Apollo 8 was the inaugural human mission to leave Earth’s orbit and travel around the Moon, under Gemini veteran Frank Borman’s command and crewed by Jim Lovell (Command Module Pilot) and William Anders (Lunar Module Pilot). They became the first astronauts ever to see Earthrise phenomenon first-hand and take photos.
1. It was the first manned flight to escape Earth’s gravity
Apollo 8 marked humanity’s inaugural attempt at breaking free of Earth’s gravity and reaching lunar orbit, opening up possibilities for subsequent Apollo lunar landings. Its crew, composed of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders, saw first hand what life could be like beyond Earth orbit: seeing far side lunar features, photographing Earthrise and leaving low-Earth orbit – key milestones that enabled prolonged human presence on our home planet.
On December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 set sail from Kennedy Space Center on a seven-day voyage. Its 36-story Saturn V rocket had never carried humans before, though initially only scheduled for one week due to the tragedy surrounding Apollo 1. NASA managers became alarmed after hearing that Soviet spaceships might beat them to landing humans on the Moon and became determined to fulfil President Lyndon Johnson’s 1961 pledge that all men reach its surface by the end of this decade.
After three days in space, the crew started losing contact with ground control. Vibrations from Saturn V’s third stage had made communications frequent interruptions for crew, navigation system was inconsistent, and they had difficulty reading their spacecraft display.
Despite these difficulties, the crew made remarkable strides toward their goal of reaching the Moon. They even broke the world record for distance traveled by a manned spacecraft by more than doubling it! After leaving Earth’s gravity behind at 3:29 pm they finally crossed into interplanetary space!
At this point, the crew began to feel fatigued. They had had minimal sleep and anticipated an exhausting, dark night ahead. So they spent much of the next day resting and letting “Isaac Newton” guidance computer do most of the driving; after sleeping for several hours CapCom Carr updated them on current events from Earth.
Apollo 8 successfully separated from its command module (CM) early in the morning of December 27. Astronauts prepared for reentry maneuver and prepared to cross into the Moon’s gravitational field, firing their SPS engine shortly before midnight Christmas Eve for a trans-Earth injection burn that provided clear views of both its farside as they burned through atmosphere and Lovell cheerfully reported back to Houston that this maneuver had been successfully executed and that their mission remained on schedule.
2. It was the first manned flight to orbit the Moon
Apollo 8 was the inaugural mission to venture beyond Earth’s orbit and orbit around the Moon, taking images and taking measurements that led directly to a photograph known as Earthrise – one that became iconic of President Kennedy’s goal of landing humans on the Moon within 10 years. Thanks to Apollo 8, President Kennedy ultimately fulfilled this objective and President Johnson set off the successful Apollo 10 landing mission, which made possible President Johnson’s goal to put one on it by the end of this decade.
NASA decided not to fly the Lunar Module (LM), which would have allowed astronauts to land on the Moon, making their trip seven days longer than planned. As a result, crew had to do more work and spend less time relaxing due to NASA’s strict protocol rules, with Borman pushing hard against any increase in orbits around the moon or any televison cameras being brought along as these were not part of mission objectives or eating special Christmas dinner instead of frozen meals they brought with them.
No matter its setbacks, Apollo 8 was still an unprecedented achievement. The crew successfully tested both CSMs (Command and Service Modules) as well as their systems on an orbit around the Moon. Translunar injection; navigation, communications and midcourse correction capabilities as well as midcourse correction midcourse correction system all got put through its paces before two television broadcasts from lunar orbit were made by Apollo 8.
The greatest achievement came when astronauts first broke free from Earth’s gravitational pull and entered space, losing sight of home. Additionally, they photographed the far side of the Moon for the first time, completed ten orbits around it each lasting twenty hours and broadcast an emotional television broadcast during one orbit featuring Bible passages read aloud by astronauts before ending with Borman’s wish: “Good night, God bless you and good luck”. Millions watched this program live.
3. It was the first manned flight to land on the Moon
The Apollo 8 mission marked humanity’s inaugural visit to the Moon from Earth orbit, photographing Earth from lunar distance for what came to be known as Earthrise pictures taken by astronauts aboard. Furthermore, during this mission they became the first humans ever to fly past and communicate with it via radio and television signals.
On December 21, 1968, three astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders took off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39 aboard a Saturn V rocket – then considered to be the world’s largest rocket at that time – bound for the Moon. Their journey broke many speed and distance records along its journey.
After three days, the crew finally entered lunar orbit and conducted numerous activities including taking photos and videos of lunar surfaces, live broadcasting to television, surveying landing zones, geologic observations and conducting inspections of landing zones.
Astronauts also studied the far side of the Moon by taking stereo images that allowed them to recognize features on its surface. They observed mountains and craters covering this part of the lunar surface while sunlit side contained maria and low-lying regions; additionally they photographed its entire disk.
Apollo 8 marked an important moment on December 23 when they crossed the lunar node, where Earth gravity was less intense than that of the Moon’s. At 3:29 p.m. they initiated a slow braking maneuver which reduced speed and enabled them to enter lunar gravitational fields.
By the time they were ready to return home, the astronauts had circled the Moon ten times. Once prepared for reentry and separation of SM from CM occurred as planned; all events went according to plan; and finally the CM made its landing spot in Pacific Ocean at 147 hours, 0 minutes, 42 seconds post liftoff.
This mission fulfilled all its planned test objectives as well as five extra goals that had not originally been planned. It validated important systems that would be utilized during subsequent Apollo lunar missions and became the first manned spacecraft to travel from Earth to Moon and back again.
4. It was the first manned flight to return to Earth
In December 1968, a Saturn V rocket launched Apollo 8 into space – marking an essential step toward landing humans on the Moon by the end of this decade and making history for humanity as humans left Earth orbit for the first time and returned safely back home. Apollo 8’s success set the stage for Apollo 10, fulfilling President Kennedy’s goal by landing one man on its surface within 10 years of President Kennedy setting this goal.
Before returning home, the astronauts held a special Christmas Eve television broadcast, reading out verses of Genesis from their Bibles and sending greetings back home. It became the most watched program at that time.
Apollo 8 featured Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders. Borman became the first person ever to complete a round-trip manned spaceflight; Lovell and Anders were former crewmates on Gemini VII. Over 14 days in space, Borman set a record for most duration spent by an American. Additionally, he served on an official review board that investigated what caused Apollo 1’s fire.
After a brief check of Earth orbit, Michael Collins acting as mission control (CAPCOM) radioed the Apollo 8 crew that they had cleared the spacecraft for trans-lunar injection and needed 12 minutes to achieve speeds of 17,500mph and escape Earth’s gravitational pull on our closest celestial neighbor – the Moon.
Once in lunar orbit, the astronauts conducted numerous experiments. They became the first people to photograph the far side of the Moon with human eyes as well as photograph an Earthrise; additionally they conducted roll maneuvers for panoramic photography purposes and explored potential landing sites.
Borman experienced severe nausea during one of these maneuvers. Unable to sleep due to engine noise and crew chatter, his illness spread small amounts of vomit and feces throughout the cabin before finally becoming unsustainable and leading to cramped hands.