Apollo 8: Around The Moon and Back

Apollo 8: Around The Moon and Back

Apollo 8: Around The Moon and Back

The 1968 Apollo 8 flight was the first human spaceflight to leave Earth's orbit.

The iconic Earthrise shot put our pale blue dot in cosmic perspective as no previous picture could, and gave rise to a phenomenon known as the "Overview Effect": a deep feeling of connectedness, accompanied by the sense that protecting Earth should take priority over society's petty divisions. On Christmas Eve, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders were the first humans to orbit the Moon and the first to see an Earthrise above its surface. Three hours later, they would be on their way to space and to becoming the first three humans to fly around the moon. A half-century later, only 24 US astronauts who flew to the moon have witnessed these wondrous sights in person.

The Apollo 8 team is all still living: Borman and Lovell are 90 and Anders is 85. To those watching the grainy video feed, it marked an astonishing end to a year filled with war, civil unrest and assassinations.

"Nasa couldn't get to the Moon today".

"What's the imperative? What's pushing us to go to Mars?" he said, adding "I don't think the public is that interested".

Apollo 8 the first manned mission to the moon entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve Dec. 24 1968. NASA
Apollo 8 the first manned mission to the moon entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve Dec. 24 1968. NASA

In terms of spaceflight, Apollo 8 had already become a historic mission - but it didn't leave its mark on the zeitgeist until December 24. And that was despite on its previous test flight, the Saturn V rocket lost parts and engines failed.

Susan Byrum Rountree, photographed in 1968, holds her first camera, a gift that came the day after the Apollo 8 crew broadcast from space. "In other words, if there was a failure here, it would wreck Christmas not only for everybody in the United States, but for everybody in the world". There were so many questions, so many unknowns, so many things that could go wrong. The flight director for NASA believed the astronauts had only a 50 percent chance of coming home safely.

Even Borman's ID badge to get on the spaceship is on display. His bosses insisted on more. Robert Kurson wrote about the mission in a new book entitled "Rocket Men".

Everyone eventually agreed: Ten orbits it would be. But there he was, on the launchpad on December 21, 1968. "And for that to occur on Christmas Eve, with Americans circling the moon, it was just overwhelming". Their only instruction was: "Say something appropriate". "We close", he said, "with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you - all of you on the good earth".

The broadcast ended with the crew reading from the book of Genesis. The spacecraft was now positioned in such a way that for the first time, the astronauts could see all the way to the horizon of the moon as well as into a huge swath of black sky above and beyond it.

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"Oh man, that's great", Lovell said, still fixed on the apparition outside his window. Time magazine named the three astronauts "Men of the Year".

The mission may be best remembered for a photo that shows our planet as seen from the moon.

"Oh my God, look at that picture over there!" Look at that!' and up came the Earth. "Wow, is that pretty!"

"We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth", Anders said after the mission. It has been a touchstone for the environmental movement ever since. "Sometimes you have to be bold to achieve hard goals", he said.

Lovell reappeared and handed Anders the film, but by then the Earth had drifted out of view.

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Astronaut-artist Nicole Stott said the golden anniversary provides an opportunity to reintroduce the world to Earthrise.

"Sometimes I look back and say, you know, 'How did we ever do that?'" Apollo 8 was making the ninth of its 10 scheduled revolutions around the moon, and it was time for the crew to "say something appropriate" to a waiting world. The only engine the crew could rely on during flight for the multiple course-correction burns the path required had never re-ignited in flight.

Lovell also flew on ill-fated Apollo 13, which had to abort plans to land on the moon after an explosion in an oxygen tank.

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