Almost half a century ago, on 21 December 1968, three men were launched atop the most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status—the Saturn V—to begin a mission more adventurous, more audacious, more challenging, and far more dangerous than had ever been attempted in two million years of human evolution. Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders roared away from their Home Planet and re-lit the third stage of their launch vehicle in an event somewhat innocuously described as ‘Trans-Lunar Injection’ (TLI). That six-minute firing propelled them out of Earth’s gravitational clutches for the first time in history and set them on course to visit our closest celestial neighbor, the Moon.
Strangely, in the hours after TLI, none of the men could see much of the Moon at all. It was barely a crescent from their perspective and they would not really see it in its entirety until they arrived in orbit around it on Christmas Eve. “I saw it several times in the optics as I was doing some sightings,” admitted Lovell, but “by and large, the body that we were rendezvousing with—that was coming from one direction as we were going to another—we never saw…and we took it on faith that the Moon would be there, which says quite a bit for ground control.” As they headed towards their target, Apollo 8 slowly rotated on its axis in a so-called ‘barbecue roll’, to even out thermal extremes of blistering heat and frigid cold across its metallic surfaces.
One hundred and forty thousand miles from Earth, and 31 hours after launch, the astronauts began their first live telecast from the mysterious ‘cislunar’ environment, betwist Earth and the Moon. Borman had tried to have the camera removed from the mission, but had been overruled, and now found himself using it to film Lovell in the command module’s lower equipment bay, preparing a chocolate pudding for dessert. Next there was a shot of Bill Anders, twirling his weightless toothbrush. “This transmission,” Borman commenced for his terrestrial audience, “is coming to you approximately halfway between the Moon and the Earth. We have about less than 40 hours to go to the Moon…I certainly wish we could show you the Earth. Very, very beautiful.”
Unfortunately, a telephoto lens fitted to the camera by Anders did not work and when they switched back to the interior lens it resolved the Home Planet as little more than a white blob, giving away little of its splendour. Borman was disappointed that he had been unable to show viewers the “beautiful, beautiful view, with blue background and just huge covers of white clouds”. Lovell closed out the transmission by wishing his mother a happy birthday, after which Borman placed Apollo 8 back into its barbecue roll, which took the high-gain antenna off Earth. A day later, their second telecast allowed Lovell to describe for his spellbound audience the appearance of the western hemisphere: the blues of the deep ocean trenches, the browns of the landmasses, and the whites of the cloud structures.
Lovell was an explorer at heart. His excitement in wanting to fly Apollo 8 was motivated equally as much, if not more so, by the simple urge to explore new places than by a desire to carry out scientific investigations. The science was important, but Lovell’s sentiment could perhaps be best tied to a statement made three years later by Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott: that going to the Moon was “exploration at its greatest”. At one stage in the flight, Lovell turned to Borman and wondered aloud what alien travellers might think as they approached Earth. Would they believe it to be inhabited or not? Would they decide to land on the blue or the brown part of its surface?
“You better hope that we land on the blue part,” deadpanned Anders.
By the afternoon of 23 December, almost 60 hours since their Saturn V left Earth, the gravitational influence of their home planet was finally overcome by that of the Moon. At this point, Apollo 8 was 190,000 miles from Earth and just over 40,000 miles from its target, and the spacecraft’s velocity had slowed to 2,700 mph as it moved farther into the Moon’s gravitational ‘well’. As they sailed towards Lunar Orbit Insertion (LOI), their trajectory was near-perfect: only two of four planned mid-course correction burns had been needed to keep Apollo 8 locked into its free return trajectory. At 3:55 am EST on Christmas Eve, Capcom Gerry Carr told Borman that they were “Go for LOI”.
