In 1968, Apollo 8 orbited the moon, and then crashed on television — all before the eyes of one billion people. This philosophical fact is completely lost among historians and mainstream media who repeatedly tell us that Apollo 8 “saved the year” in 1968. Rather than save the year, Apollo 8 saved the ideologies, the dominant ideologies — thus insuring that going to the moon and venturing ever deeper into space would not require any launch of a new human philosophy for living and finding meaning on Planet Earth. Without doubt, Apollo 8 was a stunning scientific achievement, but Apollo 8 philosophically crashed when the astronauts read from Genesis to give the event meaning to one billion viewers on Earth. It was an instant of doublethink and narcissism operating on a global scale on global television, using humanity’s pretense to cosmic centrality to give meaning to a scientific triumph that showed the exact opposite — symbolized by the famed “Earthrise” photo that was altered by NASA to make Earth seem more cosmically special.
Fifty years later, our species is accelerating forward via art, science, and technology, yet most of humanity is retreating backwards in terms of ideology and the search for meaning, still wedded to virulent tribalism, nationalism, theism, and anti-science worldviews. Should we be surprised that 24% of Americans now believe the Apollo moon landings were faked and anti-science beliefs permeat our culture, from Main Street to YouTube to the top of the White House? That’s where we are in post-Apollo culture — nothing really changed philosophically and the dominant ideologies are still in control. Given the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8, we should revisit that moment and reflect on its philosophical legacy.
United in Celebrating a Great Human Achievement
It is difficult for people who were born after the Apollo program to fully comprehend the global excitement and euphoria the events generated, not to mention the “space race” between the Soviet Union and the United States. Russian cosmonaut or American astronaut, in the end it does not matter — both nations were pioneers in space exploration. The Apollo 8 astronauts were the first humans to escape the gravity of Earth and orbit the moon, surely one of riskiest and greatest scientific achievements in the history of the human species.
Launched on December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 was rightfully celebrated around the world as a great human achievement, with the astronauts viewed as heroes for humanity. The journey took courage and bravado, backed by revolutionary science and technology. No doubt the NASA scientists, engineers, and astronauts were heroic and inspiring. The global broadcasts of Apollo 8 and Apollo 11 represent the only times that humans were united in the celebration of a human achievement.
Given the expansion of war in Vietnam, the police violence at the Democratic convention in Chicago, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, Apollo 8’s great achievement supposedly “saved” 1968. Given that socio-political context, Apollo 8 was surely inspiring. However, what the mainstream version of the mission really means is: (1) Apollo 8 “saved” the dominant worldviews; and (2) the experience of seeing Earth from space — floating alone in the cosmic void — meant absolutely nothing for the narratives that guide and inspire the humans back down on Earth.
Confronting the Cosmic Void on TV
The discoveries of science and cosmology—that we live in a majestic and awe-inspiring universe in which we are not central, not significant, and evolved as a single species to share a tiny planet amid the vastness—are being denied everywhere on planet Earth and Apollo 8 paved the way.
On the way to the moon, the Apollo 8 astronauts turned the cameras back toward Earth to give the television audience their first view of their planet floating in space. Viewers saw the entirety of human existence in a single image, a gray orb of Earth floating in the void. Awe, wonder, and terror were felt in this moment when television showed humanity’s cosmic insignificance. Live from the moon, the astronauts described what they saw and felt:
Frank Borman: I know my own impression is that it’s a vast, lonely, forbidding-type existence, or expanse of nothing.
Jim Lovell: The vast loneliness up here of the moon is awe inspiring, and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth. The Earth from here is a grand oasis in the big vastness of space.
Bill Anders: The sky up here is also a rather forbidding, foreboding expanse of blackness, with no stars visible when we’re flying over the Moon in daylight.
As the astronauts spoke, one billion humans were simultaneously watching the same images on television, all contemplating the same cosmic phenomena, in the same cosmic moment—as if television was permitting the universe to quietly and poetically address our most profound questions, forcing humans to consider their actual existence in the cosmos. Consider the words and phrases Borman, Lovell, and Anders used to describe what they saw — “vast,” “lonely,” forbidding,” “nothing,” “foreboding,” “expanse of blackness.” Almost all of them convey a certain anxiety about the potential negation of human existence and human centrality, a fear that there may be no meaning for humans in space other than our belonging to the “grand oasis” of our home planet. With the images of Earth and the moon amid the cosmic void, the astronauts were uniting humanity in the unavoidable task of contemplating our true place in the vast universe.
Reading From Genesis
At the penultimate moment of philosophical and scientific modernity, the astronauts conclude the broadcast without any reference to science or technology, or to any scientists or technologists, or artists or philosophers. Instead, in a great leap backward that spanned the millennia, the astronauts decided to conclude the broadcast by reading passages from Genesis in the Bible! Astronaut Bill Anders began the sermon with these words:
“We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you. In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, and God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.”
The other two astronauts continued with subsequent verses (ten in all) from Genesis before concluding with “Merry Christmas and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.” It’s as if the views of Earth in the cosmic void were somehow irrelevant to the philosophy and scientific narratives of the human species.
The Philosophical Legacy of Apollo 8: the Great Leap Backward
At the moment of humankind’s greatest scientific and technological accomplishment, secular philosophy was utterly absent as the astronauts recited creation myths to the humans on Earth, precisely as one billion humans were united in their gaze into the cosmic voids of the expanding universe. If the Apollo 11 moonwalk was a “giant leap for mankind,” then the Apollo 8 space-talk was a great leap backward for the human mind, with the superstitions born of the premodern mind suggesting not scientific revolution, but spiritual devolution. As creation myths echoed down from the moon to Mission Control at the speed of light, Apollo 8 crashed on global television. At the moment of humanity’s chance to grasp its place in the cosmos and begin devoloping new possible meanings for human destiny, our cosmic being was met by creationism—the spirit of the future was filled with myths of the past.
Fifty years later, we see 21st century culture accelerating forward via science and technology, yet retreating backwards in terms of philosophy and the quest for meaning and preservation of human centrality in the universe. We still face the paradox of our greatest achievement: we have discovered an awe-inspiring and majestic universe in which we are not central and not significant. Rather than develop new narratives for our species as a single planetary civilization in a vast universe, we still fall back on tribalism, theology, and nationalism.
Far outstripping Apollo 11’s secular legacy (“One small step for man, one giant leap for makind”), Apollo 8’s philosophical crash is all over American culture in the 21st century:
• anti-science ideologies
• paranormalism and pseudoscience, including beliefs that NASA faked the moon landings.
• widespread denial of climate disruption
• “ancient alien theorists” starring on TV
• and a creationist in the White House in the person of VP Mike Pence.
Should we be surprised science is under assault in the very nation that produced the Apollo program? If the astronauts can ignore what is right before their eyes, then why not the rest of America? From the White House to Main Street to across the cultural spectrum, facts and evidence are routinely ignored or denied with arrogance and impunity.
Did Apollo 8 cause the antiscience worldviews we see all around us? No. But, it paved the way in our post-Apollo culture. Despite the great and heroic scientific achievement of Apollo 8, the Genesis reading remains the greatest leap backward in history. That’s why Apollo 8 crashed on global TV.
Note: The first comment below, from a PBS producer of a documentary about the space race, unintentionally proves the exact point of my article.
Barry is also author of Specter of the Monolith, a book that presents a new narrative for humanity in space. Inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.