Fifty years ago today, on December 27, 1968, the command module of the United States spacecraft known as Apollo 8 completed its mission at 15:51:42 UTC by achieving splashdown in the North Pacific Ocean, southwest of Hawaii. The mission lasted six hours, three hours and 42 seconds. This was the second manned spaceflight mission flown in the United States Apollo space program, launched on December 21, 1968. It became the first manned spacecraft to leave low Earth orbit, reach the Moon, orbit it, and return. The three-astronaut crew — Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders — were the first humans to witness and photograph an Earthrise and to escape the gravity of a celestial body. Apollo 8 was the third flight and the first crewed launch of the Saturn V rocket and was the first human spaceflight from the Kennedy Space Center, located adjacent to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Originally planned as the second crewed Apollo Lunar Module and command module test, to be flown in an elliptical medium Earth orbit in early 1969, the mission profile was changed in August 1968 to a more ambitious command-module-only lunar orbital flight to be flown in December, as the lunar module was not yet ready to make its first flight. Astronaut Jim McDivitt’s crew, who were training to fly the first lunar module flight in low Earth orbit, became the crew for the Apollo 9 mission, and Borman’s crew were moved to the Apollo 8 mission. This left Borman’s crew with two to three months’ less training and preparation time than originally planned, and replaced the planned lunar module training with translunar navigation training.
Apollo 8 took 68 hours (almost three days) to travel the distance to the Moon. The crew orbited the Moon ten times over the course of twenty hours, during which they made a Christmas Eve television broadcast in which they read the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis. At the time, the broadcast was the most watched TV program ever. Apollo 8’s successful mission paved the way for Apollo 11 to fulfill U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. The crew members were named Time magazine’s “Men of the Year” for 1968 upon their return.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United States was engaged in the Cold War, a geopolitical rivalry with the Soviet Union. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. This unexpected success stoked fears and imaginations around the world. It not only demonstrated that the Soviet Union had the capability to deliver nuclear weapons over intercontinental distances, it challenged American claims of military, economic, and technological superiority. The launch precipitated the Sputnik crisis and triggered the Space Race. President John F. Kennedy believed that not only was it in the national interest of the United States to be superior to other nations, but that the perception of American power was at least as important as the actuality. It was therefore intolerable to him for the Soviet Union to be more advanced in the field of space exploration. He was determined that the United States should compete, and sought a challenge that maximized its chances of winning.
The Soviet Union had better booster rockets, which meant that Kennedy needed to choose a goal that was beyond the capacity of the existing generation of rocketry, one where the United States and Soviet Union would be starting from a position of equality — something spectacular, even if it could not be justified on military, economic, or scientific grounds. After consulting with his experts and advisors, he chose such a project: to land a man on the Moon and return him to the Earth. This project already had a name: Project Apollo.
An early and crucial decision was the adoption of lunar orbit rendezvous, under which a specialized spacecraft would land on the lunar surface. The Apollo spacecraft therefore had three primary components: a command module (CM) with a cabin for the three astronauts, and the only part that would return to Earth; a service module (SM) to provide the command module with propulsion, electrical power, oxygen, and water; and a two-stage lunar module (LM), which comprised a descent stage for landing on the Moon and an ascent stage to return the astronauts to lunar orbit. This configuration could be launched by the Saturn V rocket that was then under development.
The initial crew assignment of Frank Borman as Commander, Michael Collins as Command Module Pilot (CMP) and William Anders as Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) for the third crewed Apollo flight was officially announced on November 20, 1967. Collins was replaced by Jim Lovell in July 1968, after suffering a cervical disc herniation that required surgery to repair. This crew was unique among pre-Space Shuttle era missions in that the commander was not the most experienced member of the crew: Lovell had flown twice before, on Gemini VII and Gemini XII. This would also be the first case of a commander of a previous mission (Lovell, Gemini XII) flying as a non-commander.
The backup crew assignment of Neil Armstrong as Commander, Lovell as CMP, and Buzz Aldrin as LMP for the third crewed Apollo flight was officially announced at the same time as the prime crew. When Lovell was reassigned to the prime crew, Aldrin was moved to CMP, and Fred Haise was brought in as backup LMP. Armstrong would later command Apollo 11, with Aldrin as LMP and Collins as CMP. Haise served on the backup crew of Apollo 11 as LMP and flew on Apollo 13 as LMP.
During Projects Mercury and Gemini, each mission had a prime and a backup crew. For Apollo, a third crew of astronauts was added, known as the support crew. The support crew maintained the flight plan, checklists, and mission ground rules, and ensured that the prime and backup crews were apprised of any changes. The support crew developed procedures in the simulators, especially those for emergency situations, so that the prime and backup crews could practice and master them in their simulator training. For Apollo 8, the support crew consisted of Ken Mattingly, Vance Brand, and Gerald Carr.
The capsule communicator (CAPCOM) was an astronaut at the Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas, who was the only person who communicated directly with the flight crew. For Apollo 8, the CAPCOMs were Michael Collins, Gerald Carr, Ken Mattingly, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Vance Brand, and Fred Haise. The mission control teams rotated in three shifts, each led by a flight director. The directors for Apollo 8 were Clifford E. Charlesworth (Green team), Glynn Lunney (Black team), and Milton Windler (Maroon team).
