The Earth Behind a Man's Thumb

There was at the end of 1968 an event that remains an inspirational symbol for the challenges ahead. For the Sixties were also the glory years of the American space program, and of astronauts such as Captain Jim Lovell. Lovell, who will be eighty in 2008, retains the boyish enthusiasm of an Eagle Scout, an award he earned growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during the Depression, the son of a single mother. His father had died, and times were not easy for the Lovells. "We had a one-room apartment with a Murphy bed that came out of the wall," he remembers.

The young Lovell was fascinated with rocket science. He'd read Jules Verne's "From the Earth to the Moon" at thirteen and he began building and launching some primitive backyard rockets a few hundred feet into the air.

When he realized his family couldn't afford to send him to the big-time science institutions such as Cal Tech or MIT, he applied to the U.S. Naval Academy. He was rejected on the first pass but got in after two years at the University of Wisconsin.

When he graduated from Annapolis in 1952, he became a Navy fighter pilot and then a test pilot. By 1959 NASA—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—was looking for seven pilots with the Right Stuff, in Tom Wolfe's enduring phrase about the first astronauts. Lovell was among the thirty-four military pilots considered, but he was rejected because he had a rare blood-pigmentation condition; it wasn't life-threatening, but it took him out of the running.

He was disappointed but not discouraged. He wrote in his diary, "There will be other space projects and who knows, I might be part of them … We learn through failure."

Three years later he was selected for the second group of astronauts. In 1965 and again in 1966 he went into space aboard a Gemini module, spending almost three weeks orbiting the earth.

The big goal was leaving Earth's atmosphere and landing on the moon, to keep the pledge President Kennedy had made at Rice University on September 12, 1962. JFK inspired many all around the world with his words that day: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do … other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."

By 1968 Lovell, William Anders, and Frank Borman were training for Apollo 8, a dress-rehearsal flight for a lunar landing. Originally they were not scheduled to leave Earth's atmosphere. They were only going to test the slingshot effect—a high-velocity orbit of the earth that would launch the capsule on a flight to the moon. But there were rumors that the Russians were trying to get there first, so NASA changed Apollo 8's flight plan.

Now Apollo 8 would fly to the moon, orbit around the dark side, and return to Earth in the last week of December. If it all went well, the spacecraft would be orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968. The training for the momentous flight went on feverishly all during 1968. When I met Lovell at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago—where he helped organize an elaborate exhibit commemorating the flight—I asked if the astronauts had been aware of all that was going on outside of NASA that year—the riots, the assassinations, the antiwar protests.

"We were all senior military people," he said, "and we were so intent on our project we put all of that aside. We did talk about the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and we worried the cost of the war would eat into the space program."

Lovell says that even though he wasn't paying too much attention, he thought the culture was disintegrating. "My background," he says, "was more patriotic. Listening to your elders, taking direction, trying to be a leader. The hippie movement sort of soured me."

On December 21, 1968, in the predawn darkness, Lovell was getting ready to enter the spacecraft atop the giant Saturn V rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Borman and Anders were already inside the vehicle. Lovell tells me, laughing, "I was left alone. I looked down, and I could see the lights of the press cars coming in for the launch. I thought, 'These people are serious. We're going to the moon!' "

At 10:41:37 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, less than three hours after the launch from Florida and an orbit of the earth, Apollo 8 went into what was called "the trans-lunar injection." They were headed for the moon, 240,000 miles and three days away.

"We got the proper course and velocity … and we looked back at Earth. You could see it getting smaller and smaller because our velocity was so high. It reminded me of driving through a tunnel and looking out the back window and seeing the entrance shrink in size."

Early in the morning on December 24, Apollo 8 was within reach of the moon's gravitational pull, but the astronauts couldn't see the lunar surface. The spacecraft's blunt end blocked their view. The crew fired an engine and manipulated the spacecraft to get into position for a lunar orbit. Lovell's voice still rises slightly with excitement forty years later as he recalls the moment. "All of a sudden … just sixty-nine miles below, the ancient craters of the far side of the moon were slowly slipping by. We forgot the flight plan. We were like three kids in a candy store window."

The best was yet to come. "As we kept going, suddenly on the lunar horizon, coming up, was Earth." He remembers the vivid contrast between the lifeless moon and the vibrant earth. "The moon is nothing but shades of gray and darkness. But the earth—you could see the deep blues of the seas, the whites of the clouds, the salmon pink and brown of the land masses."

He says, "At one point I sighted the earth with my thumb—and my thumb from that distance fit over the entire planet. I realized how insignificant we all are if everything I'd ever known is behind my thumb. But at that moment I don't think the three of us understood the lasting significance of what we were looking at."

Borman, Anders, and Lovell had another gift to the world on that Christmas Eve. Before launching they had wrestled with what they might say with so many people listening in— estimated at a billion—and so a NASA executive contacted a friend in Washington, who in turn got in touch with Joe Layton.

Layton was a newspaperman famous for his later career as a government public information officer in several administrations.

He was struggling with what the astronauts could say, so the story goes, when his wife suggested the opening verse of the Bible, from Genesis in the Old Testament.

And so it came to pass that on Christmas Eve, 1968, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders divided up the scripture and began to read.

"In the beginning, God created the heavens 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. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.

"And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night."

When Borman read the final passage—Genesis, chapter one, verse ten—the long, deeply painful, and disorienting year of 1968 and all those who went through it had an opportunity to stop and contemplate their place in the vast universe of history.

"And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering of the waters he called Seas; and God saw that it was good."

Lovell says when Apollo 8 returned safely to Earth three days later, the crew was inundated with messages from people around the world saying, "Thank you for saving 1968."

Two years later Jim Lovell assured himself a place forever in the dictionary of memorable quotations. As mission commander of the crew of Apollo 13, he expected to achieve his childhood dream and finally set foot on the lunar surface.

They were almost 200,000 miles from Cape Canaveral when a small explosion on board wrecked their chances of landing on the moon and possibly of even getting back to Earth.

Lovell's laconic test-pilot Right Stuff notification to NASA headquarters of trouble on board remains a classic:

"Houston, we have a problem."

There followed four harrowing days of seat-of-the-pants flying with NASA engineers radioing instructions and suggestions.

As we all know, Lovell and his crew of Fred Haise Jr. and John L. Swigert Jr. made it back.

Lovell says that very close call changed him. "I live my life one day at a time now. Nothing rattles me."

He's been married for almost sixty years to his college sweetheart, Marilyn, and they have four grown children, two daughters and two sons. He is a partner with one of his sons in a restaurant in Lake Forest, Illinois. Lovell likes to visit with patrons and answer questions about the space memorabilia on display.

When he's at the family cabin on a lake north of Chicago on a summer night, Jim Lovell will look up at a full moon and remember Christmas Eve, 1968. "When you see Earth from the moon," he says, "you realize how fragile it is and just how limited the resources are. We're all astronauts on this spaceship Earth—about six or seven billion of us—and we have to work and live together."

Stewart Brand placed that shot of Earth on the front and back cover of the Whole Earth Catalog with the inscription, "We can't put it together. It is together."

Forty years after one of the most divisive years in American history, I asked Brand what that means.

He replied, "I suppose it is seeing what connects rather than what divides."

The Earth Behind a Man's Thumb | Culture