In the summer of 1968, the stakes were as high as they get.
In 1961, US President John F. Kennedy had promised in a speech that they would put a man on the Moon before the end of the decade.
But it was already 1968 and it had been two years since a NASA astronaut had flown in space.
The necessary technologies like the Saturn V rocket or the Lunar module were still under development, but things were not looking good.
The Soviets were also coming closer to the Moon. In September 1968, their Zond 5 probe was the first spacecraft to complete an unmanned Moon orbit.
So if NASA was going to deliver on Kennedy's promise, a leap forward was necessary.
That meant, taking bolder risks.
But a year after the disaster with the Apollo 1, a cabin fire which killed 3 astronauts in a rehearsal test, few people were willing to take those risks.
But despite the odds, NASA proceeded.
Apollo 8 preparations
A story about Susan Borman, the Apollo 8 commander shows the true risk of the operation.
When it was confirmed that her husband, Frank Borman, had been selected as part of the mission, she asked NASA flight director Chris Kraft if her husband was getting back.
Craft told her he had a 50/50 chance of making it home safely.
To get ready for a possible Moon landing, a change was made to the mission profile to make it more ambitious.
Originally the goal of the Apollo 8 mission was to do a Lunar module / Command module test in Earth orbit. But the lunar module wasn't ready yet for its first flight.
So the mission was changed to orbit the Moon and test the Service/Command module. With this change, the launch was pushed forward by two or three months, putting more pressure on the whole mission.
But the engineers on the project thrived on the challenge and made it happen.
A successful launch of the first manned Apollo mission, the Apollo 7 in October 1968 took some pressure off.
The goal of that mission was to do a low orbit test for the Service/Command module.
Apollo 8 on top of the Saturn V SA- 503 making its way to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida
Apollo 8 Crew
The Apollo 8 crew from left to right: James A. Lovell Jr., William A. Anders, and Frank Borman.
The backup crew consisted of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Fun fact about the mission insignia, the initial design was done by Jim Lovell.
Apollo 8 Launch
Then in the morning of 21 December 1968 the Apollo 8 successfully launched. In the photo above you can see the Saturn V building thrust.
Journey Around The Moon
After clearing Earth atmosphere Apollo 8 went into Earth parking orbit.
That was followed by a Translunar injection, with the third stage of the Saturn V kicking in and after a couple of course corrections, putting the Apollo 8 in Moon orbit.
The reached Moon orbit three days after launch and went around 10 times before returning to Earth.
Here is an overview of the Apollo 8 journey:
The first photo taken by humans that captures the whole Earth:
During one of those orbits on Christmas Day 1968, William Anders, one of the crew members to a picture that would become one of the most iconic photographs ever taken: Earthrise.
Earthrise - Image: NASA
The Apollo 8 crew were also the first people to see the dark side of the Moon. Here is what they saw:
This legendary moment in history made the crew also contemplative. Lovell:
The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.
After completing making their way back to Earth orbit, the Command module separated from the Service module and started making it's way back to Earth.
This image captured the Apollo 8 reentry. It was taken by a camera that was mounted on an aircraft flown at 40,000 ft altitude.
The deceleration peaked at 6 g and after several parachutes to stabilize and slow down were deployed, the spacecraft splashed down into the Pacific Ocean South of Hawaï.
43 minutes after splashdown, the USS Yorktown arrived to get the crew safely on board.
Battered Command Module of the Apollo 8 after reentry
Paving the Way for Apollo 11
Apollo 8 had a lot of firsts:
- first manned space craft to leave Earth orbit
- first manned space craft to Orbit the Moon
- its crew were the first to see the whole of Earth
- first to see the dark side of the Moon with their own eyes
- First manned launch from the new Kennedy Space Center
But more important than these achievements, it paved the way for the Apollo 11 and the successful landing on the Moon only 7 months after.