Apollo 8 Brought 1968 to a Hopeful End

Photograph of "Earthrise" shot by Apollo 8 crewman
The photograph known as "Earthrise". NASA

The Mission of Apollo 8 in December 1968 was a major step forward in space exploration as it marked the first time humans had ventured beyond Earth orbit. The three-man crew's six-day flight, which featured 10 orbits of the moon before returning to Earth, set the stage for men landing on the moon the following summer.

Beyond the astounding engineering achievement, the mission also seemed to serve a meaningful purpose for society. The trip to lunar orbit allowed a devastating year to end on a hopeful note. In 1968 America endured assassinations, riots, a bitter presidential election, and seemingly endless violence in Vietnam, and a growing protest movement against the war. And then, as if by some miracle, Americans watched a live broadcast from three astronauts circling the moon on Christmas Eve.

Fast Facts: Apollo 8

  • The first manned mission beyond Earth orbit was an audacious change in plans, allowing the three-man crew only 16 weeks to prepare
  • Iconic "Earthrise" view surprised the astronauts, who scrambled to photograph the now-iconic image
  • Live Christmas Eve broadcast from lunar orbit was a stunning and spectacular global event
  • The mission was an inspiring end to what had been tumultuous and violent year

The great challenge expressed by President John F. Kennedy, to place a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth during the decade of the 1960s, was always taken seriously by NASA's administrators. But orbiting the moon at the end of 1968 was the result of an unexpected change of plans. The audacious move to end the year with a spectacular mission put the space program on course for a man to walk on the moon during 1969.

Two Crew Members Flew a Remarkable Gemini Mission

Photograph of Gemini 7 rendezvous with Gemini 6
Gemini 7 capsule photographed from Gemini 6. NASA/Getty Images

The story of Apollo 8 is rooted in NASA's early culture of racing to the moon and being willing to improvise when necessary. Whenever careful planning became disrupted, a sense of daring came into play.

The altered plans that would eventually send Apollo 8 to the moon were foreshadowed three years earlier, when two Gemini capsules met in space.

Two of the three men who would fly to the moon aboard Apollo 8, Frank Borman and James Lovell, comprised the crew of Gemini 7 on that noteworthy flight. In December 1965, the two men went into Earth orbit on a daunting mission intended to last nearly 14 days.

The original purpose of the marathon mission was to monitor the health of the astronauts during an extended stay in space. But after a minor disaster, the failure of an unmanned rocket intended to be the rendezvous target for another Gemini mission, plans were quickly changed.

The mission of Borman and Lovell aboard Gemini 7 was changed to include a rendezvous in Earth orbit with Gemini 6 (because of the change in plans, Gemini 6 was actually launched 10 days after Gemini 7).

When photos shot by the astronauts were published, people on Earth were treated to the amazing sight of two spaceships meeting in orbit. Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 had flown in tandem for a few hours, performing various maneuvers, including flying side by side with only a foot separating them.

After Gemini 6 splashed down, Gemini 7, with Borman and Lovell aboard, stayed in orbit for a few more days. Finally, after 13 days and 18 hours in space, the two men returned, weakened and fairly miserable, but otherwise healthy.

Moving Forward From Disaster

Fire-damaged Apollo 1 capsule
The fire-damaged capsule of Apollo 1. NASA/Getty Images

The two-man capsules of Project Gemini kept returning to space until the final flight, Gemini 12 in November 1966. The most ambitious American space program, Project Apollo, was in the works, with the first flight scheduled to lift off in early 1967.

The construction of the Apollo capsules had been controversial within NASA. The contractor for the Gemini capsules, McDonnell Douglas Corporation, had performed well, but couldn't handle the workload to also build the Apollo capsules. The contract for Apollo was awarded to North American Aviation, which had experience building unmanned space vehicles. Engineers at North American clashed repeatedly with NASA astronauts. Some at NASA feared corners were being cut.

On January 27, 1967, disaster struck. The three astronauts assigned to fly aboard Apollo 1, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, were conducting a flight simulation in the space capsule, atop a rocket at Kennedy Space Center. A fire broke out in the capsule. Due to design flaws, the three men were unable to open the hatch and get out before dying of asphyxiation.