The triangular shape of the insignia refers to the shape of the Apollo CM. It shows a red figure 8 looping around the Earth and Moon to reflect both the mission number and the circumlunar nature of the mission. On the bottom of the 8 are the names of the three astronauts. The initial design of the insignia was developed by Jim Lovell, who reportedly sketched it while riding in the back seat of a T-38 flight from California to Houston shortly after learning of the Apollo 8’s re-designation as a lunar-orbital mission.
The crew wanted to name their spacecraft, but NASA did not allow it. The crew would have likely chosen Columbiad, the name of the giant cannon that launches a space vehicle in Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon. The Apollo 11 CM was named Columbia in part for that reason.
On September 20, 1967, NASA adopted a seven-step plan for Apollo missions, with the final step being a Moon landing. Apollo 4 and Apollo 6 were “A” missions, tests of the Saturn V launch vehicle using an unmanned Block I production model of the command and service module (CSM) in Earth orbit. Apollo 5 was a “B” mission, a test of the LM in Earth orbit. Apollo 7, scheduled for October 1968, would be a “C” mission, a manned Earth-orbit flight of the CSM. Further missions depended on the readiness of the LM. It had been decided as early as May 1967 that there would be at least four additional missions. Apollo 8 was planned as the “D” mission, a test of the LM in a low Earth orbit in December 1968 by James McDivitt, David Scott, and Russell Schweickart, while Borman’s crew would fly the “E” mission, a more rigorous LM test in an elliptical medium Earth orbit as Apollo 9, in early 1969. The “F” Mission would test the CSM and LM in lunar orbit, and the “G” mission would be the finale, the Moon landing.
Production of the LM fell behind schedule, and when Apollo 8’s LM-3 arrived at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in June 1968, over 100 significant defects were discovered, leading Bob Gilruth, the director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), and others to conclude that there was no prospect of LM-3 being ready to fly in 1968. Indeed, it was possible that delivery would slip to February or March 1969. Following the original seven-step plan would have meant delaying the “D” and subsequent missions, and endangering the program’s goal of a lunar landing before the end of 1969. George Low, the Manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, proposed a solution in August 1968 to keep the program on track despite the LM delay. Since the next CSM (designated as “CSM-103”) would be ready three months before LM-3, a CSM-only mission could be flown in December 1968. Instead of repeating the “C” mission flight of Apollo 7, this CSM could be sent all the way to the Moon, with the possibility of entering a lunar orbit and returning to Earth. The new mission would also allow NASA to test lunar landing procedures that would otherwise have had to wait until Apollo 10, the scheduled “F” mission. This also meant that the medium Earth orbit “E” mission could be dispensed with. The net result was that only the “D” mission had to be delayed, and the plan for lunar landing in mid-1969 could remain on timeline.
On August 9, 1968, Low discussed the idea with Gilruth, Flight Director Chris Kraft, and the Director of Flight Crew Operations, Donald Slayton. They then flew to the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, where they met with KSC Director Kurt Debus, Apollo Program Director Samuel C. Phillips, Rocco Petrone, and Wernher von Braun. Kraft considered the proposal feasible from a flight control standpoint; Debus and Petrone agreed that the next Saturn V, AS-503, could be made ready by December 1; and von Braun was confident that the pogo oscillation problems that had afflicted Apollo 6 had been fixed. Almost every senior manager at NASA agreed with this new mission, citing confidence in both the hardware and the personnel, along with the potential for a circumlunar flight providing a significant morale boost. The only person who needed some convincing was James E. Webb, the NASA administrator. Backed by the full support of his agency, Webb authorized the mission. Apollo 8 was officially changed from a “D” mission to a “C-Prime” lunar-orbit mission.
With the change in mission for Apollo 8, Slayton asked McDivitt if he still wanted to fly it. McDivitt turned it down; his crew had spent a great deal of time preparing to test the LM, and that was what he still wanted to do. Slayton then decided to swap the prime and backup crews of the D and E missions. This swap also meant a swap of spacecraft, requiring Borman’s crew to use CSM-103, while McDivitt’s crew would use CSM-104, since CM-104 could not be made ready by December. David Scott was not happy about giving up CM-103, the testing of which he had closely supervised, for CM-104, although the two were almost identical, and Anders was less than enthusiastic about being an LMP on a flight with no LM. Instead, in order that the spacecraft would have the correct weight and balance, Apollo 8 would carry a LM test article, a boilerplate model of LM-3.
The Saturn V rocket used by Apollo 8 was designated AS-503, or the “03rd” model of the Saturn V (“5”) Rocket to be used in the Apollo-Saturn (“AS”) program. When it was erected in the Vehicle Assembly Building on December 20, 1967, it was thought that the rocket would be used for an unmanned Earth-orbit test flight carrying a boilerplate command and service module. Apollo 6 had suffered several major problems during its April 1968 flight, including severe pogo oscillation during its first stage, two second-stage engine failures, and a third stage that failed to reignite in orbit. Without assurances that these problems had been rectified, NASA administrators could not justify risking a manned mission until additional unmanned test flights proved that the Saturn V was ready.
Teams from the MSFC went to work on the problems. Of primary concern was the pogo oscillation, which would not only hamper engine performance, but could exert significant g-forces on a crew. A task force of contractors, NASA agency representatives, and MSFC researchers concluded that the engines vibrated at a frequency similar to the frequency at which the spacecraft itself vibrated, causing a resonance effect that induced oscillations in the rocket. A system that used helium gas to absorb some of these vibrations was installed.
