Christmas 1968 saw three men from Earth make a remarkable and unprecedented voyage of exploration. A dramatic and hurriedly planned mission gave the crew the first human view of the Moon’s farside and the whole human race saw our homeplanet in a new way. This is the story of Apollo 8.
To look back in history the year 1968 shows humanity largely at its worst. On-going wars, invasions, riots, brutal suppressions of protests and shocking assassinations all disgraced 1968.
However at the end of that violent year, something unique and inspiring happened too. This was the lunar odyssey of Apollo 8’s crew.
In January 1968 it seemed by no means certain that NASA would successfully complete John F. Kennedy’s goal “of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of the sixties. A year earlier astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee had perished in a horrific fire on 27 January 1967. Their Apollo capsule was on the ground for a rehearsal rather than in flight, making their deaths seem even more of an empty waste of lives. Before any Apollo spacecraft flew into space the vehicle’s design would need thousands of changes to remove the flaws that had contributed to the tragedy. Moreover, NASA’s mighty Saturn 5 rocket, central to any lunar flight, had made only one test flight. Superficially a stunning success, this launch had been a near disaster, as not only had there been multiple engine failures but also unexpected massive vibrations running up and down its structure had almost shook the rocket to pieces. Not only was the Apollo capsule design fatally defective, but the Saturn 5 was not safe to carry people either. Meanwhile behind a curtain of secrecy, the Soviet Union was preparing a titanic rocket, larger than its American equivalent and clearly designed for sending crews to the Moon. Perhaps the first man on the Moon would be a representative of totalitarian communism rather than democracy.
In October 1968, Apollo 7 was successfully launched with a crew of three on board. This was the first flight in the Apollo project to carry people, and was a sign of progress. However the mission only orbited Earth and was carried into space not by the Saturn 5 moonrocket but by its much smaller sibling, the Saturn 1B. The Moon seemed as far away as ever. But NASA mission planners had a dramatic trick up their sleeve…
Apollo 8 was always to have been an important flight for the project. To be launched by a Saturn 5 (and the first manned flight of this launch vehicle, after a masterful engineering effort had found the source of the vibration problem and resolved it) the flight was to have been another mission to low Earth orbit with its main goal to be testing of the Lunar Module. The Lunar Module was yet another hugely complex vehicle and its development fell behind schedule, by August 1968 it was clearly not going to be ready for the planned December launch. Rather than reschedule the mission, its goal was radically altered: Apollo 8 would go to the Moon!
Although left unsaid at the time, this sudden (and to our twenty first century, more safety-conscious eyes, possibly reckless) change in plan was in response to a CIA report of Soviet preparations to launch a lone cosmonaut around the Moon on the proven Proton launch vehicle. There was very little time to plan and rehearse procedures for this new mission profile, but the crew was up to the challenge. Mission commander was Frank Borman (1928- ), smart even for the high-achieving astronaut corps, with a blunt, no-nonsense style with subordinates and a winning manner with the politicians who held NASA’s purse-strings. He was respected and valued for all these qualities throughout NASA. Borman’s comrades were James Lovell (1928- ), a veteran of two missions in the Gemini programme and William Anders (1933- ) who was making his first spaceflight. Most inside NASA were quietly confident of success but many external observers saw Apollo 8’s flight as a risky gamble. To understand these concerns you only have to consider just how ambitious the mission was.
No lunar module would be carried, so the Moon’s dusty plains would not yet feel the tread of human feet, but the mission was still the most dramatic step into the unknown since Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight. The spacecraft would break out of its parking orbit around Earth at a meteoric speed of 10 822 m/s (the fastest speed yet flown by humans) through the van Allen Belts (no human being had ever ventured beyond these blizzards of sub-atomic particles before) to sail for three days through the 385 000 km wide gulf between our planet and its satellite. By the time Borman and colleagues reached the Moon they would have ventured a thousand times as far from their homeworld as any previous space traveller. The conservative approach to preparing a Moonlanding would be to simply loop around it and return as the Russians were supposed to be planning to do but instead, daringly, Apollo 8 would enter into orbit around the Moon, becoming a satellite of a satellite. If all went well, after several lunar orbits the ship’s single main engine would fire to send it and its crew homeward, if things did not go to plan Apollo 8 would become a cold and lonely tomb.
