Apollo 8, humans' first swing around the Moon, launched 50 years ago today. Here's how it went down.

The second manned Apollo mission was as successful as it was improbable. The true story is even more harrowing

Published December 21, 2018 6:00PM (EST)

"Mission Moon 3-D: Reliving the Great Space Race" by Brian May and David J. Eicher; Earthrise (MIT Press/NASA)
"Mission Moon 3-D: Reliving the Great Space Race" by Brian May and David J. Eicher; Earthrise (MIT Press/NASA)

Excerpted from Mission Moon 3-D: A New Perspective on the Space Race by David Eicher and Brian May, The MIT Press/London Stereoscopic Company, 2018.

By late 1968, NASA was ready for its most ambitious dress rehearsal mission yet. With the unmanned tests, Apollo 4 and 6, behind them, and with the manned Earth-orbit flight Apollo 7, deemed a success, it was now time to step up the pressure. The original idea for what would be designated Apollo 8 was to test the LM in a low-Earth orbit at year’s end. The original crew chosen for the mission was James McDivitt, Dave Scott, and Rusty Schweickart. At the same time the next crew in line, consisting of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, was designated to fly Apollo 9, which would achieve a substantial test of the LM’s flight capacity in a medium Earth orbit early in 1969.

But glitches in the development of the LM intervened. The complex equipment required for the assembly and testing of the LM meant that its development fell behind schedule. In the early summer of 1968, the LM intended to fly on Apollo 8 arrived at the Kennedy Space Center and was deemed inadequate, with several notable problems. The primary contractor assembling the LM, Grumman, had to re-engineer some aspects of the lander, and they adjusted their target dates to anticipate a delivery of springtime 1969. Thus, the deceased President’s stated goal of landing on the Moon in the 1960s was now in jeopardy: NASA began to doubt whether a lunar landing could be achieved before 1970.

In midsummer 1968, the manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, George Low, proposed a potential solution. Low proposed flying a mission in December 1968 with the Command/Service Module configuration only, but instead of repeating the already-accomplished success of Apollo 7, this late 1968 flight could carry the Command/Service Module (CSM) all the way to the Moon, making this a circumlunar mission and potentially entering lunar orbit. This would allow the astronauts to conduct a dry-run test of lunar landing procedures as they passed over the Moon’s surface, accelerating those tests in the playbook from what was planned originally for Apollo 10.

NASA officials embraced the plan. It offered vital tests at the right time, and would be dramatic in that it would carry a crew around the Moon and back home. The agency’s chief, James Webb, needed some convincing. But after a short time Webb approved the mission change and Apollo 8 was established with a new set of goals. There would also be a new crew. Deke Slayton was still Director of Flight Crew Operations, and he determined to swap crews to enable Borman’s to take over what would become Apollo 8.

The first crew to fly around the Moon, then, would consist of Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders. Indiana-born Borman, age 40, was a US Air Force test pilot who had flown on Gemini VII with Lovell.

At 14 days, this was to set a new endurance record for time spent in space, and the craft also served as the target for Gemini VI-A, which marked the first rendezvous in orbit between two manned spacecraft. Meantime, Borman served on the official review board that examined the cause of the Apollo 1 fire. His testimony before Congress helped to convince that body to continue the Apollo program as a safe venture.

For the mission that became Apollo 8, Lovell was not originally chosen to be on the flight. But Michael Collins, the astronaut first chosen as the Command Module Pilot, needed back surgery after suffering a cervical disc herniation. So Collins missed out on Apollo 8, and in moved Lovell, in a reunion with his Gemini partner Borman.

The mission’s Lunar Module Pilot, Bill Anders, was born in British Hong Kong in 1933, the son of a naval officer. At age 35, he was an Air Force fighter pilot, an electrical engineer, and a nuclear engineer. Selected in 1963 into the third NASA group of astronauts, Anders served on the backup crew of the Gemini XI mission and helped with NASA studies on the effects of radiation on space travel.

