‘Launch Commit’: The Voyage of Apollo 8 (Part 1)

Watched by a global audience of millions, and seemingly also by a crescent Moon, the first Saturn V ever trusted with human passengers takes flight on the morning of 21 December 1968. Photo Credit: NASA

Since July 1969, astronaut Mike Collins has achieved fame as “the other one” on the first lunar landing crew. A year before making that momentous flight, he might have been aboard Apollo 9, shoulder to shoulder with fellow astronauts Frank Borman and Bill Anders, to perform a high-Earth-orbit test of the Moonship’s command, service, and lunar modules. That mission changed markedly by the time it eventually flew—renamed “Apollo 8” and with a very different destination—but for Collins the most significant change of all was that in a matter of weeks he had gone from sitting in the senior pilot’s seat … to sitting on the sidelines in Mission Control. Forty-six years ago, today, on 21 December 1968, the first humans in history set sail for another world.

NASA’s original line-up for the Apollo lunar effort envisaged a seven-step process, labelled “A” to “G.” First would have come the unmanned test flights (“A”) of the command and service modules, achieved by Apollo 4 in November 1967 and Apollo 6 in April 1968. Next, the “B” mission—completed by Apollo 5—would perform an unmanned test of the lunar module, a spidery machine which would one day enable men to touch down on the Moon. A manned “C” flight, involving the command and service modules in Earth orbit, was executed by Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walt Cunningham on Apollo 7 in October 1968, and final strides focused on four increasingly more complex voyages: “D” (a manned demo of the entire spacecraft in Earth orbit), “E” (a repeat of D, albeit in a high elliptical orbit with an apogee of about 4,000 miles, or 6,400 km), “F” (a full dress-rehearsal in lunar orbit), and “G” (the long-awaited landing itself).

It was to the “E” mission that Borman, Collins, and Anders were assigned. By the end of 1967, with the successful first flight of the mammoth Saturn V rocket, an increased wave of optimism spread through NASA that a manned lunar landing was achievable before the end of the decade. In August 1968, as described in a previous history article, some senior managers were talking of expediting Borman’s mission from high Earth orbit to a full circumnavigation of the Moon. By this time Collins had been abruptly removed from the crew. One day in July, during a game of handball, he became aware that his legs did not seem to be functioning as they should, a phenomenon which progressively worsened: as he walked down stairs, his knees would buckle and he would feel peculiar tingling and numbness.

Eventually, Collins sought the flight surgeon’s advice and was referred to a Houston neurologist. The diagnosis was that a bony growth between his fifth and sixth cervical vertibrae was pushing against his spinal column and relief of the pressure demanded surgery. A few days later, Collins underwent an anterior cervical fusion procedure, whereby the offending spur and some adjoining bone was removed and the two vertibrae fused together with a small dowel of bone from the astronaut’s hip. Several months of convalescence followed, during which time Collins’ backup, Jim Lovell, took his seat on the mission … and something else happened. The mission was renamed Apollo 8 and it would no longer fly a basic circumlunar jaunt, but would actually enter orbit around the Moon.

For some time, the exact content of Apollo 8—whether circumlunar or lunar-orbital—remained undecided. The crew patch, originally sketched by Jim Lovell onto his kneeboard during a cross-country T-38 flight with Frank Borman, illustrates the ambiguity and enormity of their mission. Image Credit: NASA

The plan was officially set in motion by NASA on 19 August, although some managers remained nervous about making such a bold move before Apollo 7. Officially, until that mission had flown successfully, the “new” Apollo 8 would represent “an expansion of Apollo 7,” whose “exact content … had not been decided.” The content of the mission may not have been decided, but the crew certainly had been. On 10 August, Deke Slayton told Jim McDivitt that the flight order was being switched: that his “D” mission with the lunar module would now become Apollo 9, preceded by Borman’s expedition (redesignated “C-Prime”) around the Moon.