The death of the astronauts was a deeply felt national tragedy. The three received elaborate military funerals (Grissom and Chaffee at Arlington National Cemetery, White at West Point).

As the nation grieved, NASA prepared to move forward. The Apollo capsules would be studied and design flaws fixed. Astronaut Frank Borman was assigned to oversee much of that project. For the next year Borman spent most of his time in California, doing hands-on inspections on the factory floor of North American Aviation.

Lunar Module Delays Prompted Bold Change of Plans

Models of Project Apollo components at a press conference
Models of Project Apollo components at a 1964 press conference. NASA/Getty Images

By the summer of 1968, NASA was planning manned spaceflights of the refined Apollo capsule. Frank Borman had been selected to lead a crew for a future Apollo flight that would orbit the Earth while performing the first test flight in space of the lunar module.

The lunar module, an odd little craft designed to detach from the Apollo capsule and carry two men to the surface of the moon, had its own design and manufacturing problems to overcome. Delays in production meant the planned 1968 flight to test its performance in space had to be postponed until early 1969.

With the Apollo flight schedule thrown into disarray, planners at NASA devised an audacious change: Borman would command a mission to lift off before the end of 1968. Instead of testing the lunar module, Borman and his crew would fly all the way to the moon, perform several orbits, and return to Earth.

Frank Borman was asked if he would agree to the change. Always a daring pilot, he immediately answered, "Absolutely!"

Apollo 8 would fly to the moon at Christmas 1968.

A First On Apollo 7: Television From Space

Astronauts on Apollo 7 broadcast from space
Crew of Apollo 7 broadcast live television from space. NASA

Borman and his crew, his Gemini 7 companion James Lovell and a newcomer to space flight, William Anders, had only 16 weeks to prepare for this newly configured mission.

In early 1968, the Apollo program had conducted unmanned tests of the huge rockets required to go to the moon. As the Apollo 8 crew trained, Apollo 7, commanded by veteran astronaut Wally Schirra, lifted off as the first manned Apollo mission on October 11, 1968. Apollo 7 orbited the Earth for 10 days, conducting thorough tests of the Apollo capsule.

Apollo 7 also featured a startling innovation: NASA had the crew bring along a television camera. On the morning of October 14, 1967, the three astronauts in orbit broadcast live for seven minutes.

The astronauts jokingly held up a card reading, "Keeps those cards and letters coming in folks." The grainy black and white images were unimpressive. Yet to viewers on Earth the idea of watching astronauts live as they flew through space was astounding.

Television broadcasts from space would become regular components of Apollo missions.

Escape From Earth's Orbit

Photograph of liftoff of Apollo 8
Liftoff of Apollo 8. Getty Images

On the morning of December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center. Atop a massive Saturn V rocket, the three-man crew of Borman, Lovell, and Anders flew upward and established an Earth orbit. During the ascent, the rocket shed its first and second stages.

The third stage would be used, a few hours into the flight, to conduct a rocket burn that would do something no one had ever done: the three astronauts would fly out of Earth's orbit and embark on their voyage to the moon.

About two and a half hours after launch, the crew got clearance for "TLI," the command to perform the "trans-lunar insertion" maneuver. The third stage fired, setting the spacecraft toward the moon. The third stage was then jettisoned (and sent into a harmless orbit of the sun).

The spaceship, consisting of the Apollo capsule and the cylindrical service module, was on its way to the moon. The capsule was oriented so the astronauts were looking back toward Earth. They soon saw a view no one had ever seen, the Earth, and any person or place they had ever known, fading into the distance.

The Christmas Eve Broadcast

Grainy image of the lunar surface as seen from Apollo 8
Grainy image of the lunar surface, as seen during Christmas Eve broadcast of Apollo 8. NASA

It took three days for Apollo 8 to travel to the moon. The astronauts kept busy making sure their spaceship was performing as expected and conducting some navigational corrections.

