a year after President Kennedy’s speech, the United States experienced the height of the Cold War with the Cuban Missile Crisis and a new sense of fear and anxiety. As the ’60s continued, the Soviet Union was consistently one step ahead in the space race, so much so that by 1968, public opinion had shifted and the space program was one failure away from shutting down.
The view of technology and the spirit of adventure into the unknown was teetering on the edge of ruin. If the space program could not come through on President Kennedy’s vision, it is highly likely that the American people would have blamed the faulty tools of technology for the failure.
Something big needed to tip the scales. And it needed to happen soon.
NASA has always been known for its precision. As a whole, the agency is meticulous. Missions are never rushed and never pushed ahead of schedule. Every part and process is tested, then tested again. The mission launches were the biggest televised events of their decade. The stakes were especially high after the catastrophic events of Apollo 1 in January 1967, in which three of the top astronauts in the world at the time (Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom, and Ed White II) were burned alive in their capsule before the flight took off. That atrocity was one mistake too many, and NASA didn’t have any other chances. They had to be perfect.
There were countless reasons why going to the moon in 1968 wasn’t a safe idea. Before the Apollo 8 mission, the farthest anyone had ever flown in space was 850 miles. The moon was 240,000 miles away. The rocket that would be used for the Apollo 8 mission, the Saturn V, was unproven, having never been fully tested in its entirety before the mission would launch.
Amid all of the concerns, rushing the mission was exactly what NASA did with Apollo 8. In the late summer of 1968, the Americans discovered that the Soviets had made plans to send a man to the moon in early 1969. The Soviets were preparing to notch another “first” in their impressive belt of space victories.
The top brass at NASA knew that, in a decade where the Soviets had beaten the Americans to almost every other major space exploration discovery, this was one adventure that the Americans could not stand to lose. They had to get to the moon first.
On that cold Christmas Eve morning in 1968, over a billion people (one out of every three people on the planet at that time) tuned in as the crew of Apollo 8 broadcast their view of the moon. For the 50-year celebration, TIME wrote of the return of the Apollo 8 crew:
“When the crew splashed down in the Pacific on Dec. 27, it was clear that in the six days they’d been gone, a hinge in history had been turned.”
Apollo 8 redefined the sense of what was possible, and people all over the world knew that it was technological advancement that got the Americans to the moon.
Not only was the Apollo 8 mission daring, it used dozens of technologies (like fly-by-wire capability and guidance computers) that did not even exist when President Kennedy gave his famous “we choose to go to the Moon” speech for the first time at Rice University in 1962. Many of these technologies would go on to be foundational in the creation and development of industries and products still around today.
With the success of the Apollo 8 mission, the general public saw this science fiction dream become a real, tangible adventure. Science has always thrived when this transformation occurs. When wild and imaginative speculation turns into technological execution, people are inspired and their hope for a better future is reborn. These moments of success are what motivated people in 1968 to dream of the technology we have today and are what inspire us now to dream of space missions that will last 1,000 years into the future.
In the last 50 years, NASA and space exploration have been in part or fully responsible for a long list of technological advancements. NASA helped invent or create artificial limbs, insulin pumps, firefighting equipment, LASIK, solar cells, water filtration, wireless headsets, camera phones, baby formula, and much, much more.
All of this has been made possible because of Apollo 8. The mission single-handedly restored a country’s view of technology and paved the way for decades of innovation and exploration to come.
Without the Apollo 8 mission, the technology we now experience today would likely have still been invented. But it is a virtual guarantee that the path toward this widespread acceptance of technology we enjoy would have been more tumultuous and much more daunting.
Within the last decade, NASA has experienced its share of ups and downs. The space shuttle program officially closed down in 2011. Since then, astronauts have not launched to orbit on an American rocket or from an American launch pad. As the interest in the space program and exploration seemed to wane, it looked as if this source of advancing technology and science may have been in peril.
However, there has been a resurgence of interest in space and the technologies needed to explore farther into the cosmos. At the start of 2020, NASA released its plans for the next few years and the new decade, with a return to the moon in 2024 as the landmark focus. With private companies partnering with government sectors, we seemed poised to once again imagine the impossible and, like the team behind Apollo 8, to figure out what technologies will allow us to accomplish those dreams.
Every engineer, scientist, developer, designer, coder, and member of hundreds of other professions can trace their arc to the Apollo 8 mission. That mission was the moment, perched atop the old wooden roller coaster right before the plunge, that redefined everything. And all of us are in that wake.