Fifty years ago today, three American astronauts departed Earth to become the first men to orbit the Moon during the flight of Apollo 8. This epic mission also featured the first manned flight of the mighty Saturn V launch vehicle as well as history’s first super-orbital entry of a manned spacecraft.
Following the Apollo 1 tragedy in January of 1967, the United States would not fly another manned space mission until October 1968. That flight, Apollo 7, was a highly successful earth-orbital mission in which the new Block II Apollo Command Module was thoroughly flight-proven.
Notwithstanding Apollo 7’s accomplishments, only 14 months remained for the United States to meet the national goal of achieving a manned lunar landing before the end of the 20th century’s 7th decade. The view held by many in late 1968 was that an already daunting task was now unachievable in the narrow window of time that remained to accomplish it.
The pessimism about reaching the Moon before the end of the decade was easy to understand. The Saturn V moon rocket had not been man-rated. The Lunar Module had not flown. Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) was untried. Men had not even so much as orbited the Moon. Yet, history would record that the United States would find a way to accomplish that which had never before been achieved.
George Low, manager of NASA’s Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, came up with the idea. Low proposed that the first manned flight of the Saturn V be a trip all the way to the Moon. It was something that Low referred to as the “All-Up Testing” concept. The newly-conceived mission would be flown in December 1968 near Christmas time.
While initially seen as too soon and too risky by many in NASA’s management hierarchy, Low’s bold proposal was ultimately accepted as the only way to meet the national lunar landing goal. Yes, there was additional risk. However, the key technologies were ready, the astronauts were willing, and the risk was acceptable.
Apollo 8 lifted-off from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday, 21 December 1968 at 12:51 hours UTC. The crew consisted of NASA astronauts Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, Jr. and William A. Anders. Their target – the Moon – was 220,000 miles away.
After a 69-hour outbound journey, Apollo 8 entered lunar orbit on Tuesday, 24 December 1968 – Christmas Eve. The Apollo 8 crew photographed the lunar surface, studied the geologic features of its terrain, and made other observations from a 60-nautical mile circular orbit. The spacecraft circled the Moon 10 times in slightly over 20 hours.
For many, the most poignant and memorable event in Apollo 8’s historic journey occurred on Christmas Eve night when each of the flight crew took turns reading from the Book of Genesis in the Holy Bible. The solemnity of the moment was evident in the voices of the astronauts. They had seen both the Moon and the Earth from a perspective that none before them had. Fittingly, they expressed humble reverence for the Creator of the Universe on the anniversary of the birth of the Redeemer of mankind.
Apollo 8 departed lunar orbit a little over 89 hours into the mission. Following a nearly 58-hour inbound trip, Apollo 8 reentered the earth’s atmosphere at 36,221 feet per second on Friday, 27 December 1968. The first manned super-orbital reentry was performed in total darkness. It was entirely successful as Apollo 8 landed less than 1 nautical mile from its target in the Pacific Ocean. The USS YORKTOWN effected recovery of the weary astronauts and their trustworthy spacecraft. Mission total elapsed time was 147 hours and 42 seconds.
The year 1968 was a tumultuous one for the United States of America. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. American military blood flowed on the battlefields of Vietnam and civilian blood was let in countless demonstrations taking place in the nation’s cities. The ill-posed sexual revolution continued to erode the country’s social and moral moorings.
But, as is so often the case, an event from the realm of flight, now newly extended to lunar space, reminded us of our higher nature and potential. For a too brief moment, Apollo 8 put our collective purpose for being here into sharp focus. Perhaps a short phrase in a telegram sent to Frank Borman from someone he had never met said it best: “You saved 1968!”
However, looking through the lens of history, we now know that Apollo 8 did much more than end the penultimate year of the 1960’s on a positive note. Indeed, it may be said that Apollo 8 saved the entire Apollo Program.