Apollo 8 lifted off into the deep blue Florida sky on the morning of 21 December 1968. Three hours later the craft was securely on course for the Moon. Borman, Anders and Lovell watched not a surface but a whole hemisphere below them. They were the first people in history to see their planet dwindle to a disc. The awesomeness of the situation was broken by the frailties of the human body: in something of a blow to his ironman reputation Frank Borman was violently ill (‘flu, Space Adaptation Syndrome or reaction to a sleeping pill, sources give varying causes) and the crew were forced to chase weightless globs of vomit around the cramped capsule with paper towels. Borman avowed that his health would not endanger the mission and doctors on Earth agreed to allow it to continue.
On the second day of the flight, audiences on Earth were thrilled by TV images from the mission showing Earth as a disc in the immense ocean of night (this was the most watched television broadcast to date), while the crew discovered the unsettling realization that their world could be blocked from view by a thumb. The three men were far from home. Their isolation from the rest of the human race was to become even more extreme: just under 69 hours into the flight on 23 December Apollo 8 swung behind the Moon. All radio contact with Earth was cut-off, blocked by the Moon’s bulk and Anders, Borman and Lovell became the loneliest men in history. They were also the first human beings to see the Moon’s farside with their own eyes. Ten minutes later, the spacecraft’s engine fired for four minutes, braking the craft into lunar orbit. If it had failed the craft would have flown past the Moon into an orbit which would have doomed the crew, so they described the burn time as the “longest four minutes of our lives”.
The crew squeezed around their ship’s small windows, gaping in awe at the bleak and rugged lunar surface before settling down to business of photographing it, surveying future landing sites. But they also looked Earthward. Just like the great navigators of Earth’s oceans, Apollo crews navigated by taking fixes on celestial objects by sextant. On Apollo 8’s fourth orbit around the Moon the crew rotated the craft so that its windows faced away from the Moon’s surface and towards the horizon to take a sighting. The usually calm Frank Borman was startled by what he saw, blurting out “Oh my God! Look at the picture over there. Here’s the Earth coming up!” The amazed crew watched our distant planet rise over the Moon’s horizon (actually Earth is stationary in the lunar sky, their craft was providing the motion).
William Anders seized a camera and photographed the spectacle. One of the images he made became iconic (top of page). This image of the blue and white marble of Earth over the lifeless Moon reinforced our world’s position as an oasis of life and is often claimed to have inspired the environmental movement. Anders himself said “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing that we discovered was the Earth.”
Later during a televised press conference from lunar orbit the crew took turns reading the first ten verses of the book of Genesis. To many on Earth, this creation story expressed in majestic language read from outer space was the highlight of the mission (it may seem strange today but at the time some vocal Christians had been decrying the Moon programme as hubris, a latter-day Tower of Babel). Borman ended the broadcast with the words “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, and a Merry Christmas to all of you, all of you on the good Earth”.
After twenty orbits, occasionally coming about to within about 70 miles (113 km) of the surface, it was time to leave the Moon in its splendid isolation. On Christmas Day 1968 Apollo 8’s engine was to fire to boost the mission homeward. There was some anxiety; deep inside the rocket’s coiled complexity of pipes, pumps and valves could a vital component have frozen in the coldness of space?
Once again the craft was behind the Moon and therefore incommunicado as the engine performed its vital burn. After several minutes of tension at Mission Control, contact was restored when Lovell‘s voice broke the radio silence when he announced, “Please be informed, there is a Santa Claus” (ever since then dishonest or dim-witted UFO buffs have claimed this quote to be a code-phrase reporting contact with extraterrestrials). It was Christmas Day and Apollo 8 was returning home.
The rest of the mission was a relaxing cruise for the crew. The ship’s Command Module made a perfect re-entry to the atmosphere and splash down the Atlantic. The seas were rougher than expected, the spacecraft rolled upside down at times and first Borman and then the others suffered seasickness as they awaited the recovery helicopters.
This was to be the final spaceflights for Borman and Anders. Borman went on to a sometimes successful, sometimes controversial career in the airline industry. Anders went into public service but later managed a major aerospace corporation. Lovell returned to space in 1970 to command the fateful Apollo 13 flight, followed by a couple of decades in obscurity running a tugboat company (again strange though it may seem now, he was in semi-disgrace for many years, seen not as a hero but as the man who led a failed mission), he was rehabilitated following his portrayal by Tom Hanks in the famous movie based on his experiences. What about the feared Soviet flight around the Moon that prompted Apollo 8’s radical change in objective? It never happened and indeed was apparently never even planned.
1968 was a year when much that is deplorable happened. But in that year Apollo 8 reaffirmed that human intelligence, craftsmanship and courage were capable of great things too. The road to the Moon was open.
(Article by Colin Johnston, Science Communicator)
Peter Burns · August 8, 2011 at 13:23
Even now at 50 I can remember the wonder of this mission.
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