When the first astronauts landed on the Moon, it wasn’t a straight jump from Earth to the lunar surface on the first try. Instead, the first footsteps only came after a long series of preliminary steps, one of which was a manned orbital mission to the satellite. This December 21st marks the 45th anniversary of the day in 1968 when Apollo 8 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and into history as the first manned mission to orbit the Moon. It not only paved the way for Apollo 11, but is also seen by some as a greater achievement than the Moon landing itself.

Apollo 8 already had its precedents. When Jules Verne wrote his novels From Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon, his astronauts orbited the Moon without landing. The same was true of the space explorer in Isaac Asimov’s short story Trends, about which the author said in 1969 that he'd been over-conservative by setting his flight ten years later in 1978. Even Wernher Von Braun, the man behind the Saturn V rocket, said in his proposals for a Moon program that he put before the US government and the public via the pages of Collier's and the television documentaries of Walt Disney, would involve an orbital reconnaissance mission as a penultimate step before a lunar landing.

However, Apollo 8 was no fantasy or a prediction of what might be. It was part of the US Apollo program, which followed in the footsteps of the Mercury and Gemini projects with the goal of fulfilling President John F Kennedy's promise to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.

It was also a mission with a very serious purpose. The Cold War was in full swing and the US and the Soviet Union were engaged in a Space Race, which the US space program was dedicated to and looked to be in peril of losing. Worse, 1968 was a year of turmoil and disillusionment with riots in Paris and many major American cities, political assassinations, and the continuing war in Vietnam. The US government saw Apollo 8 as a way of redeeming a very bad year and rescuing the American people from what Norman Vincent Peale called “a dull sense of frustration.”

Ironically, Apollo 8 wasn’t originally intended to go to the Moon at all. It was the second manned Apollo Mission and the original plan was for Apollo 8 to consist of a Command/Service Module (CSM) and a Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). The Service Module was used to propel the mission to the Moon and back while the conical Command Module housed the astronauts.

Meanwhile, the LEM was a spider-like machine that docked to the nose of the CSM for carrying two astronauts to and from the lunar surface. Apollo 8’s mission would be to take the LEM into medium Earth orbit in early 1969 to carry out the first flight tests of the lunar lander. However, events required a sudden change of plans.

NASA was worried. On September 15, 1968, the Soviet Union launched its Zond 5 mission, which carried a “crew” of tortoises and other living things around the Moon and was the first lunar mission to return to Earth. Worse, the CIA had information that the Soviets might try to send a one-man orbital mission to the Moon before the end of the year. If that wasn’t enough, NASA was having equipment problems. Two CSMs were delivered to the Kennedy Space Center, but the LEM was still having engineering problems and the builder Grumman said it would not be ready until at least February 1969.

It was in this context that George Low, the Manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, had an idea. Since the LEM wasn’t ready, but the CSM was, then why not go for a circumlunar mission? The result was hurried discussions followed by the decision to move the mission launch up from early 1969 to late December, 1968. This meant a quick change in mission planning, shorter and more intense training for the crew, and trimming down to what would be a straightforward trip to the Moon with the other objectives being to test the CSM and to take recon photos for the Apollo 11 landing.

The crew chosen for Apollo 8 were Mission Commander Col. Frank F. Borman, II, Command Module Pilot and navigator US Navy Capt. James A. Lovell, Jr., and Lunar Module Pilot and flight engineer Lt. Col. William A. Anders. Borman and Lovell were veteran astronauts, who’d flown on Gemini missions, while Anders was making his first and only spaceflight.

Their spacecraft was Command Service Module Apollo CSM-103; radio call sign “Apollo 8.” weighing 28,870 kg (63,650 lb) at lift off, it was built by North American Rockwell. In 1968, it was an astonishing piece of aerospace engineering, which had undergone extensive redesign after a tragic cabin fire had claimed the lives of three men during ground tests for the abandoned Apollo 1 mission.

It was also cramped, noisy, and flying in it was like being crammed inside a submarine while living on freeze dried and vacuum-sealed space food. It was also controlled by an onboard computer that was incredibly advanced for its time, but frighteningly primitive by 21st century standards, with less capacity than a downmarket mobile phone of today.

The rocket that would send Apollo 8 to the Moon was the largest and most powerful ever built, the Saturn V. This would be the third flight of the rocket and the first manned mission. Standing 363 ft (110.6 m) tall and weighing 3,100 tons (2,812 tonnes), the three-stage launch vehicle’s F-1 first stage engines put out 7.6 million pounds of thrust. The Saturn V, its engines, the Apollo spacecraft, and their support technology were built by contractors from all over the US with a logistics pipeline and a program budget suitable for waging a small war.

