The Apollo 8 crew after splashdown, 50 years ago today.
It is the morning after the morning after Christmas. And to our view, accelerating toward it to a speed 24,629 mph, the Earth is dark and void. Six minutes before E.I., Entry Interface, the moon appears above the hidden horizon. Right as predicted. We’re coming in over the nightside above Asia and the Pacific, slicing perfectly down the tight reentry corridor. At E.I., at the faintest hint of atmosphere, the glow of ionized molecules begins to envelop us and form a long tail, as if we are flying through a neon tube.
“The old Earth has us.”
To the fortunate few in position to observe us, we become a comet with a tail a hundred miles long. Temperatures on the blunt heatshield rise toward 5,000 degrees (F). The G-forces build with the slam of deceleration — three, five, six. . . Then, as the capsule begins its preprogramed dance, they release. Like a skipping stone, the capsule rises to release heat, then descends, rises and descends again like a human breath.
At 100,000 ft., the altimeter comes alive. The old Earth has us in its envelope. The parachutes open and spread their fingers to the dark sky. Splashdown. It is 10:51 a.m. on the East Coast of the U.S., still predawn where we are. Our voyage of 147 hours is over. We await the touch of sunrise.