Of equal importance was the failure of three engines during flight. Researchers quickly determined that a leaking hydrogen fuel line ruptured when exposed to vacuum, causing a loss of fuel pressure in engine two. When an automatic shutoff attempted to close the liquid hydrogen valve and shut down engine two, it had accidentally shut down engine three’s liquid oxygen due to a miswired connection. As a result, engine three failed within one second of engine two’s shutdown. Further investigation revealed the same problem for the third-stage engine – a faulty igniter line. The team modified the igniter lines and fuel conduits, hoping to avoid similar problems on future launches.
The teams tested their solutions in August 1968 at the MSFC. A Saturn stage IC was equipped with shock-absorbing devices to demonstrate the team’s solution to the problem of pogo oscillation, while a Saturn Stage II was retrofitted with modified fuel lines to demonstrate their resistance to leaks and ruptures in vacuum conditions. Once NASA administrators were convinced that the problems had been solved, they gave their approval for a manned mission using AS-503.
Added pressure on the Apollo program to make its 1969 landing goal was provided by the Soviet Union’s Zond 5 mission, which flew some living creatures, including Russian tortoises, in a cislunar loop around the Moon and returned them to Earth on September 21. There was speculation within NASA and the press that they might be preparing to launch cosmonauts on a similar circumlunar mission before the end of 1968.
The Apollo 8 spacecraft was placed on top of the rocket on September 21, and the rocket made the slow 3-mile (4.8 km) journey to the launch pad on October 9. Testing continued all through December until the day before launch, including various levels of readiness testing from December 5 through 11. Final testing of modifications to address the problems of pogo oscillation, ruptured fuel lines, and bad igniter lines took place on December 18, three days before the scheduled launch.
As the first manned spacecraft to orbit more than one celestial body, Apollo 8’s profile had two different sets of orbital parameters, separated by a translunar injection maneuver. Apollo lunar missions would begin with a nominal 100-nautical-mile (185.2 km) circular Earth parking orbit. Apollo 8 was launched into an initial orbit with an apogee of 99.99 nautical miles (185.18 km) and a perigee of 99.57 nautical miles (184.40 km), with an inclination of 32.51° to the Equator, and an orbital period of 88.19 minutes. Propellant venting increased the apogee by 6.4 nautical miles (11.9 km) over the 2 hours, 44 minutes, and 30 seconds spent in the parking orbit.
This was followed by a trans-lunar injection (TLI) burn of the S-IVB third stage for 318 seconds, accelerating the 63,650 lb (28,870 kg) command and service module and 19,900 lb (9,000 kg) LM test article from an orbital velocity of 25,567 feet per second (7,793 m/s) to the injection velocity of 35,505 ft/s (10,822 m/s) which set a record for the highest speed, relative to Earth, that humans had ever traveled. This speed was slightly less than the Earth’s escape velocity of 36,747 feet per second (11,200 m/s), but put Apollo 8 into an elongated elliptical Earth orbit, close enough to the Moon to be captured by the Moon’s gravity.
The standard lunar orbit for Apollo missions was planned as a nominal 60-nautical-mile (110 km) circular orbit above the Moon’s surface. Initial lunar orbit insertion was an ellipse with a perilune of 60.0 nautical miles (111.1 km) and an apolune of 168.5 nautical miles (312.1 km), at an inclination of 12° from the lunar equator. This was then circularized at 60.7 nautical miles (112.4 km) by 59.7 nautical miles (110.6 km), with an orbital period of 128.7 minutes. The effect of lunar mass concentrations (“mascons”) on the orbit was found to be greater than initially predicted; over the course of the ten lunar orbits lasting twenty hours, the orbital distance was perturbated to 63.6 nautical miles (117.8 km) by 58.6 nautical miles (108.5 km).
Apollo 8 achieved a maximum distance from Earth of 203,752 nautical miles (234,474 statute miles; 377,349 kilometers).
The Apollo 8 crew, now living in the crew quarters at Kennedy Space Center, received a visit from Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the night before the launch. They talked about how, before his 1927 flight, Lindbergh had used a piece of string to measure the distance from New York City to Paris on a globe and from that calculated the fuel needed for the flight. The total he had carried was a tenth of the amount that the Saturn V would burn every second. The next day, the Lindberghs watched the launch of Apollo 8 from a nearby dune.
Apollo 8 launched at 12:51:00 UTC (07:51:00 Eastern Standard Time) on December 21, 1968, using the Saturn V’s three stages to achieve Earth orbit. The S-IC first stage landed in the Atlantic Ocean at 30°12′N 74°7′W, and the S-II second stage landed at 31°50′N 37°17′W. The S-IVB third stage injected the craft into Earth orbit and remained attached to perform the TLI burn that would put the spacecraft on a trajectory to the Moon.
Once the vehicle reached Earth orbit, both the crew and Houston flight controllers spent the next 2 hours and 38 minutes checking that the spacecraft was in proper working order and ready for TLI. The proper operation of the S-IVB third stage of the rocket was crucial, and in the last unmanned test, it had failed to reignite for this burn. Collins was the first CAPCOM on duty, and at 2 hours, 27 minutes and 22 seconds after launch he radioed, “Apollo 8. You are Go for TLI.” This communication meant that Mission Control had given official permission for Apollo 8 to go to the Moon. The S-IVB engine ignited on time and performed the TLI burn perfectly. Over the next five minutes, the spacecraft’s speed increased from 7,600 to 10,800 meters per second (25,000 to 35,000 ft/s).
