Forty-six years ago today a rocket blasted off from Cape Kennedy in Florida, orbited the Earth three times, and splashed down 10 hours later in the Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii. No one was on board. This flight was known as Apollo 6, and was one of the unmanned test flights conducted by NASA in its run-up to the manned missions that would eventually take human beings to the Moon. The main purpose of the flight was to test whether the spacecraft could withstand the major rocket burn of a “trans-lunar injection”–the blast from its engine that would send it toward the Moon–and whether the space capsule could successfully re-enter the Earth after such a maneuver. Apollo 6 proved that it could.

The day on which the flight happened, April 4, 1968, was a good day to leave the Earth. For reasons that had nothing to do with Apollo 6 or the Moon, that day proved to be one of the most tragic days in recent American history. Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated that day in Memphis, Tennessee by James Earl Ray. The anger and outrage in African-American communities at this senseless act of terrorism boiled over in a number of riots and disturbances in urban communities across the US. The cause of civil rights and peace was set back years, if not decades, and would be compounded by another assassination, that of Robert F. Kennedy, only two months later.

There was more. The unmanned Apollo 6 rocket left a United States torn by racial division and social unrest, but also orbited an Earth filled with uncertainty and conflict. The Vietnam War was at its height. Only five days before the launch of Apollo 6 President Lyndon Johnson announced he wasn’t seeking a second term as President, thus throwing open the Presidential race. American negotiators were struggling to come to some kind of accord with the North Vietnamese that might end the terrible bloodletting in Southeast Asia. In Europe, the “Prague Spring” was in full bloom. Thought to be a harbinger of hopeful change in Eastern Bloc societies, the political and cultural flowering in Czechoslovakia would, in August 1968, be brutally suppressed by an invasion by Soviet troops. Cold War tensions were very high. 1968 was a strange and scary time.

MLK balcony photo

One of the most famous photos in American history–Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders in Memphis, moments before the assassination–was taken while Apollo 6 was orbiting the Earth.

Also on the day of the Apollo 6 mission, a movie opened in a limited premiere at the Warner Cinerama Theater in Hollwood and Loew’s Capital in New York City. The film was called 2001: A Space Odyssey, the epic science fiction opus by director Stanley Kubrick that would remake science fiction–and movies–forever. The film wasn’t scheduled for general release until April 10, but a few reviews were working their way into the papers on April 4, some glowing with praise, others sharply negative. Although overshadowed by the assassination and political unrest, the release of 2001 would go on to be a cultural phenomenon, both entertaining and bewildering audiences through the spring and summer of 1968, and for decades afterward.

Given these events, there was almost no press coverage of Apollo 6. Why should there have been? It was a steel can filled with computers and mechanisms. The flight did have some serious mishaps and even went off course, but it ended well enough; the failure of the mission might have made modest headlines somewhere, but its relative success was unremarkable. Yet without this mission NASA would not have been able to launch Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo flight, a few months later. No living being rode Apollo 6 into orbit, but the flight blazed the trail, arguably, for one of mankind’s greatest achievements.

Ironically, as obscure as the Apollo 6 mission was, almost everyone has probably seen at least a bit of it. Onboard movie cameras captured various aspects of the flight. One particular clip, which appears in almost every documentary ever made about the Moon flights or the space program, shows a stage of the rocket falling away in a fiery blast. (It starts at 4:21 of the video I posted below). This footage is very often misidentified as having been taken on the Apollo 11 mission, but in fact it’s Apollo 6. The pretty blue world you see beneath the spaceship is the troubled world that, on that terrible day, was dealing with tragedy, violence, war, prejudice and uncertainty–and also hope and achievement. The world always looks the same from space.