The Apollo 8 crew pictured at a flight simulator at Kennedy Space Center. Left to right: James A. Lovell Jr., William A. Anders, and Frank Borman. Image Credit: NASA
Launch date: 21 December 1968 Launch location: Launch Complex 39 A Lunar orbits: 10 Lunar orbital altitude: 111km Mission duration: 6 days, 3 hours and 42 seconds Return date: 27 December 1968 Main goals: Demonstrate translunar injection; test navigation, communications and mid-course corrections; refine systems and procedures for future lunar operations Firsts: Crewed flight around the Moon; crewed flight across Van Allen belts; live TV broadcast from lunar orbit Christmas menu: Turkey, stuffing, cranberry, gravy, brandy (left unopened)
Although 21 December 1968 was the shortest day of the year, for the astronauts of Apollo 8 it would be one of the longest of their lives.
The three men started it sitting on top of an untested rocket about to travel further from Earth than any human had been before. They were destined for the Moon.
But Apollo 8 wasn’t originally intended to go that far.
The mission brief was initially to stay in low-Earth orbit and practise manoeuvring with a lunar lander.
By June 1968, however, it had become apparent that the lander wouldn’t be ready in time for the mission’s launch.
The timeline to meet the 1969 deadline for a lunar landing was already tight – a delay to Apollo 8 would derail it entirely.
To avoid wasting the mission, NASA considered bringing forward the Apollo 9 mission plan and sending Apollo 8 to orbit around the Moon.
It was an outrageous suggestion – only one Apollo mission had flown with a crew and the Saturn V rocket they planned to use on 21 December had never been launched with humans on board.
Was it really a good idea to send astronauts to the Moon as the rocket’s first big test?
Ultimately, the decision was made not by NASA, but by the Soviet Union.
In September, the Russians launched Zond 5, sending the first living creatures (including a pair of tortoises) to the Moon and back.
It seemed a crewed Soviet mission couldn’t be far behind.
“My own impression is that it’s a vast, lonely, forbidding type existence…
It certainly would not appear to be a very inviting place to live or work,” he said during a live television broadcast.
But as the crew emerged from behind the Moon for the fourth time, they were treated to a sight that managed to break through even Borman’s apparent apathy.
“Oh my God!” he exclaimed. “Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up.
Wow, is that pretty?!”
During Apollo 8, the astronauts made a reading from the book of Genesis as they ended their broadcast to Earth. Image Credit: NASA
A new perspective on home
The globe of Earth floated in the darkness, the only point of colour in an infinite Universe of black and grey.
Anders frantically searched for some colour film and took what would go on to be one of the most iconic photographs of all time: ‘Earthrise’.
“The vast loneliness up here of the Moon is awe-inspiring,” said Lovell during one of the Apollo 8 mission’s six live television broadcasts.
“It makes you realise just what you have back there on Earth.”
One of the live television broadcasts the crew made while at the Moon fell on Christmas Eve.
NASA predicted the historic transmission would reach the largest audience ever assembled and tasked the crew to do something appropriate.
With the TV camera pointed out of the module’s window, looking at the lunar landscape slowly rolling past, the crew took turns reading from Genesis, about the creation of the planet they could see floating in the black void of space.
“We came all this way to explore the Moon,” William Anders said after the mission’s successful return.
“And the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
Commander: Frank Borman
Borman joined NASA in 1962 from the air force and flew on the 14-day Gemini 7 mission.
After Apollo 8, he was offered command of the first lunar landing but felt little enthusiasm for spaceflight, having only joined NASA to “beat the damn Russians” and left the agency.
He worked for Eastern Airlines before retiring in 1986.
Command Module pilot: James ‘Jim’ Lovell
A navy test pilot before joining NASA in 1962, Lovell first flew in space on Gemini 7 with Borman.
After Apollo 8, he was part of another Moon mission as part of the ill-fated Apollo 13 crew. He left the space programme in 1973 and worked in the corporate world, retiring in 1991.
He still travels around the world giving speeches about his experiences.
Lunar Module pilot: William ‘Bill’ Anders
Originally an air force pilot, Anders had degrees in both electrical and nuclear engineering.
He joined NASA in 1963 in the third group of astronauts.
Apollo 8 was his only trip to space, though he retained his astronaut status while working for the National Aeronautics and Space Council.
He went on to work in the field of nuclear energy.
The Saturn V rocket that will launch the Apollo 8 mission sits on the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center, ahead of lift-off 21 December 1968. Credit: NASA
Apollo 8 timeline
21 Dec 12:51 GMT – The Saturn V carrying Apollo 8 launches from Cape Kennedy.
21 Dec 13:02 GMT – Apollo 8 enters Earth orbit.
21 Dec 15:18 GMT – After 1.5 orbits of Earth, Apollo 8 receives permission to go for translunar injection.
21 Dec 15:41 GMT – The S-IVB stage starts its burn, sending Apollo 8 towards the Moon. Six minutes later, translunar injection is achieved.
24 Dec 09:49 GMT – Apollo 8 approaches the Moon and disappears around its far side, losing contact with Earth.
24 Dec 09:59 GMT – The crew burn the engines for four minutes to enter lunar orbit.
25 Dec 02:34 GMT – Apollo 8 broadcasts its Christmas message.
25 Dec 06:10 GMT – An engine burn sets the spacecraft on a course back towards Earth.
27 Dec 15:37 GMT – The spacecraft re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.
27 Dec 15:51 GMT – Apollo 8 splashes down in the north Pacific Ocean.