Privately, Frank Borman was pleased with his lot when he received command of C-Prime. He was at North American’s Downey plant in California, working on tests of Spacecraft 104—the command module for the “E” mission—when he was summoned to take a call from Deke Slayton, the head of Flight Crew Operations. Shortly afterward he was back in Houston, in Slayton’s office, hearing about the C-Prime plan, together with disturbing CIA reports that the Soviet Union might be only weeks away from staging their own manned circumlunar flight. When Slayton asked Borman if he would command Apollo 8 to the Moon, it was essentially a question with only one answer: Yes.

Also pleased with the decision was Jim Lovell, Borman’s new senior pilot, who had been drafted in only weeks earlier to replace Mike Collins. The pair had already flown together on Gemini VII and were a good match. Lovell had been planning to take his family—his wife Marilyn and their three children—to Acapulco for Christmas, but was now forced to tell her instead that his destination had a more extraterrestrial flavour. One evening, flying cross-country with Borman in a T-38 jet, he sketched a design for Apollo 8’s crew patch onto his kneeboard: a figure-eight emblem, with Earth in one circle and the Moon in the other.

That August, around the time that the “E” mission was beginning its change into C-Prime, Apollo command module 103 arrived at Cape Kennedy for testing. Its mission, unofficially, ranged from circumlunar to fully orbital, with around 10 circuits of the Moon planned. During the translunar coast, the large Service Propulsion System (SPS) engine in the service module would be test-fired for a few seconds. If it refused to work, the astronauts could still be brought home safely, thanks to a safety feature built into Apollo 8’s trajectory design. Known as the “free return,” it would allow the crew to essentially loop around the Moon and use its gravitational influence to slingshot them back to Earth without using the SPS. In fact, if Borman, Lovell, and Anders did find themselves with a useless engine, they would only need to perform a couple of mid-course correction burns, using the service module’s thruster quads, to keep them on track for home.

Aside from the chance of an SPS failure, a host of other concerns worried Borman. One of them surrounded Apollo 8’s splashdown in the Pacific at the end of the six-day mission. To achieve a splashdown in daylight hours would require a trajectory design which included at least 12 lunar orbits. Borman, though, could not care less whether he landed in daylight or darkness. “Frank didn’t want to spend any more time in lunar orbit than was absolutely necessary,” wrote Deke Slayton, “and pushed for—and got—approval of a splashdown in the early morning, before dawn.” Apollo 8 would stick at 10 orbits.

Pictured in a boilerplate mockup of their command module during training in October 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 represented one of the most experienced ever to travel into orbit. Commander Frank Borman (foreground) had previously spent 14 days in orbit on Gemini VII with Senior Pilot Jim Lovell (middle), who also commanded Gemini XII. In the background, Pilot Bill Anders was the only “rookie” member of the team. Photo Credit: NASA

To understand Borman’s reluctance to do more than was necessary is to understand part of his character and military bearing: he was wholly committed to “The Mission,” whatever it might be. On Apollo 8, that mission was to reach the Moon and bring his crew home safely. Nothing else mattered. All non-essential, “irrelevant” requests irritated him. “Some idiot had the idea that on the way to the Moon, we’d do an EVA,” he recounted years later in a NASA oral history. “What do you want to do? What’s the main objective? The main objective was to go to the Moon, do enough orbits so that they could do the tracking, be the pathfinders for Apollo 11 and get your ass home. Why complicate it?”

The four months leading up to the mission were conducted at a break-neck pace. The lunar launch window opened on 21 December 1968, at which time Mare Tranquillitatis (the Sea of Tranquillity, a low, relatively flat plain tipped as a possible first landing site) would be experiencing lunar sunrise and its landscape would be thrown into stark relief, allowing Borman, Lovell, and Anders to photograph and analyse it. In the final six weeks before launch, the crew regularly put in 10-hour workdays, with weekends existing only to wade through piles of mail. At the end of November, outgoing President Lyndon Johnson threw them a bon voyage party in Washington, DC. Then, on the evening of 20 December, the legendary Charles Lindbergh, first to fly solo across the Atlantic, visited their quarters at Cape Kennedy. During their meal, the topic of conversation turned to the Saturn V rocket, which would burn nearly 40,000 pounds (1,800 kg) of propellant in its first second of firing.