Support for the mission was worldwide, with radio dishes in Madrid, Canberra, and California supplemented by tracking stations on ships and planes. In addition, the Space Particle Alert Network (SPAN) kept an eye on the Sun for any signs of dangerous solar flares that might subject the astronauts to hazardous doses of radiation.

Launch day was December 21, 1968 at 7:51 AM EST. The site was the Kennedy Space Center, pad LC-39A and the duration of the mission was to be six days. It may seem odd to schedule a mission to last over Christmas with all the problems that entails, but the timing was dictated by the launch window when the Moon was in the correct position, and the photographic need for future landing areas to be in sunlight and the angle of the Sun to be low enough to provide good shadows and contrasts.

Despite being the first Saturn V launch with a crew sitting atop it, the lift off went like clockwork, with the only tense moment being the ignition of the S-IVB third stage, which had failed to light on its last unmanned test. Fortunately, this time it fired as planned to put Apollo 8 into its parking orbit, and then for its second burn, which sent the CSM on its way to the Moon.

Three hours and 35 minutes into the flight, the Apollo 8 crew was further away from Earth than any human beings in history and Borman said to mission control, “Tell Conrad he lost his record.” This referred to the Gemini XI mission of 1966, when Pete Conrad and Richard Gordon reached an altitude of 850.5 mi (1,368.9 km).

It was shortly after Apollo 8 went into translunar orbit that an unpleasant episode occurred. The plan was for the crew to sleep in shifts, so there would always be at least one astronaut awake at any given time. Despite all the adrenalin from the launch, Borman took the first sleeping shift and took a sleeping pill. Far from nodding off, he ended up wide awake with vomiting and a diarrhea attack so bad that the waste system couldn’t handle it and droplets of sick and feces floated around the cabin.

Commander Frank Borman (Image: NASA)

Not wanting to broadcast the problem to the world, the astronauts put together a tape, which was transmitted to Earth in a high-speed burst and cryptically asked mission control to comment on the tape. Astronaut Michael Collins, who was Command Module Pilot on Apollo 11, was acting as capsule communicator (Capcom) for Apollo 8. In his book Carrying Fire, he said, “The first humans to leave the cradle had called for their paediatrician.”

Fortunately, the condition quickly cleared itself up. Doctors back on Earth thought it was a bout of 24-hour flu of which there had been a recent outbreak at the space center, or Borman was reacting poorly to the sleeping pill, which had happened to him previously. Later researchers believed that this was an early case of space sicknesses, which is the celestial equivalent of seasickness.

The rest of the journey to the Moon was relatively uneventful as the crew dealt with windows fogging up due to outgassing from the materials in their construction, giving a live tour of the tiny spacecraft for television viewers, and taking sextant readings as a navigational backup in case communications were lost with mission control. Unfortunately, debris from the S-IVB followed the spacecraft like bright sparks as the Sun reflected off of them, which made observations difficult.

Arrival at the Moon underscored how new this entire venture was. No one had ever traveled to another celestial body before and the CSM had never been tested in such an environment. Each step in the mission had a go/no go component that allowed it to be aborted at the last minute. If worst came to worst, the crew simply had to not fire the main engine and the craft would loop around the Moon and return to Earth.

But the engine had to be fired if Apollo 8 was to go into lunar orbit and it had to fire behind the Moon, where all communications with Earth would be cut off. The programmed firing time was to last 4 minutes and 13 seconds. If it fired too short, the spacecraft would be shot into solar orbit. If it fired too long, they’d crash on the Moon with the only clue to those listening on Earth being when they failed to appear again.

Fortunately, the burn went exactly as planned and Apollo 8 regained contact right on time as it passed from behind the Moon. The crew called that engine burn the longest four minutes of their lives.

Orbit insertion was achieved on December 23, 1968 at 21:59:52 GMT with the spacecraft circling the Moon every two hours at an altitude of about 111 km (69 mi). As people watched on television and listened on radios back on Earth, the astronauts went through checkouts before Lovell described the lunar surface as it rolled before them.

“Okay, Houston. 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.”

Apollo 8 remained in lunar orbit for 20 hours and 11 minutes. Unlike later space missions, the crew weren’t kept busy with experiments. Their only duties outside of the flight itself were recon photography. Bill Anders used most of that time taking photos of future Apollo landing sites out the window and using the sextant as a telescope. In all, he took 700 pictures of the Moon, 150 of the Earth, and five reels of 16 mm film . One of these photos was the famous Earthrise showing our blue planet hovering over the desolate lunar rim, which became one of the defining images of the 20th century.

