Re­live the his­toric mis­sion that saw hu­mans cir­cum­nav­i­gate the Moon for the first time.

Sky at Night Magazine - - CONTENTS -


Al­though 21 De­cem­ber 1968 was the short­est day of the year, for the as­tro­nauts of Apollo 8 it would be one of the long­est of their lives. The three men started it sit­ting on top of an untested rocket about to travel fur­ther from Earth than any hu­man had been be­fore. They were des­tined for the Moon.

But Apollo 8 wasn’t orig­i­nally in­tended to go that far. The mis­sion brief was ini­tially to stay in low-Earth or­bit and prac­tise ma­noeu­vring with a lu­nar lan­der. By June 1968, how­ever, it had be­come ap­par­ent that the lan­der wouldn’t be ready in time for the mis­sion’s launch.

The time­line to meet the 1969 dead­line for a lu­nar land­ing was al­ready tight – a de­lay to Apollo 8 would de­rail it en­tirely. To avoid wast­ing the mis­sion, NASA con­sid­ered bring­ing for­ward the Apollo 9 mis­sion plan and send­ing Apollo 8 to or­bit around the Moon. It was an out­ra­geous sug­ges­tion – only one Apollo mis­sion had flown with a crew and the Saturn V rocket they planned to use on 21 De­cem­ber had never been launched with hu­mans on board. Was it re­ally a good idea to send as­tro­nauts to the Moon as the rocket’s first big test?

Ul­ti­mately, the de­ci­sion was made not by NASA, but by the Soviet Union. In Septem­ber, the Rus­sians launched Zond 5, send­ing the first liv­ing crea­tures (in­clud­ing a pair of tor­toises) to the Moon and back. It seemed a crewed Soviet mis­sion couldn’t be far be­hind. With pub­lic sup­port for Apollo al­ready strained, NASA could not af­ford to be beaten by the Rus­sians again. Apollo 8 was in a race to the Moon.

Three months later, the Apollo 8 as­tro­nauts were strapped into the Com­mand Mod­ule wait­ing to launch. When the count­down hit zero, the crew be­gan to fear that some­thing might be wrong – the en­tire space­craft was shak­ing like a freight

“The Earth from here is a grand oa­sis in the big vast­ness of space.” – Jim Lovell

train. In truth, the rocket was work­ing per­fectly; it was sim­ply that the crew was un­pre­pared for the sheer vi­o­lence of lift­ing off in the world’s most pow­er­ful rocket. The first stage blasted the crew to seven times the speed of sound, be­fore the sec­ond and third stages took them into a park­ing or­bit around Earth, 11 min­utes and 34 sec­onds into the flight. But there would be no time for the crew to re­cover. They spent the next few hours check­ing the space­craft be­fore re­ceiv­ing the mes­sage, “Al­right, Apollo 8. You are go for TLI [translu­nar in­jec­tion].”

The crew fired the sin­gle en­gine in the third stage for 12 min­utes and from then on there was no turn­ing back.

As they trav­elled towards lu­nar or­bit 385,000km away, the crew per­formed the pro­ce­dures fu­ture lu­nar mis­sions would need to carry out dur­ing their jour­neys. First, they set the space­craft into a ‘bar­beque roll’ to make sure the Sun didn’t cook one side while the other froze in shadow. Then, though Apollo 8 didn’t have a lu­nar lan­der on board, the crew per­formed a dry run of the ma­noeu­vres needed to re­move one from its hous­ing be­hind the main com­mand mod­ule.

Go­ing silent be­hind the Moon

On Christ­mas Eve, three days after its launch, Apollo 8 reached its des­ti­na­tion, suc­cess­fully car­ry­ing hu­mans closer to the Moon than ever be­fore. Fi­nally, the US had beaten the Sovi­ets to a ma­jor lu­nar mile­stone.

It would have been pos­si­ble for the crew to sim­ply loop around the Moon and come straight back to Earth. But since the mis­sion was run­ning smoothly (bar a case of space sick­ness on the part of Com­man­der Frank Bor­man), the or­der was given to en­ter lu­nar or­bit.