Lindbergh was astounded.

“In the first second of your flight tomorrow,” he told them, “you’ll burn ten times more fuel than I did all the way to Paris!”

Shortly after 2:30 a.m. EST on launch morning, Deke Slayton woke them in Cape Kennedy’s crew quarters and joined them for the ritual breakfast of steak and eggs. Also in attendance were Chief Astronaut Al Shepard and Apollo 8 backup crewmen Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. (The third backup crew member, Fred Haise, was busily setting switch positions inside the command module at Pad 39A.) Shortly thereafter, clad in their snow-white space suits and bubble helmets, they arrived at the brilliantly floodlit pad, where their 360-foot-tall (110-meter) Saturn V awaited. First Borman, then Anders, and finally Lovell took their seats in the command module, joining Haise, who had by now finished his job of checking switches. After offering them his hand in solidarity and farewell, Haise crawled out of the cabin, and the heavy unified hatch slammed shut at 5:34 a.m.

Years later, Bill Anders told Andrew Chaikin that he glanced over at a window in the boost-protective cover and saw a hornet fluttering around outside. “She’s building a nest,” he thought, “and did she pick the wrong place to build it!”

As their 7:51 a.m. launch time drew closer, a sense of unreal calm pervaded Apollo 8’s cabin. With five minutes to go, the white room and its access arm rotated away from the spacecraft and, shortly thereafter, the launch pad’s automatic sequencer took charge of the countdown, monitoring the final topping-off of propellants needed by the Saturn V to reach space. Sixty seconds before launch the giant rocket was declared fully pressurized, and it transferred its systems to internal battery power as four of the nine servicing arms linking it to utilities on Pad 39A were disconnected.

Frank Borman leads his men to the transfer van in the pre-dawn darkness of 21 December 1968. Jim Lovell waves for the cameras, whilst Bill Anders brings up the rear. Photo Credit: NASA

“T-50 seconds and counting,” intoned public affairs commentator Jack King in the Launch Control Center. “We have the power transfer. We’re now on the flight batteries within the launch vehicle.”

The seconds ticked away.

At 17 seconds came the final alignment of the Saturn’s guidance computer, and it was transferred to internal power.

“T-15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, nine … ”

It was at this stage that the ignition sequence of the largest and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status began and pressurized propellants flooded into the five F-1 engines on the Saturn’s first stage. Despite being cocooned inside their space suits, Borman, Lovell, and Anders could faintly hear the sound of fuel pouring into the combustion chambers, 36 stories below them.

“We have ignition sequence start. The engines are armed … ”

Within those engines internal turbines built up the supply of propellants to full flow and brought the first stage up to near-full power. As the final seconds of the countdown evaporated, all five engines were running at 90 percent of their rated performance, consuming thousands of pounds of propellant every second. When the clock inside the command module read “T-3 seconds,” the faint gushing sound of propellants was replaced by a distant, thunder-like rumbling.

“Four, three, two, one, zero … ”

Finally, as Pad 39A’s deluge system unleashed a torrent of water onto the launch platform to reduce the reflected energy, the Saturn’s internal computer carried out its final checks. All was well. “We have Commit … ”

The Launch Commit signal released a series of clamps securing the rocket to the pad and the monster began its rise for the heavens. From the astronauts’ couches in the command module it was hard to discern—other than from the clock in front of their eyes—when they precisely left Earth, but at some point in the commotion the first Saturn V ever trusted with human passengers took flight.

“We have a liftoff,” exulted Jack King. “We have liftoff at 7:51 a.m. Eastern Standard Time … ”

“Liftoff,” radioed Borman, gazing at the clock on his instrument panel. “The clock is running.” After the mission, all three men would have their own recollections of what it was like to launch atop the Saturn, but Chaikin summed it up best in his landmark book A Man on the Moon when he quoted Bill Anders: They felt as if they were helpless prey in the mouth of a giant, angry dog.

