“Please be advised, there is a Santa Claus.”
Astronaut Jim Lovell, Christmas morning, 1968.
This week will mark the 50th anniversary of what I will argue was the most daring mission in the history of human space exploration. It started with three men climbing into a small capsule on December 21st. They would return to Earth six days and three hours later. It wasn’t an effort to set an endurance record and didn’t even come close. But for the first time, mankind would come close to our nearest companion, the moon. It was an enormous risk, but one NASA was willing to make to beat the Soviet Union to the moon.
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goals, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish…. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon-if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation.”
President John F. Kennedy, May 25th 1961.
In the years following President John F. Kennedy’s audacious call to land a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s, America put it’s technological prowess on the line against the Soviet Union. It had not gone well at first. The first satellite, the first man in orbit, and the first spacewalk had all been Soviet victories. But by the end of 1966, the ten Gemini missions put the U.S. on a level playing field with the Soviets, and the tide was turning. The next step was to leave Earth orbit and head to the moon. That was the goal of the Apollo missions.
The challenges were unprecedented. NASA was moving on to a new spacecraft, the Apollo. It would carry three astronauts for up to 14 days. The new spacecraft was three times heavier than the two man Gemini. Which meant Apollo needed a much bigger launch system to get the job done. The result was the Saturn, designed by former Nazi Werner Von Braun and his team.
The Saturn program was first conceived in the late 1950s, in the earliest days of the space race with the Soviets. The first version, the Saturn I, was launched successfully ten times between October 1961 and July 1965. An improved version, the Saturn IB, was first launched in 1966 and was the last Saturn to fly, sending U.S. Astronauts to link up with Soviet cosmonauts for the Apollo-Soyuz mission in July 1975.
The first manned launch of a Saturn rocket was a IB, which sent the crew of Apollo 7 (Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walt Cunningham.) into orbit for eleven days in October of 1968. Technically, the flight was almost a complete success, setting the stage for the next flight two months later.
Even before Apollo 7 lifted off, NASA had decided to take a daring risk and rearrange the carefully planned schedule of missions. Apollo 8 had been scheduled to test the Lunar Module in low earth orbit for the first time. The goal was to give the fragile lander a shakedown cruise while still close to home. But there was a problem. The Lunar Module designated for the flight simply wasn’t ready to go. Instead of a December launch, NASA was looking at a delay of months.
And there was new pressure from the Soviets, who had sent a cargo of living animals around the moon in September of 1968 aboard Zond-5. Many thought they were preparing to do the same with a human crew before the end of the year.
So the decision was made to switch things up. Instead of testing the LM in earth orbit, the decision was made to go for the gold. For the first time, astronauts would be launched atop the gigantic Saturn V.
For the first time, the third stage of the Saturn would be re-ignited in orbit to drive the Apollo spacecraft out of Earth orbit. The crew would have to pass through the Van Allen radiation belt that surrounds the Earth. The engine of the service module would be used to make course corrections, and then be shut down. It would have to be re-ignited on the far side of the moon, out of communications with Earth, to drive the spacecraft out of Lunar orbit and back toward Earth. And for the first time, human beings would have an up-close view of the Moon from only sixty miles above the surface. They would become the first humans to see the far side of the moon.
Well before dawn on December 21st, 1968, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders boarded Apollo CSM-103. (NASA wouldn’t let the crew nickname the craft, which began with the flight of Apollo 9, which was nicknamed Gumdrop which carried the first Lunar Module, call sign Spider.) At 7:51am Eastern Time, the five massive F1 engines of the S-1C first stage ignited.
Seen from a safe distance, the first thing an observer noticed was a flash of light and the huge, billowing clouds of smoke around the launch tower. Then, even as the rocket began to lift-off and clear the launch tower, a rolling barrage of sound surrounded you, something like a thousand bass drums being beaten randomly only feet from your body. (My earliest childhood memories are of the power of the Saturn V launches, viewed from twelve miles away along the edge of the Indian River in Titusville.)
Within minutes after launch, Apollo 8 was in Earth orbit. The crew and NASA ground teams spent the next few hours checking and rechecking systems before Capcom Michael Collins (who would make his own flight to the moon seven months later aboard Apollo 11) sent Apollo 8 the message they were waiting for: “Apollo 8. You are Go for TLI.” The third stage of the Saturn rocket re-ignited for the Trans-Lunar Injection and Apollo 8 was on it’s way to the moon. The S-IVB, the third stage of the rocket, was detached (and remains in orbit around the sun.) Just shy of 56 hours after launch, Apollo 8 slipped from the gravitational influence of Earth and into the influence of the Moon’s gravity.
“We’ll see you on the other side.”
Astronaut Jim Lovell
At 69 hours into the mission, Apollo 8 had slipped behind the Moon, and out of radio contact with Mission Control. The Service module engine fired up again, this time for four minutes. When communication was reestablished, there was a small celebration. Apollo 8 was now in Lunar orbit.
The next 20 hours would be filled with a variety of tasks. First and foremost was preparing the spacecraft for the most important maneuver of the flight, the Trans-Earth Injection burn that would send the astronauts home. Bill Anders had been tasked with taking photographs of possible future landing sites. But it was the sight of Earthrise over the lunar horizon that was the subject of the most powerful image.
Anders: Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty.
Borman: Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled. (joking)
Anders: (laughs) You got a color film, Jim?
Hand me that roll of color quick, would you…
Lovell: Oh man, that’s great!
During the ninth orbit, the crew of Apollo 8 participated in a television broadcast. At home on Earth, it was Christmas Eve. The crew began by describing what they were seeing sixty miles below them. Then the crew did something that resonates to this day, even among non-believers.
Anders: “We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”
Lovell: “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.”
Borman: “And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good. And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
At the time, it was the most watched television program ever. And within a few hours, the crew of Apollo 8 fired up the Service Module engine and boosted themselves out of Lunar orbit. Two and a half days later, the mission came to an end when the Command Module splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean.
The mission had been a complete success. It was followed in the next seven months by Apollo 9 testing the LM in Earth orbit, Apollo 10 taking the LM to within 50,000 feet of the moon, and Apollo 11’s landing in July in 1969.
1968 had been a terrible year. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Junior and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. The Vietnam war was raging. The Soviets had crushed the Prague uprising. North Korea captured the USS Pueblo, torturing the 82 crewmen. It was a year of deadly political and racial protests. After Apollo 8, Frank Borman received an anonymous telegram that read “Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”
As of this writing, Frank Borman is the oldest living American Astronaut. In his book A Man on the Moon Andrew Chaikan wrote that Borman turned down command of the first lunar landing. He retired from NASA in 1970, eventually becoming the CEO of Eastern Airlines. He currently lives on a ranch in Montana.
Apollo 8 was William Anders’ first and last spaceflight. After retiring from NASA in 1969, he served as a Major General in the US Air Force and then as the US Ambassador to Norway under Gerald Ford. Many credit his Earthrise photo for helping to create Earth Day. After Apollo 8, he wrote “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.” He now lives with his wife in Washington state.
And then there’s Jim Lovell. He’d go on to fly to the moon again on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. He is the only human to fly to the moon twice, but never land there. After retiring from NASA and the US Navy in 1973, he went on to a career in business. Along with coauthor Jeffrey Kluger, he wrote an account of his last mission titled Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, which was the basis of the Ron Howard film Apollo 13.
If you’d like to know more about Apollo 8, I highly recommend Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon by the aforementioned Kluger.