Here we are. Still.

There’s a difference between learning from the past and living in the past. Sometimes when we experience challenges in our past, we stay stuck there, trying to fully understand or even “fix” them or the people involved. We ruminate over what happened and why. We can even wind up blaming ourselves. “It must have been me. I must have done something to deserve this.”

As a result, our history holds us hostage. We wind up compromising our present and our ability to navigate a healthy future.

Try this on instead. As you read the following post, which is all about a very specific event in our nation’s history, think about your own past. Your history shouldn’t be used to predict your future, but it can inform where you’ve been, how you thought, the lessons you learned, so that you might make better choices now and in the future.

“Earthrise” – taken from the Apollo 8 Command Module

“Earthrise” – taken from the Apollo 8 Command Module

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” — William Faulkner

  • A seemingly endless war on foreign soil

  • Political upheaval and extreme partisan division

  • Protests by athletes during the playing of the National Anthem

  • Racial, ethnic, and gender inequality and strife

  • Demonstrations in the streets

  • Conflict with Russia

As U.S. News and World Reports concluded, those events and others signaled that “…the country’s values and institutions were fraying under enormous pressure.”

Today, right?

Actually, U.S. News and World Reports was reflecting back on 1968 – one of the most tortuous years in our nation’s history.

At the time, the U.S. was embroiled in the seemingly endless war in Vietnam. As U.S. casualties mounted, the North Vietnamese launched its massive, multi-prong attack across Vietnam that came to be known as the Tet Offensive. While the U.S. and their South Vietnamese ally narrowly averted a disastrous defeat, the enemy’s campaign foreshadowed the U.S.’s inability to actually “win” a guerrilla-type war.

1968 was an election year, and unrest with the war and the flagrant inequities in race and gender boiled over into politics and social unrest.

  • Alabama Governor George Wallace, an avowed racist, entered the presidential race as a third-party candidate.

  • Two black U.S. Olympians raised their fists in protest against discrimination during the playing of the National Anthem at the summer Olympics.

  • The Women’s Equal Rights movement grew in strength as Women Liberation and National Organization of Women chapters emerged in a number of states with their message of legal, political, economic and social equality.

  • Violent antiwar protests erupted at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

  • And perhaps most shattering of all, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated.

Hanging over all of this domestic turmoil was the “Cold War.” Born in the global power reshuffle following World War II, the Cold War was the battle for the hearts and minds of the world’s population – one economic and political system arrayed against the other, posing what seemed like the ultimate question: Which direction would the world follow, Democracy or Communism?

The chief combatants were the United States and the Soviet Union (Today, Russia is the largest remnant of that system). And while these two superpowers never engaged directly in armed combat, they prepared for the eventuality by building stockpiles of conventional and nuclear weapons. Military campaigns were replaced by proxy battles involving economic aid and development to third world countries, propaganda campaigns and espionage, rivalry in sports, and technological competitions.


Cold warriors: U.S. President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet Union’s Premier Nikita Khrushchev — on the brink of nuclear war

Of the latter, perhaps none was more important than the Space Race, the prizes of which were advancement in rocketry and the exploration of the planets. And there, the penultimate prize was the landing of humans on the Moon.

Whoever could achieve technological superiority could de facto claim ideological superiority. And in the early 1960s, the Soviet Union was winning.

A Bold Challenge

In 1957 the Soviets successfully placed the first satellite in orbit, and by 1961, they succeeded in putting the first human in space.

In response, President John F. Kennedy announced in May 1961 his now famous challenge to the nation of putting a man on the Moon and returning him safely to earth before the decade was out.

For the next seven years, the nation undertook the most complex science and engineering project in its history. At its height, NASA’s space program was relying on the contributions of hundreds of companies and more than 600,000 individuals.

The key building and learning blocks for the Moon missions, the Mercury and Gemini space programs, had been successful, and for a while it seemed like the U.S. was back in the race.

But by 1968, NASA’s Apollo program – the one designed to send men to the Moon and back – was struggling.

  • In 1967, three astronauts died in a horrendous and emotionally devastating fire aboard Apollo 1 during what was supposed to be a routine check of the cockpit.

  • The lunar module, the spider-like contraption that was supposed to ferry two astronauts to the moon and return them back to the command module, was behind schedule due to design and production problems.

