The Ancient and Honorables

Friday was a busy day for me and I was off comm most of the day with meetings and whatnot. At the end of the day, I hustled over to the Saturn V barn at JSC to help with a tour of JSC co-ops. It was a good thing to do.

Then, at 5:30, the new class of Flight Directors sponsored a gathering of the Ancient and Honorable Society of Flight Directors at Space Center Houston. It was a wonderful event. Most of the society made it. Chris Kraft, Glynn Lunney, Chuck Lewis were the elder statesmen. Many true and almost true stories from the MCC were exchanged as the new Flight Directors were initiated into the team. As the evening wore on, we settled into a circle around the most venerable members. We heard many stories of the early days at the remote site locations around the world. Most of the stories are unrepeatable. Some of them were even about space flight.

At the end of the evening, when the SCH cleaning crew through us out about 2 hours past when we were scheduled to leave, the last story was from Dr. Kraft. How they found out that the LM would not be ready for checkout on Apollo 8. How the team came up with bold idea to orbit the moon instead. How Gilruth and Kraft sold the idea to a skeptical assembly of General Phillips, George Mueller, Wehner Von Braun. How the mission transformed the entire program, the entire race to the moon. A bold gamble that paid off.

Only after I left the gathering, and turned on the car radio, did I learn the awful news from Paris. Somehow that contrast with the final story brought to my mind the essay that the Poet Laureate of the United States wrote back in December of 1968. About Apollo 8. And how this story is profoundly appropriate:

Riders on Earth Together, Brothers in Eternal Cold
December 25, 1968
Men’s conception of themselves and of each other has always depended on their notion of the earth. When the earth was the World — all the world there was — and the stars were lights in Dante’s heaven, and the ground beneath men’s feet roofed Hell, they saw themselves as creatures at the center of the universe, the sole, particular concern of God — and from that high place they ruled and killed and conquered as they pleased.
And when, centuries later, the earth was no longer the World but a small, wet spinning planet in the solar system of a minor star off at the edge of an inconsiderable galaxy in the immeasurable distances of space — when Dante’s heaven had disappeared and there was no Hell (at least no Hell beneath the feet) — men began to see themselves not as God-directed actors at the center of a noble drama, but as helpless victims of a senseless farce where all the rest were helpless victims also and millions could be killed in world-wide wars or in blasted cities or in concentration camps without a thought or reason but the reason — if we call it one — of force.
Now, in the last few hours, the notion may have changed again. For the first time in all of time men have seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depth of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small as even Dante — that “first imagination of Christendom” — had never dreamed of seeing it; as the Twentieth Century philosophers of absurdity and despair were incapable of guessing that it might be seen. And seeing it so, one question came to the minds of those who looked at it. “Is it inhabited?” they said to each other and laughed — and then they did not laugh. What came to their minds a hundred thousand miles and more into space — “half way to the moon” they put it — what came to their minds was the life on that little, lonely, floating planet; that tiny raft in the enormous, empty night. “Is it inhabited?”
The medieval notion of the earth put man at the center of everything. The nuclear notion of the earth put him nowhere — beyond the range of reason even — lost in absurdity and war. This latest notion may have other consequences. Formed as it was in the minds of heroic voyagers who were also men, it may remake our image of mankind. No longer that preposterous figure at the center, no longer that degraded and degrading victim off at the margins of reality and blind with blood, man may at last become himself.
To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers. apollo-8-earth-rise-8

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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13 Responses to The Ancient and Honorables

  1. John Sterchi says:

    Thank you for this Mr. Hale.

  2. Paul Dye says:

    Nicely said Turquoise!

  3. Katrina Ince says:

    I know that only “man” has see the Earth from the moon. Only “man” (as far as I know) was responsible for Paris. But can we say “human” going forward? Post was very gender specific.

    • waynehale says:


      Please excuse the gender specificity of the essay, written almost half a century ago. Language has evolved to be much more inclusive now than it was then.

    • Godwin-Austen says:

      “Archibald MacLeish [1892-1982]. Archibald MacLeish was an American poet, writer, and the Librarian of Congress…He received three Pulitzer Prizes for his work.” -Wikipedia

      Please address complaints to A. MacLeish, Pine Grove Cemetery, Conway, MA.

      A very temperate response, waynehale. And many thanks for a beautiful, elegiac post.

  4. Beth says:

    Thank you for this post, in the wake of atrocity, to remind us of our common humanity.


  5. MBMelcon says:

    “We heard many stories of the early days at the remote site locations around the world. Most of the stories are unrepeatable. Some of them were even about space flight.” Please, someone collect these, and put them on the record, even if they do not come out for another half century. -MBMelcon

  6. Roy Hobbs says:

    Think you meant “threw”, not through you out.

  7. Grego says:

    Wayne, thank you for all that you share with us. One note: Archibald MacLeish was an esteemed, Pulitzer-prize-winning poet, and was Librarian of Congress from 1939 to 1944, but he was never the Poet Laurate, a position which was created in 1937.

  8. I am sorry to hear the oral history project has been cut. I was unable to get support to collect ideas from the departing Shuttle contractors when they were laid off.

    “Those who do not remember the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them.”
    — George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense, 1905.

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