The crew now had to fire the ser­vice mod­ule’s en­gine for ex­actly the right amount of time. If the ma­noeu­vre went wrong they could end up drift­ing ir­re­triev­ably away into deep space. To make mat­ters even more nerve wrack­ing, the burn had to hap­pen while they were on the far side of the Moon, where they would be out of con­tact with Earth.

Com­mand Mod­ule pilot James Lovell told ground con­trol: “We’ll see you on the other side,” and the

crew per­formed their fi­nal checks be­fore burn­ing the en­gines for four min­utes and seven sec­onds.

“Long­est four min­utes I ever spent,” said Wil­liam ‘Bill’ An­ders as they waited for the timer to count down. But when the crew re-emerged from ra­dio si­lence, they were in lu­nar or­bit.

For the next 20 hours the crew’s main task was to im­age the lu­nar sur­face, par­tic­u­larly the five spots NASA had lined up as po­ten­tial land­ing sites for fu­ture Apollo mis­sions. As they looked at the land­scape they had come so far to see, Lovell and An­ders were cap­ti­vated by its ex­pan­sive­ness and stark con­trasts. Bor­man, how­ever, was less taken by the scene.

“My own im­pres­sion is that it’s a vast, lonely, for­bid­ding type ex­is­tence… It cer­tainly would not ap­pear to be a very invit­ing place to live or work,” he said dur­ing a live tele­vi­sion broad­cast.

But as the crew emerged from be­hind the Moon for the fourth time, they were treated to a sight

“Did you guys ever think that one Christ­mas you’d be or­bit­ing the Moon?” – Jim Lovell

that man­aged to break through even Bor­man’s ap­par­ent ap­a­thy. “Oh my God!” he ex­claimed. “Look at that pic­ture over there! Here’s the Earth com­ing up. Wow, is that pretty?!”

A new per­spec­tive on home

The globe of Earth floated in the dark­ness, the only point of colour in an in­fi­nite Uni­verse of black and grey. An­ders fran­ti­cally searched for some colour film and took what would go on to be one of the most iconic pho­to­graphs of all time: ‘Earthrise’.

“The vast lone­li­ness up here of the Moon is awein­spir­ing,” said Lovell dur­ing one of the Apollo 8 mis­sion’s six live tele­vi­sion broad­casts. “It makes you re­alise just what you have back there on Earth.”

One of the live tele­vi­sion broad­casts the crew made while at the Moon fell on Christ­mas Eve. NASA pre­dicted the his­toric trans­mis­sion would reach the largest au­di­ence ever as­sem­bled and tasked the crew to do some­thing ap­pro­pri­ate. With the TV cam­era pointed out of the mod­ule’s win­dow, look­ing at the lu­nar land­scape slowly rolling past, the crew took turns read­ing from Ge­n­e­sis, about the cre­ation of the planet they could see float­ing in the black void of space.

“We came all this way to ex­plore the Moon,” Wil­liam An­ders said after the mis­sion’s suc­cess­ful re­turn, “And the most im­por­tant thing is that we dis­cov­ered the Earth.”

The Apollo 8 as­tro­nauts leave the crew quar­ters to board the mod­ule on top of the Saturn V rocket

The Saturn V rocket blasts off car­ry­ing the Apollo 8 as­tro­nauts into Earth or­bit

Wil­liam An­ders took the fa­mous photo that came to be known as ‘Earthrise’

Apollo 8’s flight­path took the crew on a fig­ure of eight path to and from the Moon

See­ing Earth in the black­ness of space had a pro­found ef­fect on the crew of Apollo 8

The Apollo 8 crew scouted and im­aged the lu­nar sur­face for pos­si­ble land­ing sites for fu­ture mis­sions

Top: Frank Bor­man at work in the tight con­fines of Apollo 8’s com­mand mod­ule Above: Jim Lovell makes mi­nor ad­just­ments to Apollo 8’s tra­jec­tory us­ing the space­craft’s thrusters

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.