  • In January 1968, NASA attempted an unmanned test of the Saturn V rocket, whose components were specifically designed to carry men to the Moon, land them, and then return them safely to Earth.

The Saturn V rocket was a monster. At the time, it was the most complex machine ever built. It stood some 363 feet tall and consisted of three linked but independent stages, each with its own engine(s) and fuel. It was made up of more than 5,600,000 parts, and 1,500,000 systems and subsystems. Fully fueled, it weighed in at about six million pounds. The five engines of its first stage could deliver somewhere in the neighborhood of 7.6 million pounds of thrust. What could possibly go wrong with the test?


The Saturn V rocket — Johnson Space Center — NASA

A lot, as it turns out. The test by any measure was a failure.

  • If those events weren’t bad enough, U.S. intelligence learned that the Soviets intended to launch a manned circumlunar flight sometime late in 1968. Such a mission was clearly a warning that they would attempt a manned landing sometime in 1969.

Second place in the Space Race, it seemed to many on the U.S. team, was a likely scenario.

Pop Quiz

Let’s stop here. I’m curious to see if you know what happened next. Choose one:

_____ A. Because of engineering problems, the U.S. decided to curtail its program of sending humans to the Moon, choosing instead to focus on unmanned exploration of the planets.

_____ B. The U.S. successfully overcame design and production challenges and sent three astronauts on a mission to orbit the Moon as a prelude to landing on it.

_____ C. The Soviet Union successfully completed a circumlunar mission and achieved the much-sought-after bragging rights. The U.S., in effect, lost the Space Race and suffered a major defeat in the Cold War.

_____ D. The U.S. successfully landed astronauts on the Moon and returned them safely to Earth.

If you chose “D,” you’re somewhat correct. That event did happen, just not “next.”

If you chose “A” or “C” you fall into that large category of Americans who do not know their history. (More on this later.)

And If You Chose “B”. . .

NASA officials decided in the summer of 1968 to not only continue the Apollo program, but to advance the mission that would for the first time send humans beyond Earth’s gravity to visit a foreign body.

Apollo 8 was already scheduled to fly sometime in the spring of 1969, but because of the likelihood of the Soviet mission, NASA officials decided in August 1968 to move the date up to late December 1968. In other words, the astronauts and planners now had only four months to prepare for the mission instead of seven or eight.

We can sum up what happened next with a few words:

Guts. Teamwork. Ingenuity. Prescience.

Mission schematic.jpg

The Apollo 8 mission flight plan — just slightly complex

The first three words refer to the mission itself. It was an extremely courageous act – many said “reckless” – to forge ahead with the mission to have three astronauts circumnavigate the Moon given the plethora of problems facing NASA engineers and scientists at the time. But the act of advancing the date actually forced new thinking and problem-solving.

Advancing the date injected renewed energy into the struggling program. It replaced the prospect of failure with the prospect of “First!”

Thus, on December 21, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders lifted off in the Saturn V rocket and headed to the Moon some 240,000 miles away, returning safely to Earth on December 27, 1968.

It was a near-flawless mission. In the process, it gave American’s something to finally feel good about after two assassinations, the every-rising U.S. body count in Vietnam, and angry – and often bloody – protests across the streets of America. One anonymous citizen summed up the sentiment for millions of us at the time in a telegram that found its way to President Lyndon Johnson’s desk: “Thanks. You saved 1968.”

And taking nothing away from the scientific achievement, or the fact that Apollo 8 paved the way for Neil Armstrong to take “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” during the summer of 1969, it is the last word that has become the mission’s legacy:


On December 24, as Apollo 8 orbited some 69 miles above the Moon’s surface, the astronauts were busily engaged in taking photos of the lunar surface – photos that would serve as critical guideposts for future Apollo missions.

With the nose of the space craft pointed toward the Moon’s horizon, the astronauts took in the stark contrast of the Moon’s uninviting brown-gray surface and the pitch-black infinity of space.

And then, just over the Moon’s horizon, something began to appear:


Artist’s rendering of Apollo 8 and “Earthrise”


“Earthrise,” as the iconic photo has become known, showcased the only color visible in the universe. This tiny blue-and-white sphere hung in the inky black of space.

At that moment, the three astronauts could only think of one word to describe what rose in front of them above the lifeless Moon:


Incredibly glorious and incredibly fragile.