Now, Anders, along with Borman and Lovell, was poised to become one of the first three humans in history to travel to the Moon and back. In a NASA oddity, the mission’s Commander, Borman, was less experienced than Lovell, and so Lovell became the first commander of a previous mission to fly as a non-commander. Because of the new nature of this mission, special roles were assigned to the crew. Borman would act as Mission Commander. But Lovell, the Command Module Pilot, would act as navigator, and Anders, the Lunar Module Pilot, would act as engineer. On the ground, the communications specialists who would talk to the astronauts included Ken Mattingly and Vance Brand, who would fly later missions. Crew preparations for Apollo 8 began in simulators in September 1968, with Borman focusing on spacecraft reentry control, Lovell on navigation emergencies in case of a loss of communications, and Anders checking the state of the spacecraft’s readiness.

The Soviet Union, meanwhile, had not abandoned its lunar-focused spacecraft activities. In 1968 the Russians pressed on with the Zond program, achieving their most unusual success yet. Zond 5 was launched on September 14, 1968, carrying the first living species to be propelled toward the Moon. Four days after its launch, the craft, which contained two tortoises, mealworms, flies, plants, seeds, and bacteria, circled the lunar surface at a distance of 1,950 kilometers (1,210 miles). This made the tortoises and the rest of the crew the first living creatures to pass around the Moon. On September 21, the capsule splashed down in the Indian Ocean and the creatures were recovered. The tortoises lost about 10 percent of their body weight during the flight but appeared to be active and had not lost appetite due to the experience. The Zond 5 flight helped to again light a fire under NASA to push forward as soon as it could with the planned Apollo flights.

Preparations on the rocketry end also carried concerns. Apollo 8 would use the third model of the Saturn V booster, and the one designated for the mission was built in Kennedy’s famous and enormous Vehicle Assembly Building in December 1967. Originally intended for an unmanned flight, this design proved problematic during the Apollo 6 test flight, when second stage engines failed and a third stage did not reignite. In the time leading up to Apollo 8, von Braun’s team at the Marshall Space Flight Center conducted repeated experiments to alleviate the concerns. The engineers were concerned with so-called “pogo” oscillation, which is a violent vibration set up by instabilities in the burning of the liquid fuel. The engineers determined that the rockets vibrated at nearly the same frequency as the vibrations in the spacecraft, which caused something of a feedback loop that made the vibrations worse. They installed a system using helium gas to minimize the vibration problem.

The engineers were also concerned with the engine failure problems demonstrated in the Apollo 6 test. In a forensic analysis of the test flight, engineers found that a ruptured fuel line had caused a loss of pressure in engine number two. Problems compounded each other, too. When the second engine shut down due to an automatic shutoff, it also accidentally shut down engine three’s liquid oxygen supply. This resulted from faulty wiring. The Marshall team reengineered some parts, including fuel lines, igniter lines, fuel conduits, and other elements, and hoped this would eliminate the previous troubles.

By August 1968, the Marshall engineering teams tested their tweaks. They equipped a Saturn rocket with shock absorbing devices, which eliminated most of the pogo oscillation concern. They retrofitted a Saturn Stage II engine with fuel lines to demonstrate the necessary resistance to leaks and ruptures within the vacuum environment. On September 21, 1968, the same day that Zond 5 splashed down, NASA engineers affixed the Apollo 8 capsule on top of their improved Saturn V rocket. On October 9 the Apollo 8 assembly made the slow journey, using a great “crawler” tractor at Kennedy, to Launch Pad 39A, a distance of 5 kilometers (3.1 miles). Launch for Apollo 8 was planned for December 21. NASA personnel continued to test the rocket and the craft right up until launch day. A final series of comprehensive tests took place on December 18, and the craft was deemed spaceflight ready.

Finally, more than seven years after John Kennedy’s speech before Congress, NASA was ready to go to the Moon.