Rising atop a tongue of flame hundreds of feet long, the Saturn V roars into orbit with Apollo 8. This launch was only the third flight of the mammoth booster and the first with a human crew. Photo Credit: NASA

Forty seconds into the climb the rocket burst through the sound barrier and the G loads on the three astronauts climbed steadily—three, then four, and still climbing—but when they hit 4.5 the uncomfortable feeling of intense acceleration ended as the Saturn’s S-IC first stage burned out and separated. “The staging,” Borman recounted, “from the first to the second stage, as we went from S-IC cutoff to S-II ignition, was a violent manoeuvre: we were thrown forward against our straps and smashed back into the seat.” So violent, in fact, was the motion that Anders felt he was being hurled headlong into the instrument panel. Seconds later, the now-unneeded escape tower and the command module’s boost-protective cover were jettisoned, flooding the cabin with daylight as windows were uncovered. For Anders, his first glimpse of Earth from space—clouds, ocean, and a black sky—was electrifying.

A little under nine minutes after launch the S-II finally expired and the S-IVB picked up the remainder of the thrust needed to achieve orbit. “The smoothest ride in the world” was how Borman described riding the Saturn’s restartable third stage, before it, too, shut down, at 8:02 a.m. Barely 11 minutes had passed since leaving Cape Kennedy, and the astronauts were in orbit. In less than three hours’ time, assuming that their spacecraft checked out satisfactorily, they would relight the S-IVB for six minutes to begin the Trans-Lunar Injection (TLI) burn and set themselves on an appropriate path for the Moon. However, if Apollo 8 did not pass its tests with flying colors and the lunar shot was called off, they would be consigned to what had been called “the alternate mission”: an Apollo 7-type jaunt for 10 long days in Earth orbit, with little to do.

Borman could think of nothing worse. Indeed, at one stage, Jim Lovell, working under one of the couches to adjust a valve, accidentally inflated his space suit’s life vest and Borman gave him a dirty look. In true Frank Borman fashion, nothing would be permitted to interfere with The Mission. At length, it was Capcom Mike Collins, who had been recovered from his neck surgery since early November and had even fruitlessly approached Deke Slayton with a view to staying on the crew, who gave them the news they so badly needed to hear: “Apollo 8, you are Go for TLI!”

Drifting high above the Pacific Ocean at the time, the astronauts knew that the six-minute burn would be entirely controlled by the computers and, with 10 seconds to go, a flashing number “99” appeared on the command module’s display panel. In essence, it asked them to confirm that they wanted to go ahead with the specific manoeuvre. Lovell punched the “Proceed” button, and at 10:38 a.m., some two hours and 47 minutes into the mission, the third stage ignited with a long, slow push.

Although Borman kept a keen eye on his instruments in the event that he had to assume manual control, Collins relayed updates from the trajectory specialists that Apollo 8 was in perfect shape. It did not feel that way to Borman, who was convinced from the intense shaking and rattling that he might be forced to abort the burn. Steadily, as Anders watched the third stage’s propellant temperatures and pressures, they turned from Earth-orbiting astronauts to Moon-bound adventurers. By the time the S-IVB finally shut down after five minutes and 18 seconds, their velocity had increased from 17,500 mph (28,100 km/h) to 23,200 mph (37,340 km/h): the “escape velocity” needed to depart Earth’s gravitational well and chart a course to the Moon. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders were traveling faster than any human beings had ever flown before.

Surprisingly, though, with no outside point of reference there was not the slightest sense of the tremendous speed at which Apollo 8 was moving. Then, when Borman separated the command and service module from the now-spent S-IVB and maneuvered around to face the third stage, they saw the effect of TLI: the Home Planet was no longer a seemingly-flat expanse of land and sea and cloud “below” them, but spherical, its curvature obvious in the black void. They could actually see it receding from them as they continued travelling outward. At length, as their altitude increased, Earth grew so small that it seemed to fit neatly inside the frame of one of the command module’s windows. They quickly broke the 850-mile (1,360-km) altitude record set by Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon on Gemini XI in September 1966. “Tell Conrad he lost his record,” Borman radioed. Jim Lovell promptly launched into a geography lesson and even asked Mike Collins to warn the people of Tierra del Fuego to put on their raincoats, as a storm was approaching.