Later that day, during a television broadcast with more than a billion people around the world listening in, Astronaut Jim Lovell observed:

“The vast loneliness up here of the Moon is awe-inspiring, and it makes you realized just what you have back there on Earth. The Earth from here is a grand oasis in the big vastness of space.”

And then, as the broadcast was winding down, each of the three astronauts in turn read a passage from the Book of Genesis. One passage was particularly apt for the moment.

“And God said, ‘Let the waters under the Heaven be gathered together unto one place. And let the dry land appear.’ And it was so And god called the dry land Earth. And the gathering together of the waters He called seas. And God saw that it was.”

Author Robert Kurson further captures the moment in is recently published book, Rocket Men:

“…once you couldn’t see boundaries, you started to see something different. You saw how small the planet is, how close all of us are to one another, how the only thing any of us really has, in an otherwise empty universe is each other. As Apollo 8 came around the [dark side] of the Moon and readied to reconnect with home, it seemed . . . so strange – the astronauts had come all this way to discover the Moon, and yet there they had discovered the Earth.” — from Rocket Men, by Robert KursonRandom House

If the three astronauts were standing among us today as symbolic figures of 1968 – amid our still extreme political polarity, amid our still blatant inequalities, amid our still wrangling over whether or not to accept the concept of climate change and to do something about it – you could almost hear them sighing, “Well, you can’t say we didn’t warn you.”


I used to teach high school American history, and later in an adjacent career, I helped write and publish American history textbooks. Reflecting on historical events is in my DNA. So three inescapable truths come to mind as I read about the events of 1968 and the Apollo 8 mission, now coming up on its 50th anniversary – three truths with a river running through them.

Truth 1: As far as we have come as a nation in a number of ways, we still carry the unresolved transgressions of inequality with us. As much as we profess as a nation to be based on a foundation of recognition and respect for all – e pluribus unum– we can’t seem to get beyond the contradictions inherent in racial, ethnic, religious, and gender inequality. Many of the beliefs that underscored society in 1968 are as loud, if not louder, today.

Truth 2: When we put our collective minds to a problem, there is no stopping us. The Apollo program received a lot of criticism because many felt the huge financial commitment could have been spent elsewhere. Maybe, but that argument ignores two important points.

  • Our various space adventures have spun off unparalleled benefits in other fields, not the least of which are in computer technology, weather forecasting, and medical research. We simply don’t market those benefits very well.

  • Underlying Apollo was the American penchant for exploration. When we seek to explore, we engage our curiosity, and when we engage our curiosity, we become problem solvers. And space is only one arena where we can work our collective problem-solving magic. What if we were to challenge ourselves today to wrestle with cancer, Alzheimers or climate change? What if we were to have a leader who would challenge us to do that work with the words of John F. Kennedy ringing in our ears:

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the 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 we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Truth 3: We are not great stewards of our collective home – the one that astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders witnessed through Apollo 8's windows. When they watched the Earth rise above the Moon’s horizon, they saw our planet in its singularity; in its fragile state in the universe. Unconscionably, many still glaringly choose self-interest over the warnings of how we are abusing our home.

The river that runs through it

Underlying all three of these truths is not just a lack of historical knowledge, but a disrespect for it. History can’t predict the future, but it tells us where we’ve been, how people thought, and what they did, so that we might make better choices now and in the future.

Part of our failure here is that we’re generally teaching American history the way we’ve always taught it – and it’s not a way that serves us well today. Surveying almost 250 years of American history produces mind-blowing numbness – a seemingly never-ending parade of names, dates, wars and elections.

Instead, we should be challenging students to examine the various themes that distinguish our history for good or bad – exploration, race, technology, war, politics and so on. Along with that, we should be posing phenomenon-based problems in those areas, problems to which students can engage their minds and propose solutions.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8, one of the major news station will close out its evening broadcast with a brief leave-the-viewer-happy human interest story: that incredible image of Earth rising above the Moon. It will serve as a wonderful reminder of how far we’ve come, and a prescient one of how far we still need to go.

Your lessons?

As you read this post, what came up for you about your past? Where in your past, if anywhere, have you tended to dwell? What events and or interactions have you not been able to file away in your archive? What lessons can you learn from your past to help you live more meaningfully in the present?

Jeff Ikler