Five decades have now passed since the largest and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status—the gigantic Saturn V—set off from Earth, bound for another world, with a human crew aboard. At 7:51 a.m. EST on 21 December 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders roared aloft from Pad 39A at Cape Kennedy in Florida to begin the first piloted voyage to the Moon. In doing so, their six-day flight would court both drama and controversy and would clear a significant hurtle as the United States worked to fulfil a presidential goal of landing a man on the lunar surface, before the end of the decade. And as outlined in last weekend’s AmericaSpace history article, the lunar mission of Apollo 8 was only a few months in the making.
Of the three men aboard Apollo 8, only Anders was an astronaut “rookie”; Lovell had flown into space twice before, and Borman once, but all three were first-timers as far as flying the Saturn V was concerned. As the final seconds of the countdown evaporated that December morning, 50 winters ago, the gushing of propellants into combustion chambers was eerily replaced by a distant sound of rolling thunder.
“…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 V’s internal computerized brain performed its final checks. All was well. “We have Commit…”
The Launch Commit signal released clamps securing the 363-foot-tall (110-meter) booster to the pad and Borman, Lovell and Anders began to rise from Earth. Fromthe 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 launch commentator Jack King. “We have liftoff at 7:51 a.m. Eastern Standard Time…”
“Liftoff,” confirmed 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 Andrew 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.
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 maneuver: 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 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”: ten long days in Earth orbit.
Borman could thinkof 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 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” by the S-IVB would be entirely controlled by the computers and, with ten 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 maneuver. Lovell punched the “Proceed” button, and at 10:38 a.m., 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 clutches and chart a course to the Moon.
Borman, Lovell and Anders were traveling faster than any human beings ever before.
Surprisingly, though, with no outside point of reference there was not the slightest sense of this tremendous speed. 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 traveling outward. And 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. For his part, Lovell launched into a geography lesson and asked Mike Collins to warn the people of Tierra del Fuego to put on their raincoats, as a storm was approaching them.
Maneuvering Apollo 8 with its nose pointed toward Earth and the S-IVB had not been done 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, 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.
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 hisdiscomfort. Unbeknownst to Borman, his case 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 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.