With worldwide anticipation centering on the mission, Borman, Lovell, and Anders climbed into the Apollo 8 capsule and readied for liftoff. The countdown proceeded well, and at 7:51 a.m., December 21, 1968, the Saturn V ignited, carrying the astronauts skyward. The three-stage rocket worked just as planned; the first and second stages peeled away, falling to the ocean below. The third stage boosted the craft into Earth orbit and stayed attached, as it would also provide the burn to put the capsule into a so-called trans-lunar injection, headed for a loop around the Moon.

The mission would last just short of a week. With the craft in Earth orbit, the crew onboard and crews on the ground spent 2½-hours checking to see that everything was in perfect working order. Following that checkout period, Michael Collins, acting as a CAPCOM on the ground, radioed the crew, “Apollo 8. You are Go for TLI (trans-lunar injection).” For the first time, humans received clearance to head for the Moon. After another 12 minutes, the third-stage engine ignited and performed the burn correctly, sending the crew out toward our nearest celestial neighbor.

Without the third stage, which had now been cast aside, the crew rotated the spacecraft to photograph the depleted third stage. As Apollo 8 inched its way toward the Moon, this configuration provided the first views of the entirety of Earth as seen by humans. Worried about the close proximity of the third stage to the Command/

Service Module, Borman considered making a maneuver to separate the two, but then decided against it. This consideration placed the mission about an hour behind schedule. The dilemma was solved when mission controllers concocted a plan to vent the third stage’s remaining fuel, changing its path and placing it into a solar orbit, increasing its distance from the crew.

As time passed, the precision of the flight plan wavered still more. Seven hours into the flight, the crew found itself more than an 1½ hours behind schedule, due to the concerns about the closeness of the third-stage booster. Additionally, Jim Lovell, as navigator, had to monitor the spacecraft’s position so the crew could manually intervene with a return in case of a loss of communications. This meant that Lovell had to make star sightings with a sextant, and a gaseous cloud emanating from the nearby third stage obscured the view intermittently.

Moreover, the crew experienced, for the first time, what were then considered to be long-term spaceflight complications. Borman, Lovell, and Anders became the first humans to fly through the Van Allen radiation belts, and so they had to wear radiation dosimeters and carefully record levels of exposure. Further, the difference in temperature between sunlit and shadowed areas in the spacecraft, was extreme. So the crew had to place the Command/Service Module into a slow roll that would expose all sides of the craft to direct sunlight more or less equally. The difference between sunlight and shadow could be as much as 300° C (500° F) — from oven baking temperatures to a hard freeze.

Prior to launch, NASA controllers mandated that at least one crewmember should be awake at all times. Some 11 hours into the flight, the crew had been awake for more than 16 hours, and Borman was first to make a shift asleep. But due to the radio chatter and spacecraft noise, he had trouble falling asleep. After a time, Borman secured permission from ground control to take a sleeping pill, but this helped only a little. Eventually he fell asleep but then awoke after a time and felt ill, becoming sick to his stomach. Borman’s sickness spread small bits of vomit and feces into the cabin, and the crew attempted to clean it up. They made a record of Borman’s condition and transmitted it to the controllers on the ground. In Houston, controllers held a conference with the crew and decided not to panic, as they believed Borman either had a reaction to the pill or a short-term illness like flu. In hindsight, historians now believe Borman was affected by a condition that makes about a third of space travelers ill during the first day, as a reaction to weightlessness.

Aside from this drama, the cruise to the Moon was relatively uneventful. About 31 hours after launch, NASA held a televised event such that the astronauts could broadcast, in black and white, a greeting from space. The crew briefly delivered a tour of the spacecraft, which seemed cavernous compared with the earlier, Mercury and Gemini capsules, and described the view of Earth as they ventured farther away from it. The astronauts wanted to show Earth, but aiming the narrow-angle lens made that impracticable. Saturation of the incredibly bright Earth also made the best image they could obtain completely blown out, just a bright blob. After a 17-minute “show,” Jim Lovell wished his mother a happy birthday to end the broadcast.