In a view seen only by a crew of lunar voyagers, this astonishing image reveals most of the Western Hemisphere, extending from Newfoundland to Tierra del Fuego. The land mass of Central America is clearly visible, with much of the Andes coated by cloud. Photo Credit: NASA

Manoeuvring Apollo 8 with its nose pointed toward Earth and the S-IVB had not been done simply for sightseeing: Borman’s next task was to rendezvous with it, just as future crews would need to do in order to extract their lunar modules from the enormous “garage” atop the S-IVB. After completing this demonstration, he pulled away for the final time and Apollo 8 set sail for the Moon. Five hours into the flight, after finally removing his space suit, Lovell set to work taking star sightings with the 28-power sextant and navigation telescopes. If they lost contact with Earth, he might have to measure the angles between target stars and the home planet and punch the data into the computer to figure out their position. He would do the same in lunar orbit, measuring craters and landmarks to refine their flight path.

Shortly after 6 p.m., the first test firing of the SPS engine was performed, lasting just two seconds, which satisfied the astronauts and ground controllers that it could operate as advertised. As the first workday of Apollo 8 drew to a close, Lovell and Anders watched the instruments whilst Borman, unsuccessfully, tried to sleep.

Heading across the vast cislunar gulf, the astronauts awakened the first sensations of space sickness. Borman, it seemed, suffered the most. A number of cases of gastroenteritis had plagued Cape Kennedy in the days before launch, and it was suggested that this 24-hour intestinal flu could have triggered the malady; alternatively, Borman had taken a Seconal tablet to help him sleep and blamed the medication for his discomfort. Upon awakening to begin his second day aloft, he suffered vomiting and diarrhoea, but recovered sufficiently by the third day to tell Mission Control that “nobody is sick.” Unknown to Borman, his case had caused much consternation among the flight surgeons and even led to suggestions that the mission might have to be terminated. Fortunately, all three men were indeed fine and, even if they were ill, the SPS could not be fired to about-face them back to Earth.

They were heading for the Moon, whether they liked it or not.


The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.

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  1. Ben: very interesting article on the Apollo 8 mission and am looking forward to tomorrow’s article. I remember David Brinkley commenting that for the first time in human history man has left the bonds of Earth to travel to another heavenly body (paraphrasing). It was truly an historic event that captured the world’s imagination. Thanks for the excellent work.

  2. Excellent first part to Apollo 8’s fantastic voyage. I remember well Walter Cronkite literally shaken to the bone from the enormous power of the Saturn V. Equally amazing was the “go” for TLI. Chaikin’s video was interesting for a couple of reasons. The command module was in a roll and thus the “earth rise” could have been missed, at least initially. The “chatter” among the crew during this period is at once, “matter of fact,” and also historic in that human beings are, for the first time in human history, viewing and photographing our home from such a distance. Apollo 8’s mission is more astounding to contemplate as years pass by – yeah, we actually did that!

  3. I have read somewhere that the photograph of the Saturn V on the launch pad, accompanied by a crescent Moon is a composite one, with the Moon added for dramatic effect. I don’t remember if I read that about the Apollo 8 launch or a different one. Do you have any info about this Ben?

  4. Ben,
    Another great historical article of yours, thank you so much!
    And thanks to Chris for posting the video – this was better than a Hollywood SF movie!

    By the way: 40,000 pounds is not 1,800 kg, it’s 18,000. However, Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis had a fuel capacity of 1,230 kg or 2,710 pounds according to Wiki, so I assume you meant 4,000 pounds or the stated 1,800 kg in the 1st second of flight of Apollo 8. 😉
    Still an amazing figure!

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