After the S-IVB had placed the mission on course for the Moon, the command and service modules (CSM), the remaining Apollo 8 spacecraft, separated from it. The crew then rotated the spacecraft to take photographs of the spent stage and then practiced flying in formation with it. As the crew rotated the spacecraft, they had their first views of the Earth as they moved away from it — this marked the first time humans had viewed the whole Earth at once. Borman became worried that the S-IVB was staying too close to the CSM and suggested to Mission Control that the crew perform a separation maneuver. Mission Control first suggested pointing the spacecraft towards Earth and using the small reaction control system (RCS) thrusters on the service module (SM) to add 1.1 ft/s (0.34 m/s) to their velocity away from the Earth, but Borman did not want to lose sight of the S-IVB. After discussion, the crew and Mission Control decided to burn in the Earth direction to increase speed, but at 7.7 ft/s (2.3 m/s) instead. The time needed to prepare and perform the additional burn put the crew an hour behind their onboard tasks.
Five hours after launch, Mission Control sent a command to the S-IVB to vent its remaining fuel, changing its trajectory. The S-IVB, with the test article attached, posed no further hazard to Apollo 8, passing the orbit of the Moon and going into a 0.99-by-0.92-astronomical-unit (148 by 138 Gm) solar orbit with an inclination of 23.47° from the plane of the ecliptic, and an orbital period of 340.80 days. It became a derelict object, and will continue to orbit the Sun for many years.
The Apollo 8 crew were the first humans to pass through the Van Allen radiation belts, which extend up to 15,000 miles (24,000 km) from Earth. Scientists predicted that passing through the belts quickly at the spacecraft’s high speed would cause a radiation dosage of no more than a chest X-ray, or 1 milligray (mGy; during a year, the average human receives a dose of 2 to 3 mGy). To record the actual radiation dosages, each crew member wore a Personal Radiation Dosimeter that transmitted data to Earth, as well as three passive film dosimeters that showed the cumulative radiation experienced by the crew. By the end of the mission, the crew members experienced an average radiation dose of 1.6 mGy.
Lovell’s main job as Command Module Pilot was as navigator. Although Mission Control normally performed all the actual navigation calculations, it was necessary to have a crew member adept at navigation so that the crew could return to Earth in case communication with Mission Control was lost. Lovell navigated by star sightings using a sextant built into the spacecraft, measuring the angle between a star and the Earth’s (or the Moon’s) horizon. This task was made difficult by a large cloud of debris around the spacecraft, which made it hard to distinguish the stars.
By seven hours into the mission, the crew was about 1 hour and 40 minutes behind flight plan because of the problems in moving away from the S-IVB and Lovell’s obscured star sightings. The crew placed the spacecraft into Passive Thermal Control (PTC), also called “barbecue roll”, in which the spacecraft rotated about once per hour around its long axis to ensure even heat distribution across the surface of the spacecraft. In direct sunlight, parts of the spacecraft’s outer surface could be heated to over 200 °C (392 °F), while the parts in shadow would be −100 °C (−148 °F). These temperatures could cause the heat shield to crack and propellant lines to burst. Because it was impossible to get a perfect roll, the spacecraft swept out a cone as it rotated. The crew had to make minor adjustments every half hour as the cone pattern got larger and larger.
The first mid-course correction came eleven hours into the flight. The crew had been awake for more than 16 hours. Before launch, NASA had decided that at least one crew member should be awake at all times to deal with problems that might arise. Borman started the first sleep shift but found sleeping difficult because of the constant radio chatter and mechanical noises. Testing on the ground had shown that the service propulsion system (SPS) engine had a small chance of exploding when burned for long periods unless its combustion chamber was “coated” first by burning the engine for a short period. This first correction burn was only 2.4 seconds and added about 20.4 ft/s (6.2 m/s) velocity prograde (in the direction of travel). This change was less than the planned 24.8 ft/s (7.6 m/s), because of a bubble of helium in the oxidizer lines, which caused unexpectedly low propellant pressure. The crew had to use the small RCS thrusters to make up the shortfall. Two later planned mid-course corrections were canceled because the Apollo 8 trajectory was found to be perfect.
About an hour after starting his sleep shift, Borman obtained permission from ground control to take a Seconal sleeping pill. The pill had little effect. Borman eventually fell asleep, and then awoke feeling ill. He vomited twice and had a bout of diarrhea; this left the spacecraft full of small globules of vomit and feces, which the crew cleaned up as well as they could. Borman initially did not want everyone to know about his medical problems, but Lovell and Anders wanted to inform Mission Control. The crew decided to use the Data Storage Equipment (DSE), which could tape voice recordings and telemetry and dump them to Mission Control at high speed. After recording a description of Borman’s illness they asked Mission Control to check the recording, stating that they “would like an evaluation of the voice comments”.
The Apollo 8 crew and Mission Control medical personnel held a conference using an unoccupied second-floor control room (there were two identical control rooms in Houston, on the second and third floors, only one of which was used during a mission). The conference participants concluded that there was little to worry about and that Borman’s illness was either a 24-hour flu, as Borman thought, or a reaction to the sleeping pill. Researchers now believe that he was suffering from space adaptation syndrome, which affects about a third of astronauts during their first day in space as their vestibular system adapts to weightlessness. Space adaptation syndrome had not occurred on previous spacecraft (Mercury and Gemini), because those astronauts could not move freely in the small cabins of those spacecraft. The increased cabin space in the Apollo command module afforded astronauts greater freedom of movement, contributing to symptoms of space sickness for Borman and, later, astronaut Russell Schweickart during Apollo 9.