Because of the spacecraft position and also its architecture, the crew could not see the Moon during most of the cruise phase. It didn’t help that silicone sealant used on the capsule outgassed, creating a greasy, foggy oil that coated some of the spacecraft windows. The plan for sleeping in shifts also fell apart: Lovell and Anders finally got some sleep, but the careful planning of shifts proved impossible in the reality of spaceflight. Before they approached the Moon, the crew made a second TV broadcast, some 55 hours into the flight. They adapted the lens with filters so that the home planet could be seen by viewers without being blown out, and the crew described the view of Earth from such a long distance.

Nearly 60 hours into the flight, Apollo 8 left the gravitational sphere of Earth, and the Moon’s gravity started tugging on the craft more forcefully. The crew continued working on navigation, calculating the trajectory that would carry them back home, and preparing to examine the Moon’s surface when they had clear views of it. The crew readied for and conducted a burn, slowing the craft slightly and setting it up to pass just 115 kilometers (71 miles) from the lunar surface. And then came a critical moment, some 64 hours into the flight. The crew prepared for a lunar orbit insertion, a maneuver that would take place on the far side of the Moon. At 68 hours into their flight, Mission Control informed the crew they were “a go” for their lunar passage and that they were “riding the best bird they could find.” Jim Lovell said “We’ll see you on the other side,” and for the first time, humans passed around the Moon and lost radio contact with Houston.

During their final check in preparation for the lunar orbital insertion, the crew caught their first glimpses of the Moon from the spacecraft windows. Shafts of sunlight cascaded downward and illuminated portions of the lunar surface, which seemed to spring alive with light, but in preparation for the maneuver, the crew couldn’t yet focus on the sight.

Just after 69 hours into the mission, the burn took place and the Apollo 8 capsule slid into an orbit about the Moon. When Apollo 8 transmitted a signal again to Earth, it was Jim Lovell on the radio. He reported the first description of what the Moon looked like up close: “The Moon is essentially gray,” he said, “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 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 terraces on the way down.”

As the craft passed over the lunar surface, Lovell and the others examined as much detail as they could, and they took photographs — 700 images of the Moon and 150 of Earth, the first time lunar features were photographed by humans. They examined potential landing sites like the one in the Sea of Tranquility that was chosen as the destination for Apollo11. Borman focused on the spacecraft’s condition and its ability to return to Earth. During the ensuing orbits, Borman read a small prayer for his church. The crew continued to check the status of the craft and observe all they could.

When the craft entered its fourth orbit, out from behind the Moon, the astronauts saw “Earthrise” — the full Earth rising over the lunar limb, for the first time ever. The resulting picture made at the time became an instant icon. Borman caught some sleep but awakened when it was clear that fatigue required all of them to work together. A few orbits later, the crew commenced a TV broadcast. During this, they made an impromptu reading of the Biblical Creation story from the Book of Genesis. Anders began by reading, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,” and continued on, with Lovell and then Borman taking turns as well. It was a dramatic moment, and seemed to crystallize the sense of history happening during the flight. Borman closed with, “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.”

The spacecraft began its travel back to Earth on Christmas Day, December 25. It splashed down in the North Pacific Ocean, south of Hawaii, on December 27. For the first time, humans had traveled to the Moon and back. Humanity had reached out for the stars. All had gone well. NASA was now in full-on lunar mode. The Americans were nearly ready for the biggest show of all.

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Excerpted from Mission Moon 3-D: A New Perspective on the Space Race by David Eicher and Brian May, The MIT Press/London Stereoscopic Company, 2018.

By David J. Eicher

David J. Eicher is the editor of Astronomy magazine. With Brian May, he cowrote "Mission Moon 3-D: A New Perspective on the Space Race" (MIT Press, 2018).

MORE FROM David J. Eicher

By Brian May

Brian May is an astrophysicist and the former lead guitarist of the English rock band Queen. With David J. Eicher, he cowrote "Mission Moon 3-D: A New Perspective on the Space Race" (MIT Press, 2018).