The night that NASA’s Juno #Space probe entered orbit around Jupiter, the mission’s principal investigator, Scott Bolton, declared, “We just did the hardest thing NASA’s ever done.” The statement can be put down to exuberance caused by successfully getting Juno into its intended orbit, which includes periodic dips into a zone of intense radiation around Jupiter. However, the question arises, what about the moon landings?
Indeed, one might argue that New Horizons, which sped past Pluto last year or the complicated landing of Mars Curiosity on the Red Planet might have been slightly more challenging that Juno going into orbit around Jupiter.
Still, something should be said about the redemptive aspects of space missions. One shared meme on social media went like this: “If you’re depressed about the state of the world today, think about the fact that humans just put a machine in orbit around Jupiter.” Race riots, police shootings, political rancor, and the lies of politicians will always be with us. But once in a while, something happens that proves that the naked apes that inhabit this planet are capable of greatness.
Speaking of the Apollo moon landings, one should only look back to another year from hell, 1968. The year started with the Tet Offensive, featured the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, race riots without number, and the mayhem that happened during the Democratic National Convention. Some people would add the election of Richard Nixon to that list of horribles, but considering who he was running against, that is something of a judgment call.
Then, in December of 1968, something wonderful happened.
In a decision that was fraught with both genius and the sort of risk-taking that the space agency is loath to pursue today, NASA decided to send Apollo 8, the second manned Apollo flight, in orbit around the moon. The mission was successful.
Apollo 8 sent the now iconic image of the Earth rising above the lunar surface. One Christmas Eve, 1968, while the Apollo spacecraft soared over the lunar surface, the astronauts sent a live broadcast during which they read from the Book of Genesis.
1968 brings to mind the Greek myth of Pandora, who opened a box and released all the ills of the world. But also the spirit of hope entered the world of humans as well. Apollo 8 was that hope that closed out that year and applied a balm to the hurts that it had brought.
Sadly 2016 will not end with a similar redemptive moment. President Barack Obama made sure of that when he canceled the Constellation space exploration program. But, perhaps, some day people from Earth will travel across the void and send back the gift of wonder.