One result of the mission was the discovery that the sleep schedule didn’t work for the highly motivated astronauts, who lost track of time. Much of the flight program was cut short by Borman when he noticed that this comrades were suffering from sleep deprivation and ordering them to get some rest, so Lovell and Anders slept through the next two orbits, leaving the cameras on automatic. As a consequence of this episode, later missions abandoned sleeping in shifts.

But the thing that Apollo 8 is most notable for is the most famous Christmas that didn’t involve angels and shepherds. To mark the holiday, the crew took it in turns reading the first 10 verses of the Book of Genesis with Borman capping it off by saying, "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."

It was the most watched television broadcast up to that time. The May 1969 issue of the magazine TV Guide claimed that almost one billion people in 64 nations watched the broadcast or heard it on the radio with more in 30 countries catching it on delayed broadcast.

Astronaut James A. Lovell Jr. at the Command Module's Guidance and Navigation station (Image: NASA)

After the broadcast, the crew found turkey dinners in the food locker similar to those issued to the military. There were also three miniature bottles of brandy, which remained unopened during the flight and even years later.

Christmas was not a day of rest for the Apollo 8 crew. Trans-Earth Injection (TEI) took place 2.5 hours after the Christmas broadcast. On December 24, 1968, at 1:10:16 PM EST, Apollo 8 fired its engine again for the return to Earth. This burn also had to take place in the Moon’s shadow and was even more important than the previous orbital insertion burn because if the engine failed to fire, the crew were never coming home.

As with the arrival, Apollo 8 appeared without a hitch and was headed home after orbiting the Moon 10 times. The return leg was uneventful with the Command Module separating from the Service Module on schedule on December 27. Under computer guidance, the capsule hit the atmosphere and its glowing tail of plasma was photographed by a US Air Force ALOTS (Airborne Lightweight Optical Tracking System) camera mounted on a KC-135A aircraft.

The Command Module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 8°8′N 165°1′W at 10:51:42 EST. Total mission duration was 6 days, 3 hours, 42 seconds. The only snag was when the parachutes became waterlogged and flipped the capsule over. The Command Module had floats, which were inflated and righted the craft, but it made the forty-five minutes until recovery a bit unpleasant.

Back in Houston, Apollo control reported to the world that an emotional celebration broke out at mission control at the moment of splashdown that was bigger than anything yet seen during an American space mission with cigars lit and American flags everywhere.

The achievements of Apollo 8 would be hard to overestimate. Its crew traveled farther from Earth than any human beings at that time, reaching 234,474 mi (377,349 km), as well as traveling faster than anyone before.

It also racked up a long list of firsts, including:

  • First manned flight of a Saturn V rocket
  • First manned launch from the John F Kennedy Space Center
  • First astronauts to go beyond low Earth orbit
  • First crew to go through the Van Allen radiation belts
  • First to see the Earth as a whole
  • First to reach the Moon
  • First to orbit the Moon
  • First to directly see the far side of the Moon
  • And the list goes on. Thanks to Apollo 8, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, the largest technical hurdles had already been cleared. Small wonder that Rear Admiral Ken Mattingly, who was Command Module Pilot on Apollo 16, said in Robert Zimmerman’s book Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8 : the First Manned Flight to Another World, "I consider Apollo 8 the most significant event. Compared to Apollo 8, the Apollo 11 mission was anti-climatic."

    For us old codgers who were around in those days, it did seem like Apollo 8 had set off an express train of events. Hot on the heels of Apollo 8 was the Apollo 9 mission in March 1969, which tested the Lunar Module in Earth orbit. Then came Apollo 10 on a mission that not only circled the Moon, but also conducted a practice flight, which brought the Lunar Module Snoopy within 8.4 nautical miles (15.6 km) of the lunar surface, and finally, the Apollo 11 landing in July. Small wonder Von Braun was already pitching an expedition to Mars and serious predictions were made of lunar outposts by 1975.

    However, none of that came to pass. No one has set foot upon the Moon since 1972 and the Apollo 8 Command Module is now on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. It sometimes seems as if the conquest of space has ground to a halt, but China’s landing a rover on the Moon, the continued robotic exploration of the Solar System, and the development of new manned spacecraft by both government and private agencies shows that while the echoes of Apollo 8 may not have come fast, they do come deep.

    Sources: Chariots of Apollo, Apollo 8 Mission transcripts, Apollo 8 Mission report (PDF)