Curiosity Brief

To celebrate 50 years of Apollo 8, Curator Dr. Voula Saridakis shares this brief on space exploration.

The Henry Crown Space Center is home to the Apollo 8 command module.

To the Moon and Beyond

By Dr. Voula Saridakis, Curator

December 21, 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 8, which the Museum of Science and Industry celebrated at the 38th Annual Columbian Ball in October and continues to commemorate with a series of exciting events planned through the end of the year. 

The Apollo 8 flight was as risky as it was groundbreaking. The three astronauts aboard became the first humans to leave the Earth’s atmosphere and travel to the Moon. While orbiting the Moon, they took the iconic first image of the Earth from space. Driven in part by humanity’s passion to explore, the Apollo 8 mission was also part of the "Space Race," the Cold War battle with the Soviet Union to land the first human on the Moon. Half a century later, humans have established a tenuous foothold in space. The International Space Station is home to a rotating group of astronauts from around the world. Today’s visionary thinkers continue to innovate, explore and open up space to more of us. 

Dr. Robert H. Goddard stands next to the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket, March 16, 1926. Photo credit: NASA

Early Beginnings

Experiments that laid the groundwork for spaceflight date to the early 20th century. In 1919, Robert H. Goddard, a physics professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, published "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes" which described his mathematical theories of rocket flight and his experiments with solid-fuel rockets. He concluded that a rocket could operate in the vacuum of space and reach the Moon. Seven years later, on March 16, 1926, Goddard successfully launched the first liquid-propellant rocket, an odd-looking contraption he had nicknamed "Nell". This flight lasted only 2.5 seconds but "Nell" rose 41 feet and traveled 184 feet, landing in a nearby cabbage patch. Goddard demonstrated for the first time that liquid fuels could be used as propellants for larger rockets, paving the way for giant rockets to take humans to the Moon.

Replica of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. Photo credit: NASA

The Space Race

With the rise of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a battle to establish their military and technological superiority. Each raced to develop and launch artificial satellites and space probes. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the United States and the world by launching Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. The United States responded with the launch of Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958, and the formation of NASA later that year. The race was on to send the first human into space.

NASA’s first spaceflight program, Project Mercury, selected seven test pilots from a pool of hundreds of potential astronauts. The Soviet Union once again beat the United States, sending the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961. But the Americans were not far behind, a month later launching Alan Shepard into space. After Project Mercury came the Gemini Program, with missions that were longer and more complicated, followed by Project Apollo which put the first humans on the Moon. These mission names refer to the "heavens"—Mercury was the swift messenger of the gods, Gemini is the zodiac sign for the twins, chosen to reflect the program’s use of two astronauts for each mission, and Apollo is the mythological god who pulls the Sun in its course across the sky each day.

This was a prolific period of spaceflight for the Soviet Union and the United States. Being the first to land a man on the Moon was the ultimate prize. In 1962, President Kennedy delivered his famous "We choose to go to the Moon" speech at Rice Stadium in Houston. He inspired Americans with the words, "We choose to go to the Moon … not because [it] is easy, but because [it] is hard" and set a deadline for the end of the decade.

A Saturn V rocket launches Apollo 8 on December 21, 1968. Photo credit: NASA

Mission to Space

Project Apollo ran from 1961 to 1972. After many unmanned tests, Apollo 1 was slated in 1967 to be the first test of a manned Apollo mission. Sadly, a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal led to the tragic deaths of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. Apollo rebounded with the successful launch of Apollo 7 in 1968, sending America’s first three-person crew into space. 

The following mission, Apollo 8, was originally scheduled to fly an Earth orbit mission to test the Lunar Module (LM) in early 1969 but plans changed when it became apparent that the Lunar Module would not be ready. Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders had only four months to prepare for the new mission—the first to travel to and orbit the Moon and the first to use the powerful Saturn V rocket. It was the boldest and riskiest mission that had ever been attempted, but the United States was determined to meet President Kennedy’s deadline and to beat the Soviet Union in sending the first man to the Moon.

Apollo 8 successfully launched on December 21, 1968, orbiting the Moon and safely returning to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. In a time of political unrest and turmoil, the mission demonstrated human ingenuity and daring, paving the way for the spaceflight that would successfully land the first astronauts on the Moon, Apollo 11. In total, twelve Americans walked on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. Apollo 17 was the last manned mission to the Moon and since then, no human has walked on its surface.

Concept art for NASA’s Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. Photo credit: NASA

A Look Forward

Returning to the Moon continues to be a key NASA objective. Working with commercial and international partners and using the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, NASA plans to build a Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway in the 2020s to be used for lunar orbit and beyond. In the private sector, SpaceX, with its reusable launch system and Dragon spacecraft, seeks not only to send the first humans to Mars but also to colonize it. The company is proposing lunar tourism, with plans to fly space tourists around the Moon. Blue Origin, another American spaceflight company, is also developing reusable rockets and spacecraft that will enable private citizens to travel into space. Other countries exploring options to send their citizens into space include Russia, China, Japan and India.

What is next for space exploration? Are we on the verge of a "space revolution"? While the answers to these questions remain uncertain, the next generation of space explorers is already preparing for journeys to the Moon and Mars. Space agencies and private companies have already tested and will continue to test new rockets and crew capsules. Plans are already in the works for orbiting lunar stations, lunar bases and colonies on Mars. In the meantime, robotic probes continue to explore the moons and planets in our solar system and beyond.

The intense interest in human space exploration will continue into the future. Voyages of exploration and discovery to the Moon, Mars and beyond capture our imagination just as much today as they did in the past, and the drive to discover what’s out there inspires our visions of future possibilities. Since the first space station launched forty-seven years ago, humans have been living and working in space, bringing us to the doorstep of a space revolution.

Question for the Curiosity Society

MSI is focused on this future, to inspire tomorrow’s adventurers—and the scientists and engineers who will equip them. What will your role be in helping open that door?