The three astronauts had still not seen the Moon, despite their close proximity to it, since their angle of approach caused it to be lost in the Sun’s glare. At length, Carr asked them what they could see. “Nothing,” replied Anders gloomily, adding “it’s like being on the inside of a submarine”. Less than an hour later, at 4:49 am, Apollo 8 passed behind the Moon, with Lovell telling Carr that “we’ll see you on the other side”. Eleven minutes later, they fired the service module’s large Service Propulsion System (SPS) engine for four minutes to reduce their speed and brake themselves into an orbit of 69 x 193 miles. The burn was flawless, although Lovell admitted that it was “the longest four minutes I ever spent”. Had the engine burned too long or too short, they could have ended up either crashing into the Moon or vanishing into some errant orbit. Just to be sure, Borman hit the shutdown button as soon as the clock touched zero.
Back on Earth, a tense world—nearly a billion people were listening in, NASA estimated, scattered across 64 different countries—waited for word of their insertion into lunar orbit. If Apollo 8 had not achieved orbit, then Borman, Lovell, and Anders would come back into communications range ten minutes sooner than planned. At length, right on time, following a 45-minute blackout, public affairs officer Paul Haney announced with joy: “We got it! We got it!” Fifteen minutes later, the astronauts’ first close-range descriptions of the Moon came across a quarter of a million miles of emptiness. “The Moon,” Lovell began, “is essentially grey; no colour; looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a greyish deep 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—especially the round ones—look like hits by meteorites or projectiles of some sort…”
The lack of even the slightest vestiges of an atmosphere lent a weird clarity to what was, in effect, a scene of the utmost desolation, silence, and stillness. Only weeks earlier, the film of Arthur C. Clarke’s, 2001: A Space Odyssey, had premiered and even the astronauts imagined the lunar terrain to be composed of dramatic mountains and jagged cliffs. Instead they were presented with an essentially dead place, ubiquitous in its blandness. Anders, tasked with the bulk of the lunar photography, had spent hours before launch with the only geologist-astronaut, Jack Schmitt, discussing the features of the surface, and had his own flight plan to plough through, but found it hard because of dirty windows. In fact, only the command module’s two small rendezvous windows remained reasonably clear.
For Anders, the far side of the Moon, never seen from Earth or ever by human eyes, resembled “a sand pile my kids have been playing in for a long time…all beat up, no definition, just a lot of bumps and holes”. He considered the lunar surface to be unappealing, but with a “stark beauty” of its own, and all three men found pleasure in giving temporary names to some of the craters to honour their colleagues and managers: Low, Gilruth, Shea, Grissom, White, Webb, Chaffee, Kraft, See, and Bassett. “These,” said Borman, “were all the giants who made it work.” At one stage during the excitement, when flight controller John Aaron noticed that the command module’s environmental control system needed adjustment, they responded by naming a crater for him, too. (Before the flight, Lovell had even given his wife, Marilyn, a photograph of a mountain, near the edge of the Sea of Tranquillity, which he had unofficially named for her: Mount Marilyn.)
Four hours after entering orbit, another SPS burn—this time thankfully shorter at just 11 seconds—adjusted Apollo 8’s path around the Moon into a near-perfect 69-mile circle. Then, at 10:37 am EST on 24 December, the astronauts became the first humans to witness ‘Earthrise’ from behind the lunar limb. Borman was in the process of turning the spacecraft to permit Lovell to take some sextant readings, when all at once Anders yelled: “Oh my God! Look at that picture over there.” It would become a running, though light-hearted, competition among the crew over who took the ‘Earthrise Picture’, which has since become world-famous: a shot of the Home Planet, a pretty blue-and-white marble, rising in the void above the Moon’s grey-brown surface. With Lovell in attendance, it was Anders who, after fitting the colour magazine and aiming the telephoto lens, snapped one of the most iconic images of the Space Age. In perhaps no other image has the beauty, fragility, and loneliness of Earth been captured with more meaning.
Years later, Anders would win praise from environmentalists for his assertion that Apollo 8’s goal was to explore the Moon…and what it really did was discover the Earth!
The astronauts’ intense workload during their 20 hours in orbit was getting the better of them, with tiredness causing them to make mistakes. On occasion, Lovell had punched the wrong code into the command module’s computer, triggering warning alarms, and Anders was overcome with his own schedule: stereo imagery, dim-light photography, and filter work. At length, clearly irritated that the timeline was too full, Borman snapped at Capcom Mike Collins that he was taking an executive decision for his two crewmates to get some rest. “I’ll stay up and keep the spacecraft vertical,” he told Collins, “and take some automatic pictures.” With some difficulty, he had to force Lovell and Anders to pry their eyes away from the windows and get some sleep.