The cruise phase was a relatively uneventful part of the flight, except for the crew checking that the spacecraft was in working order and that they were on course. During this time, NASA scheduled a television broadcast at 31 hours after launch. The Apollo 8 crew used a 2-kilogram (4.4 lb) camera that broadcast in black-and-white only, using a Vidicon tube. The camera had two lenses, a very wide-angle (160°) lens, and a telephoto (9°) lens.
During this first broadcast, the crew gave a tour of the spacecraft and attempted to show how the Earth appeared from space. However, difficulties aiming the narrow-angle lens without the aid of a monitor to show what it was looking at made showing the Earth impossible. Additionally, without proper filters, the Earth image became saturated by any bright source. In the end, all the crew could show the people watching back on Earth was a bright blob. After broadcasting for 17 minutes, the rotation of the spacecraft took the high-gain antenna out of view of the receiving stations on Earth and they ended the transmission with Lovell wishing his mother a happy birthday.
By this time, the crew had completely abandoned the planned sleep shifts. Lovell went to sleep 32 and a half hours into the flight — 3 and a half hours before he had planned to. A short while later, Anders also went to sleep after taking a sleeping pill. The crew was unable to see the Moon for much of the outward cruise. Two factors made the Moon almost impossible to see from inside the spacecraft: three of the five windows fogging up due to out-gassed oils from the silicone sealant, and the attitude required for passive thermal control. It was not until the crew had gone behind the Moon that they would be able to see it for the first time.
Apollo 8 made a second television broadcast at 55 hours into the flight. This time, the crew rigged up filters meant for the still cameras so they could acquire images of the Earth through the telephoto lens. Although difficult to aim, as they had to maneuver the entire spacecraft, the crew was able to broadcast back to Earth the first television pictures of the Earth. The crew spent the transmission describing the Earth, what was visible, and the colors they could see. The transmission lasted 23 minutes.
At about 55 hours and 40 minutes into the flight, and 13 hours before entering lunar orbit, the crew of Apollo 8 became the first humans to enter the gravitational sphere of influence of another celestial body. In other words, the effect of the Moon’s gravitational force on Apollo 8 became stronger than that of the Earth. At the time it happened, Apollo 8 was 38,759 miles (62,377 km) from the Moon and had a speed of 3,990 ft/s (1,220 m/s) relative to the Moon. This historic moment was of little interest to the crew, since they were still calculating their trajectory with respect to the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center. They would continue to do so until they performed their last mid-course correction, switching to a reference frame based on ideal orientation for the second engine burn they would make in lunar orbit.
The last major event before Lunar Orbit Insertion (LOI) was a second mid-course correction. It was in retrograde (against the direction of travel) and slowed the spacecraft down by 2.0 ft/s (0.61 m/s), effectively reducing the closest distance at which the spacecraft would pass the Moon. At exactly 61 hours after launch, about 24,200 miles (38,900 km) from the Moon, the crew burned the RCS for 11 seconds. They would now pass 71.7 miles (115.4 km) from the lunar surface. At 64 hours into the flight, the crew began to prepare for Lunar Orbit Insertion 1 (LOI-1). This maneuver had to be performed perfectly, and due to orbital mechanics had to be on the far side of the Moon, out of contact with the Earth. After Mission Control was polled for a “go/no go” decision, the crew was told at 68 hours that they were Go and “riding the best bird we can find”. Lovell replied, “We’ll see you on the other side”, and for the first time in history, humans travelled behind the Moon and out of radio contact with the Earth.
With 10 minutes remaining before LOI-1, the crew began one last check of the spacecraft systems and made sure that every switch was in its correct position. At that time, they finally got their first glimpses of the Moon. They had been flying over the unlit side, and it was Lovell who saw the first shafts of sunlight obliquely illuminating the lunar surface. The LOI burn was only two minutes away, so the crew had little time to appreciate the view. The SPS was ignited at 69 hours, 8 minutes, and 16 seconds after launch and burned for 4 minutes and 7 seconds, placing the Apollo 8 spacecraft in orbit around the Moon. The crew described the burn as being the longest four minutes of their lives. If the burn had not lasted exactly the correct amount of time, the spacecraft could have ended up in a highly elliptical lunar orbit or even flung off into space. If it had lasted too long, they could have struck the Moon. After making sure the spacecraft was working, they finally had a chance to look at the Moon, which they would orbit for the next 20 hours.
On Earth, Mission Control continued to wait. If the crew had not burned the engine, or the burn had not lasted the planned length of time, the crew would have appeared early from behind the Moon. Exactly at the calculated moment, however, the signal was received from the spacecraft, indicating it was in a 193.3-by-69.5-mile (311.1 by 111.8 km) orbit around the Moon.
After reporting on the status of the spacecraft, Lovell gave the first description of what the lunar surface looked like:
The Moon is essentially grey, no color; looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a grayish beach sand. We can see quite a bit of detail. The Sea of Fertility doesn’t stand out as well here as it does back on Earth. There’s not as much contrast between that and the surrounding craters. The craters are all rounded off. There’s quite a few of them, some of them are newer. Many of them look like — especially the round ones — look like hit by meteorites or projectiles of some sort. Langrenus is quite a huge crater; it’s got a central cone to it. The walls of the crater are terraced, about six or seven different terraces on the way down.
