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Spacecraft Essay


William A. Anders
Retired Chairman
General Dynamics Corporation

As a youth I was fascinated by science and engineering. I also loved to explore and find out what was on the other side of the mountain. These traits came together beyond my wildest boyhood dreams when I was selected by NASA to be an Apollo astronaut. The Apollo program, with its preeminent role in the "space race" with the USSR, allowed me to serve my country during a critical period of the Cold War.

As astronauts we spent many hours in training, learning how to operate spacecraft systems in our effort to get to the Moon. Those of us with engineering backgrounds (I was a nuclear engineer) were assigned tasks in design and testing, such as determining methods for measuring radiation dosage and shielding. We also studied geology—Earth's surface up close with rock hammer and magnifying glass and the lunar surface from afar with telescopes—so that we would be prepared to describe the lunar surface features and materials when we got there.

I was lucky enough to be chosen for the Apollo 8 crew. This would be man's first flight on the giant Saturn V rocket, with a mission to blaze a trail to the Moon and orbit it 10 times. The mission was set to occur over Christmas 1968. After a successful launch and orbital check of the spacecraft's systems, we re-ignited our rocket engines and boosted our velocity to some 35,000 feet per second. This was easily a new world speed record and enough for us to be the first humans to escape the gravity of our home planet and venture to another celestial body.

After two and a half days of first "coasting" away from Earth and later of "falling" toward the Moon, we retro-fired our spacecraft's rocket to slow us down enough to be captured by the Moon's gravity. We were in lunar orbit!

As the amateur geologist and photographer of the crew (as well as spacecraft systems engineer and pilot), I was especially eager to view the lunar surface. But after several 2-hour "heads down" orbits observing the Moon and photographing lunar features, I was, frankly, getting a bit bored at the Moon's sameness. The surface was a monotonous gray that looked sandblasted. And it was repetitive—crater upon crater upon crater created by countless meteors, large and small through the eons.

Then all of a sudden we saw Earth rising majestically above the Moon's stark horizon. We might have been engineers and "right stuff" test pilots, but the beauty of this sight took our breath away. I grabbed the color camera and snapped the now famous first "Earthrise" photo.

Earth appeared quite small to us—about the size of my fist at arm's length. It was the only color in the dull black "sky"—a fragile Christmas tree ornament to be handled with utmost care, not just a chunk of rock whose inhabitants treated it carelessly. Big or small, we realized that it was mankind's only home and the place where we evolved, the center of our emotional and spiritual universe.

Apollo was designed and operated to go to the Moon and learn about its properties, but its main contribution may well have been the new human perspective it created about the fragility and finiteness of our home planet. And this was done by a bunch of engineers.


     After Sputnik
     Early Leaders
     Space Race
     Exploring Galaxies
     Essay - William A. Anders
     The Global Positioning System

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