03/11/2013 02:36 pm ET Updated May 11, 2013

On the Anniversary of Apollo 8

And so, with a single, masterful PR stroke, Mars has been restored to the reachable horizons of human spaceflight. Millionaire financier and engineer Dennis Tito has announced an optimistically budgeted plan to launch a middle-aged married couple on a flyby mission to the planet in early January 2018, returning them to Earth a year and a half later. The schedule is inflexible: any significant delay in launch, and the relative orbital motions of Mars and Earth around the sun would extend the mission duration prohibitively to two or more years. But there is also a conscious touch of poetry to the proposal. If the lucky couple make it up and out to Mars safely and on time, they will still be in space for the 50th anniversary of the first and most celebrated manned flyby mission to the moon, that of Apollo 8 in December 1968. The voyage, commented one of Tito's scientific advisers, "is going to be the Apollo 8 moment for our next generation." According to Tito's own feasibility study, it will be "a defining moment for humanity as well as an inspiration to our youth."

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the project will attract the necessary finance; that the intrepid duo will be launched safely into space; and that their marriage -- the most closely monitored and widely discussed in human history -- will survive the twin trials of long-duration spaceflight and uninterrupted proximity. Let us assume that we will not be like children in the basement listening as a growing estrangement breaks open into bitter conflict above our heads. Let us assume that they will make it to Mars and that the whole world will be watching their encounter with that planet for all the best reasons.

If it goes as well as Apollo 8's orbits around the moon, then the journey over the Martian surface will indeed be triumphant. When the crew of Apollo 8 -- Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders -- broadcast live from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968, the radio and television audience was the largest ever recorded. Toward the end of the broadcast, as their camera scanned the landscape below, they took turns reading the opening passage from Genesis, concluding with the 10th verse: "And God called the dry land earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas; and God saw that it was good." Borman signed off: "We close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you -- all of you on the good earth." The crew cut the transmission, and abruptly, as if the hand of God himself had touched the switch, television screens across the nation filled with static. "It was a moment that was depthless and inexpressible," observed novelist William Styron.

Yet the thrill of Apollo 8 proved evanescent. Public support for space exploration had increased in anticipation of the mission, but it declined again after the crew returned to Earth. In February 1969 only 39 percent of Americans favored a landing on the moon; 49 percent were opposed. To the extent that Apollo 8 was a "defining moment," it provided not inspiration but a resource for public ambivalence toward the enterprise of manned expeditions to other worlds. For the Apollo 8 astronauts, the moon had turned out to be an unappealing destination. From a height of 60 miles, the lunar terrain was not gentle, virginal, enigmatic. William Anders compared its appearance to that of "dirty beach sand." "I'm kind of curious," commented Jim Lovell, "how all the songwriters can refer to it in such romantic terms." (A year or so later, prior to his departure aboard Apollo 13, Lovell prepared a commentary on the moon to be delivered in lunar orbit. The commentary expressed regret that the Apollo 8 astronauts had "fostered" the impression that the moon was monotonous: "We left the emphasis off the variety of structures we can see below us which match an Earth that had never seen water." But Apollo 13 never made it into lunar orbit, and the commentary was not delivered.)

The most famous product of the Apollo 8 mission was the photograph, taken by Anders, of a partly shadowed blue-and-white earth appearing over the desolate, grey lunar horizon. "It was the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life," recalled Frank Borman of his first Earthrise, "one that sent a torrent of nostalgia, of sheer homesickness, surging through me." For most of the Apollo astronauts, their encounters with the moon confirmed the attractions of home. The space age yielded no repetition of 1492; it opened up no lush, green paradise in which mankind could make a new start. The ironic effect of the Apollo missions was that they actually worked to extinguish the outwards astrofuturist thrust of American culture, reprioritizing efforts to improve the conditions of life on mankind's own troubled, polluted planet. The moral was underlined by Lovell's later travails aboard Apollo 13, not least because the emergency occurred on the very eve of the first Earth Day. As Eric Sevareid commented on the CBS Evening News:

"So the three astronauts head home across the desert of space, their oxygen and water running low. Perhaps the story will be seen one day as a parable. This earth is also a spinning spaceship, all of us are astronauts, and our oxygen and water are also diminishing. But we have no place to go."

Dennis Tito and his associates, of course, can spend their money whatever way they like. But, on the evidence of Apollo 8, they probably should not expect a flyby mission to Mars to inspire a new generation to embrace planetary exploration as an urgent human goal. Have they access to a better script than the King James Bible? Will Mars, viewed from a hundred miles up, appeal more to the non-scientific eye than Earth or the moon? Perhaps there is not enough in the solar system to beckon man forward, to keep him probing the frontier in expectation and hope. The point may be simply stated: for the space age to be revived, we would need a better cosmos.