Lovell continued to describe the terrain they were passing over. One of the crew’s major tasks was reconnaissance of planned future landing sites on the Moon, especially one in Mare Tranquillitatis that was planned as the Apollo 11 landing site. The launch time of Apollo 8 had been chosen to give the best lighting conditions for examining the site. A film camera had been set up in one of the spacecraft windows to record one frame per second of the Moon below. Bill Anders spent much of the next 20 hours taking as many photographs as possible of targets of interest. By the end of the mission, the crew had taken over eight hundred 70 mm still photographs and 700 feet (210 m) of 16 mm movie film.
Throughout the hour that the spacecraft was in contact with Earth, Borman kept asking how the data for the SPS looked. He wanted to make sure that the engine was working and could be used to return early to the Earth if necessary. He also asked that they receive a “go/no go” decision before they passed behind the Moon on each orbit. As they reappeared for their second pass in front of the Moon, the crew set up equipment to broadcast a view of the lunar surface. Anders described the craters that they were passing over. At the end of this second orbit, they performed an 11-second LOI-2 burn of the SPS to circularize the orbit to 70.0 by 71.3 miles (112.7 by 114.7 km).
Throughout the next two orbits, the crew continued to check the spacecraft and to observe and photograph the Moon. During the third pass, Borman read a small prayer for his church. He had been scheduled to participate in a service at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church near Seabrook, Texas, but due to the Apollo 8 flight, he was unable to attend. A fellow parishioner and engineer at Mission Control, Rod Rose, suggested that Borman read the prayer, which could be recorded and then replayed during the service.
When the spacecraft came out from behind the Moon for its fourth pass across the front, the crew witnessed an “Earthrise” in person for the first time in human history. Due to the synchronous rotation of the Moon about the Earth, Earthrise is not generally visible from the lunar surface. This is because, as seen from any one place on the Moon’s surface, Earth remains in approximately the same position in the lunar sky, either above or below the horizon. Earthrise is generally visible only while orbiting the Moon, and at selected surface locations near the Moon’s limb, where libration carries the Earth slightly above and below the lunar horizon. NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 1 had taken the first picture of an Earthrise from the vicinity of the Moon, on August 23, 1966.
Anders saw the Earth emerging from behind the lunar horizon and called in excitement to the others, taking a black-and-white photograph as he did so. An audio recording of the event is available with transcription which allows the event to be followed closely:
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!
Anders asked Lovell for color film and then took Earthrise, the name popularly given to NASA image AS08-14-2383, later picked by Life magazine as one of its hundred photos of the century. Initially, before Anders found a suitable 70 mm color film, he took a black-and-white photograph of the scene, with the Earth’s terminator touching the horizon (AS08-13-2329). The land mass position and cloud patterns in this image are the same as those of the color photograph entitled Earthrise.
The photograph was taken from lunar orbit on December 24, 1968, 16:00 UTC, with a highly modified Hasselblad 500 EL with an electric drive. The camera had a simple sighting ring rather than the standard reflex viewfinder and was loaded with a 70 mm film magazine containing custom Ektachrome film developed by Kodak. Immediately prior, Anders had been photographing the lunar surface with a 250 mm lens; the lens was subsequently used for the Earthrise images. There were many images taken at that point. The mission audio tape establishes several photographs were taken, on Borman’s orders, with the enthusiastic concurrence of Jim Lovell and Anders. Anders took the first color shot, then Lovell who notes the setting (1/250th of a second at f/11), followed by Anders with another very similar shot (AS08-14-2384).
The as-published photograph shows Earth:
- Polar orientation: south to left, north to right (Antarctica at 10 o’clock)
- Equator: center, running westward toward top right-hand corner
- Nightfall terminator crossing the African continent (lightish region to left is Namib Desert, Namibia; to right is Western Sahara/West Africa)
- Rotated clockwise approximately 135° from our typical North/South-Pole-oriented perspective
A nearly full-page black and white reproduction of Borman’s image may be viewed on page 164 of his 1988 autobiography, captioned, “One of the most famous pictures in photographic history — taken after I grabbed the camera away from Bill Anders”. Borman was the mission commander and notes that this is the image “the Postal Service used on a stamp, and few photographs have been more frequently reproduced”. The photograph reproduced in the Frank Borman autobiography is not the same image as the Anders photograph; aside from the orientation, the cloud patterns differ. Borman later recanted this story and agreed that the black and white shot was also taken by Anders, based on evidence presented by transcript and a video produced by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio employee, Ernie Wright.
The stamp issue reproduces the cloud, color, and crater patterns of the Anders picture. Anders is described by Borman as holding “a masters degree in nuclear engineering”; Anders was thus tasked as “the scientific crew member … also performing the photography duties that would be so important to the Apollo crew who actually landed on the Moon”.
In Life’s 100 Photographs that Changed the World, wilderness photographer Galen Rowell called Earthrise “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”. Another author called its appearance the beginning of the environmental movement. Fifty years to the day after taking the photo, William Anders observed, “We set out to explore the moon and instead discovered the Earth.” In October 2018, the Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN) of the International Astronomical Union named one of the large craters seen in the photo “Anders’ Earthrise”. The crater had previously been designated only with letters.
