Minnesota and the moon

Crew member Bill Anders took this iconic Earthrise image during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968. Earthrise photo courtesy of NASA.

On Christmas Eve 1968, the world watched on television as the crew of Apollo 8 — Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders — read from the Book of Genesis while beaming images of Earth rising from behind the lunar surface.

It was the second spaceflight mission to include a crew, and it was the first mission to orbit the moon.

During a highly turbulent and violent year, the “Earthrise” images, as they came to be known, imparted hope to an unsettled nation and instantly became part of American iconography.

Time magazine, in January 1969 named the Apollo 8 astronauts “Men of the Year”: “In the closing days of 1968, all mankind could exult in the vision of a new universe. For all its upheavals and frustrations, the year would be celebrated as the year in which men saw at firsthand their little earth entire, a remote, blue-brown sphere hovering like a migrant bird in the hostile night of space.”

Lunar module pilot William Anders, speaking with the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project in 1997, recalled the highlight of the mission: “Here was this orb, looking like a Christmas tree ornament, very fragile, not an infinite expanse of granite, and seemingly of a physical insignificance. And yet it was our home.”

Hope defined all of the Apollo missions. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously addressed Congress, challenging the U.S. to land astronauts on the moon and return them home safely. In 1969, Apollo 11 would do just that.

Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the lunar surface with Armstrong saying, “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” The astronauts conducted scientific research and collected samples, including fragments of moon rocks to bring back to Earth.

Minnesota received a lunar sample, along with every state, U.S. territory and foreign nation, as a goodwill gesture following the return of the Apollo 11 crew. Minnesota also received similar “goodwill moon rocks” from Apollo 17, which made the final lunar landing in December 1972.

While the Apollo 17 lunar samples made it to the Minnesota Historical Society, the Apollo 11 samples went missing for years, tucked away in a storage area of the Veterans Service Building in St. Paul until they were uncovered in 2010. On Nov. 28, 2012, the Minnesota National Guard transferred the Apollo 11 lunar samples to the society.

spacesuit jacket
Astronaut George “Pinky” Nelson wore the above spacesuit jacket between 1983 and 1988. Visitors to The 1968 Exhibit  — can relive the “Earthrise” reading in a recreated living room with a replica of the Apollo 8 command module (below); also on display are artifacts on loan from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, including the “bubble” helmet and Omega wristwatch worn by astronaut Jim Lovell Jr. Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Minnesota boasts numerous notable astronauts:

  • Dale Gardner from Fairmont flew two missions aboard Challenger in 1983 and Discovery in 1984.
  • Robert D. Cabana from Minneapolis is a veteran of four space shuttle flights, two on Discovery in 1990 and 1992, one on Columbia in 1994 and the last on Endeavour in 1998, which met up with the International Space Station.
  • Duane G. Carey, born in St. Paul, piloted the shuttle Columbia in 2002 on a mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope.
  • Karen L. Nyberg from Vining flew to the International Space Station on Discovery in 2008, and in 2013 she joined the Russian Soyuz mission to the International Space Station.
  • Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper from St. Paul flew on two shuttle missions aboard Atlantis in 2006 and Endeavour in 2008.
  • George “Pinky” Nelson considers himself a Minnesotan even though he was born in Iowa. Nelson graduated from Willmar Senior High School in 1968, the year Apollo 8 first orbited the moon. He’s a veteran of three space flights: Challenger in 1984, Columbia in 1986 and Discovery in 1988. The Minnesota Historical Society holds in its collection Nelson’s spacesuit jacket from his Discovery mission.
  • Robert “Bob” Gilruth was born in Nashwauk, grew up in Duluth and graduated from the University of Minnesota. He worked on hypersonic vehicles even before NASA was created in 1958, and by 1968 he was the director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (later renamed the Johnson Space Center) which oversaw the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.
1968 Exhibit
A replica of the Apollo 8 command module. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.