It seemed inevitable, after thousands of years of watching and wondering about the Moon, that humanity’s first visit would be commemorated in a religious, spiritual, or symbolic way. Before the launch, Borman, Lovell, and Anders had discussed this issue at length with friends and concluded that they would read the story of Creation from the first ten verses of Genesis. During their ninth orbit, on their second live telecast from the Moon, they read it. Anders spoke first, then Lovell, and finally Borman closed with “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you…all of you on the good Earth”.
Eight minutes into Christmas morning, three days and 17 hours after launch, the return home got underway when the SPS engine was ignited to increase their speed by 2,300 mph. As they rounded the Moon for the last time, Lovell told Capcom Ken Mattingly, who was just coming on duty in Houston, “Please be informed there is a Santa Claus”. Mattingly replied that they were the best ones to know.
The return journey proved uneventful, with fogged windows, puddling water, and clattering cabin fans creating mere annoyances. A final televised tour of Apollo 8 showed Anders preparing a freeze-dried meal…and, when the camera stopped rolling, they found a treat in their food locker: real turkey and real cranberry sauce, wrapped in foil with red and green ribbons. It turned out to be their best meal of the entire flight, although Borman was annoyed that Deke Slayton had slipped three small bottles of brandy aboard as well. Why, if anything went wrong on the flight, the overly zealous Borman fumed, the press and public would have a field day and blame it on the ‘drunk’ astronauts. Lovell and Anders, who have admitted that they had no intention of touching the brandy, felt that Borman had gone a little too far. Christmas spirit returned, however, with festive presents: pairs of cufflinks and a man-in-the-Moon tie pin from Susan Borman and Marilyn Lovell, and a gold ‘figure 8’ tie pin from Valerie Anders.
Only one minor trajectory correction burn was needed and early on 27 December, the astronauts fired pyrotechnics to jettison the service module and plunged into Earth’s atmosphere at almost 22,000 mph. During re-entry, which carried them over north-eastern China, then brought the command module in a long slanting path towards the south-east, Borman, Lovell and Anders were subjected to deceleration forces as high as 7 G. Splashdown came as Cape Kennedy clocks read 10:51 am, but still in pre-dawn darkness over the western Pacific, completing a mission of just over six days. At Mission Control in Houston, sheer pandemonium broke out, in the traditional American back-slapping way, and the smell of celebratory cigars scented the air for hours.
Among the cheering NASA throng was an overjoyed, though dispirited, Mike Collins. “For me personally, the moment was a conglomeration of emotions and memories,” he wrote. “I was a basket case, emotionally wrung out. I had seen this flight evolve in the white room at Downey, in the interminable series of meetings at Houston…into an epic voyage. I had helped it grow. I had two years invested in it—it was my flight. Yet it was not my flight; I was but one of a hundred packed into a noisy room.”
A quarter of a world away, in the Pacific Ocean, a thousand miles south-south-west of Hawaii, water came flooding through an open vent in the command module, drenching Borman and giving Anders the mistaken impression that the hull had cracked on impact. The ship overturned onto its nose, but quickly righted itself when Borman inflated the three airbags. It did not stop him from being sick. This time, Lovell and Anders, both of whom had served in the Navy, showed no mercy on their Air Force commander: “What do you expect from a West Point ground-pounder?”
Amidst the radio chatter from a rescue helicopter despatched by the aircraft carrier Yorktown came an age-old question which the world now wanted answered. “Apollo 8, is the Moon made from Limburger cheese?”
“Nope,” replied Bill Anders. “It’s made from American cheese!”
This is part of a series of History articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next weekend’s article will focus on how astronauts and cosmonauts celebrated Christmas in space, from the festivities of the Skylab 4 crew in 1973, through the Salyut and Mir eras, to STS-103 and the International Space Station.