Anders continued to take photographs while Lovell assumed control of the spacecraft so that Borman could rest. Despite the difficulty resting in the cramped and noisy spacecraft, Borman was able to sleep for two orbits, awakening periodically to ask questions about their status. Borman awoke fully, however, when he started to hear his fellow crew members make mistakes. They were beginning to not understand questions and had to ask for the answers to be repeated. Borman realized that everyone was extremely tired from not having a good night’s sleep in over three days. He ordered Anders and Lovell to get some sleep and that the rest of the flight plan regarding observing the Moon be scrubbed. Anders initially protested, saying that he was fine, but Borman would not be swayed. Anders finally agreed under the condition that Borman would set up the camera to continue to take automatic pictures of the Moon. Borman also remembered that there was a second television broadcast planned, and with so many people expected to be watching, he wanted the crew to be alert. For the next two orbits, Anders and Lovell slept while Borman sat at the helm.
As they rounded the Moon for the ninth time, the astronauts began the second television transmission. Borman introduced the crew, followed by each man giving his impression of the lunar surface and what it was like to be orbiting the Moon. Borman described it as being “a vast, lonely, forbidding expanse of nothing”. Then, after talking about what they were flying over, Anders said that the crew had a message for all those on Earth. Each man on board read a section from the Biblical creation story from the Book of Genesis. The Bible used was provided by the Gideons. The astronauts recited Genesis chapter 1, verses 1 through 10 verbatim, using the King James Version text. Anders read verses 1–4, Lovell read verses 5–8, and Borman read verses 9–10, concluding the transmission.
Borman finished the broadcast by wishing a Merry Christmas to everyone on Earth. His message appeared to sum up the feelings that all three crewmen had from their vantage point in lunar orbit. Borman said, “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.”
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 the 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.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder of American Atheists, responded by suing the United States government, alleging violations of the First Amendment. O’Hair wanted the courts to ban American astronauts — who were all government employees — from public prayer in space. The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas. It was initially submitted to a three-judge panel, which concluded that the case was not a three-judge matter, and dismissed the case for failure to state a cause of action. The direct appeal to the Supreme Court was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. Another appeal was heard before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s dismissal per curiam. The Supreme Court declined to review the case. Though the case was rejected by the Supreme Court, it caused NASA to be skittish about the issue of religion throughout the rest of the Apollo program. Buzz Aldrin, on Apollo 11, self-communicated Presbyterian Communion on the surface of the Moon after landing; he refrained from mentioning this publicly for several years and referred to it only obliquely at the time.
The only task left for the crew at this point was to perform the trans-Earth injection (TEI), which was scheduled for 2 1⁄2 hours after the end of the television transmission. The TEI was the most critical burn of the flight, as any failure of the SPS to ignite would strand the crew in lunar orbit, with little hope of escape. As with the previous burn, the crew had to perform the maneuver above the far side of the Moon, out of contact with Earth. The burn occurred exactly on time. The spacecraft telemetry was reacquired as it re-emerged from behind the Moon at 89 hours, 28 minutes, and 39 seconds, the exact time calculated. When voice contact was regained, Lovell announced, “Please be informed, there is a Santa Claus”, to which Ken Mattingly, the current CAPCOM, replied, “That’s affirmative, you are the best ones to know.” The spacecraft began its journey back to Earth on December 25, Christmas Day.
Later, Lovell used some otherwise idle time to do some navigational sightings, maneuvering the module to view various stars by using the computer keyboard. However, he accidentally erased some of the computer’s memory, which caused the inertial measurement unit (IMU) to contain data indicating that the module was in the same relative orientation it had been in before lift-off; the IMU then fired the thrusters to “correct” the module’s attitude.
Once the crew realized why the computer had changed the module’s attitude, they realized that they would have to reenter data to tell the computer the module’s actual orientation. It took Lovell ten minutes to figure out the right numbers, using the thrusters to get the stars Rigel and Sirius aligned, and another 15 minutes to enter the corrected data into the computer. Sixteen months later, during the Apollo 13 mission, Lovell would have to perform a similar manual realignment under more critical conditions after the module’s IMU had to be turned off to conserve energy.
The cruise back to Earth was mostly a time for the crew to relax and monitor the spacecraft. As long as the trajectory specialists had calculated everything correctly, the spacecraft would reenter Earth’s atmosphere two-and-half days after TEI and splash down in the Pacific. On Christmas afternoon, the crew made their fifth television broadcast. This time, they gave a tour of the spacecraft, showing how an astronaut lived in space. When they finished broadcasting, they found a small present from Slayton in the food locker: a real turkey dinner with stuffing, in the same kind of pack given to the troops in Vietnam.
Another Slayton surprise was a gift of three miniature bottles of brandy, which Borman ordered the crew to leave alone until after they landed. They remained unopened, even years after the flight. There were also small presents to the crew from their wives. The next day, at about 124 hours into the mission, the sixth and final TV transmission showed the mission’s best video images of the Earth, during a four-minute broadcast.
After two uneventful days, the crew prepared for reentry. The computer would control the reentry, and all the crew had to do was put the spacecraft in the correct attitude, with the blunt end forward. In the event of computer failure, Borman was ready to take over. Separation from the service module prepared the command module for reentry by exposing the heat shield and shedding unneeded mass. The service module would burn up in the atmosphere as planned. Six minutes before they hit the top of the atmosphere, the crew saw the Moon rising above the Earth’s horizon, just as had been calculated by the trajectory specialists. As the module hit the thin outer atmosphere, the crew noticed that it was becoming hazy outside as glowing plasma formed around the spacecraft.