On December 22 the astronauts made history by broadcasting television signals from their capsule across a distance of 139,000 miles, or about halfway to the moon. No one, of course, had ever communicated with Earth from such a distance and that fact alone made the broadcast front-page news. Viewers back home were treated to another broadcast from space the following day, but the big show was yet to come.

Early on the morning of December 24, 1968, Apollo 8 entered lunar orbit. As the craft began circling the moon at an altitude of about 70 miles, the three astronauts ventured someplace no one had ever seen, even with a telescope. They saw the side of the moon that is always hidden from Earth's view.

The craft continued to circle the moon, and on the evening of December 24, the astronauts began another broadcast. They aimed their camera out the window, and viewers on Earth saw grainy images of the lunar surface passing below.

As a massive television audience tuned in, the astronauts surprised everyone by reading verses from the Book of Genesis.

After a violent and tumultuous year, the reading from the Bible stood out as a remarkable communal moment shared by television viewers.

Dramatic "Earthrise" Photo Defined the Mission

Photograph of "Earthrise" shot by Apollo 8 crewman
The photograph known as "Earthrise". NASA

On Christmas Day 1968 the astronauts continued orbiting the moon. At one point Borman changed the orientation of the ship so that both the moon and the "rising" Earth became visible from the capsule's windows.

The three men immediately realized they were seeing something never seen before, the surface of the moon with the Earth, a distant blue orb, suspended over it.

William Anders, who was assigned to take photos during the mission, quickly asked James Lovell to hand him a color film cartridge. By the time he got the color film loaded into his camera, Anders thought he had missed the shot. But then Borman realized the Earth was still visible from another window.

Anders shifted position and shot one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century. When the film was returned to Earth and developed, it seemed to define the entire mission. Over time, the shot which became known as "Earthrise" would be reproduced countless times in magazines and books. Months later it appeared on a U.S. postage stamp commemorating the Apollo 8 mission.

Back to Earth

President Lyndon Johnson watching coverage of Apollo 8 splashdown.
President Lyndon Johnson watched Apollo 8's splashdown in the Oval Office. Getty Images

To the fascinated public, Apollo 8 was considered a thrilling success while it was still orbiting the moon. But it still had to make a three-day trip back to Earth, which, of course, no one had ever done before.

There was a crisis early on the journey back when some mistaken figures were put into a navigational computer. Astronaut James Lovell was able to correct the problem by doing some old-school navigation with the stars.

Apollo 8 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on December 27, 1968. The safe return of the first men to have traveled beyond Earth's orbit was treated as a major event. The next day's New York Times front page featured a headline expressing NASA's confidence: "A Lunar Landing In Summer Possible."

Legacy of Apollo 8

Apollo 11 lunar module on the moon
Apollo 11 Lunar Module on the Moon. Getty Images

Before the eventual lunar landing of Apollo 11, two more Apollo missions would be flown.

Apollo 9, in March 1969, did not leave Earth orbit, but performed valuable tests of docking and flying the lunar module. Apollo 10, in May 1969, was essentially a final rehearsal for the moon landing: the spaceship, complete with lunar module, flew to the moon and orbited, and the lunar module flew within 10 miles of the lunar surface but did not attempt a landing.

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, at a site which became instantly famous as "Tranquility Base." Within a few hours of landing, astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon's surface, and was soon followed by crew mate Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin.

The astronauts from Apollo 8 would never walk on the moon. Frank Borman and William Anders never flew in space again. James Lovell commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. He lost his chance to walk on the moon, but was considered a hero for getting the damaged vessel back to earth safely.

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McNamara, Robert. "Apollo 8 Brought 1968 to a Hopeful End." ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, thoughtco.com/apollo-8-1968-nasa-mission-was-first-to-leave-earth-orbit-4158245. McNamara, Robert. (2021, February 17). Apollo 8 Brought 1968 to a Hopeful End. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/apollo-8-1968-nasa-mission-was-first-to-leave-earth-orbit-4158245 McNamara, Robert. "Apollo 8 Brought 1968 to a Hopeful End." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/apollo-8-1968-nasa-mission-was-first-to-leave-earth-orbit-4158245 (accessed May 28, 2023).