The spacecraft started slowing down, and the deceleration peaked at 6 standard gravities (59 m/s2). With the computer controlling the descent by changing the attitude of the spacecraft, Apollo 8 rose briefly like a skipping stone before descending to the ocean. At 30,000 feet (9.1 km), the drogue parachute deployed, stabilizing the spacecraft, followed at 10,000 feet (3.0 km) by the three main parachutes. The spacecraft splashdown position was officially reported as 8°8′N 165°1′W in the North Pacific Ocean, southwest of Hawaii at 15:51:42 UTC on December 27, 1968.
When the spacecraft hit the water, the parachutes dragged it over and left it upside down, in what was termed Stable 2 position. As they were buffeted by a 10-foot (3.0 m) swell, Borman was sick, waiting for the three flotation balloons to right the spacecraft. About six minutes after splashdown, the command module was righted into a normal apex-up orientation by its inflatable bag uprighting system. The first frogman from aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-10) arrived 43 minutes after splashdown. Forty-five minutes later, the crew was safe on the flight deck of the Yorktown.
Apollo 8 came at the end of 1968, a year that had seen much upheaval in the United States and most of the world. Even though the year saw political assassinations, political unrest in the streets of Europe and America, and the Prague Spring, Time magazine chose the crew of Apollo 8 as its Men of the Year for 1968, recognizing them as the people who most influenced events in the preceding year. They had been the first people ever to leave the gravitational influence of the Earth and orbit another celestial body. They had survived a mission that even the crew themselves had rated as having only a fifty-fifty chance of fully succeeding. The effect of Apollo 8 was summed up in a telegram from a stranger, received by Borman after the mission, that stated simply, “Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”
One of the most famous aspects of the flight was the Earthrise picture that the crew took as they came around for their fourth orbit of the Moon. This was the first time that humans had taken such a picture while actually behind the camera, and it has been credited as one of the inspirations of the first Earth Day in 1970.
Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins said, “Eight’s momentous historic significance was foremost”; while space historian Robert K. Poole saw Apollo 8 as the most historically significant of all the Apollo missions. The mission was the most widely covered by the media since the first American orbital flight, Mercury-Atlas 6 by John Glenn, in 1962. There were 1,200 journalists covering the mission, with the BBC’s coverage broadcast in 54 countries in 15 different languages. The Soviet newspaper Pravda featured a quote from Boris Nikolaevich Petrov, Chairman of the Soviet Interkosmos program, who described the flight as an “outstanding achievement of American space sciences and technology”. It is estimated that a quarter of the people alive at the time saw — either live or delayed — the Christmas Eve transmission during the ninth orbit of the Moon. The Apollo 8 broadcasts won an Emmy Award, the highest honor given by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
On January 12, 1969, just 18 days after the crew’s return to Earth, they appeared in the Super Bowl III pre-game show at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, before the national anthem was performed by Anita Bryant. On January 17, the first stamp to commemorate the Apollo 8 mission was released by Romania in a miniature sheet of four (Scott #C171). The 3.30-leu stamp was printed by photogravure in a quantity of 300,000 and perforated 13½. Hungary issued a souvenir sheet containing a single 10-florint stamp marking the mission on January 30 (Scott C234), perforated 12½. An imperforate version was also issued.
The United States Postal Service issued a 6-cent postage stamp commemorating the Apollo 8 mission which first went on sale on May 5, 1969, in Houston, Texas. Designed by Leonard E. Buckley of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing based on the Earthrise photograph, the stamp includes the words, “In the beginning God …” — the first words of the book of Genesis. The printing of 150 million stamps in panes of fifty were authorized using the Giori press at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C. Printed in black, blue and ocher, perforated 11, 187,165,000 stamps were ultimately released.
In January 1970, the spacecraft was delivered to Osaka, Japan, for display in the U.S. pavilion at Expo ’70. It is now displayed at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, along with a collection of personal items from the flight donated by Lovell and the space suit worn by Frank Borman. Jim Lovell’s Apollo 8 space suit is on public display in the Visitor Center at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. Bill Anders’s space suit is on display at the Science Museum in London, United Kingdom.
Apollo 8’s historic mission has been shown and referred to in several forms, both documentary and fiction. The various television transmissions and 16 mm footage shot by the crew of Apollo 8 were compiled and released by NASA in the 1969 documentary Debrief: Apollo 8, hosted by Burgess Meredith. In addition, Spacecraft Films released, in 2003, a three-disc DVD set containing all of NASA’s TV and 16 mm film footage related to the mission, including all TV transmissions from space, training and launch footage, and motion pictures taken in flight. Other documentaries include “Race to the Moon” (2005) as part of season 18 of American Experience and In the Shadow of the Moon (2007). Parts of the mission are dramatized in the 1998 miniseries From the Earth to the Moon episode “1968”. The S-IVB stage of Apollo 8 was also portrayed as the location of an alien device in the 1970 UFO episode “Conflict”.
Apollo 8’s lunar orbit insertion was chronicled with actual recordings in the song “The Other Side”, on the album The Race for Space, by the band Public Service Broadcasting.