Apollo 8's famous Earthrise picture.  Would you like to have this view? Credit: NASA

40th Anniversary of the Great Gamble: Apollo 8

Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

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The Apollo 8 mission was a seminal moment not in only the history of spaceflight, but in human history as well. The mission came during a time when the US and the world were divided by war and racial issues. It’s been said that Apollo 8 “saved” 1968 from being an otherwise divisive and disheartening year, and because of the success of the mission – in terms of both technical and philosophical matters — the Apollo 8 crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were named “Men of the Year” by Time Magazine. Apollo 8 was the first human mission to orbit the moon, but it wasn’t supposed to be. And the mission was responsible for one of the most iconic images of our time.

Read more about Apollo 8 and watch an excellent video NASA put together to commemorate the mission on its 40th anniversary


Originally the mission was slated to test the lunar lander hardware in Earth orbit. But the lunar lander wasn’t ready and then other political issues came into play. NASA was told, incorrectly it turned out, by the CIA that the Soviet Union was preparing its own manned lunar mission and was ready to launch. As NASA wanted to be first to the moon and also fulfill President John Kennedy’s call for a US manned lunar landing by the end of the decade, they took a gamble and designated Apollo 8 to go and orbit the moon.

The decision was controversial. NASA’s giant Saturn V rocket, the only rocket capable of taking humans to the Moon, had been fraught with problems and instrument failures on its two test flights. Also, fresh in everyone’s minds was the fire in 1967 in which killed three astronauts – Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee – during a ground test of an Apollo capsule.

Apollo 8 launch.  Credit: NASA

Apollo 8 launch. Credit: NASA


Yes, it was a gamble, but it paid off. The crew launched on December 21, and it was the first manned launch of the Saturn V rocket. It went well, although Anders tells the story how he felt severe vibrations during the first moments of launch, and feeling almost like a bug on top of a car antenna, vibrating back and forth. But the giant rocket, 363 feet tall and weighing 6.25 million pounds performed well and following a rocket burn for trans-lunar injection, the astronauts were on their way to the moon.

Early on Christmas Eve, Apollo 8 reached its destination. The astronauts fired the propulsion system to slow the rocket, putting them into lunar orbit. For its first three obits, the astronauts kept its windows pointing down towards the Moon and frantically filmed the craters and mountains below. One of their main tasks was to do reconnaissance for the future Apollo landings.

It was not until Apollo 8 was on its fourth orbit that Borman decided to roll the craft away from the Moon and to point its windows towards the horizon in order to get a navigational fix. A few minutes later, he spotted a blue-and-white object coming over the horizon. Transcripts of the Apollo 8 mission reveal the astronauts’ wonder and amazement at what they were seeing: Earth, from a quarter of million miles away, rising from behind the Moon. “Oh my God! Look at the picture over there. Here’s the Earth coming up,” Borman shouted. This was followed by a flurry of exclamations by Anders and Lovell and a scramble to find a camera. Anders found one first and the first image he took was black-and-white, showing Earth just peeping over the horizon. Then Anders found a roll of 70mm color film for the Hasselblad camera, and he took the photograph of Earthrise that became an icon of 20th-century, portraying technological advances and heightening ecological awareness.

Apollo 8 crew.  Credit: NASA

Apollo 8 crew. Credit: NASA


This was the way humans first recorded their home planet from another world. “It was the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life,” Borman said later, “one that sent a torrent of nostalgia, of sheer homesickness, surging through me. It was the only thing in space that had any color to it. Everything else was either black or white. But not the Earth.”

Jim Lovell said that Earth was “a grand oasis in the vast loneliness of space.”

The three astronauts agree the most important thing they brought back from the mission was the photography, not only of the moon, but of Earth.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Apollo 8, the crew of the International Space Station’s Expedition 18, Commander Mike Fincke and Flight Engineers Sandy Magnus and Yury Lonchakov will send a message to be aired on a message that will air on NASA Television as part of the daily Video File, beginning at 11 a.m. CST, Friday, Dec. 19. The video also will be broadcast in high definition on the NASA TV HD channel at 10
a.m., noon and 3 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 19, and Tuesday, Dec. 23.

Sources: NASA, The Guardian


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Polaris93
Member
December 19, 2008 12:12 AM

Nancy — What a wonderful Christmas present! smile Apollo VIII was the first giant step toward the stars, away from the safety of our world, and a magnificent achievement. Thank you — and may your Christmas be full of warmth, cheer, abundance, and joy, and the coming new year be the best ever.

Bo Babbyo
Guest
Bo Babbyo
December 19, 2008 12:39 AM

I think it was Gulf service stations that had “Great Moments in American History” trading cards. One of them was “Apollo 8 returns to earth.” There was a great drawing of a huge moon and a tiny earth, with the spacecraft firing the service module engine.

I always think about the horror that would have befallen the American space program if the accident that damaged Apollo 13’s O2 tank had occurred to the one that flew on Apollo 8.

dsfportree@hotmail.com
Member
[email protected]
December 19, 2008 11:16 AM

Apollo 8 could be bold because space was a battlefront in the Cold War. If the USSR had launched a man around the moon, as seemed possible, then it would allow them to declare that they had reached the moon first. The U.S. had invested too much in its moon program to let that happen. So, Apollo 8 went to the moon. It’s a typical example of the way ideology and politics have dictated the shape of our piloted program since the beginning. More here – http://altairvi.blogspot.com/2008/12/forty-years-since-apollo-8.html

alphonso
Guest
alphonso
December 19, 2008 4:26 AM

Despite the politcal climate & manouvering of the time, it’s still an incredible legacy.
Amazing

Kevin F.
Member
December 19, 2008 6:18 AM

That picture was on my wall for years – until I lost when I moved out to get married.

Dave24
Member
Dave24
December 19, 2008 6:20 AM

True heroism for the sake of knowledge and perspective. But I have to say the reading of Genesis makes me cringe. Here we are, orbiting the Moon thanks to calculations sculpted largely by Isaac Newton, and the words spoken belong to superstitious myth, rather than the great scientific minds who put us there.

The Occupant
Member
The Occupant
December 19, 2008 6:39 AM

It was a culture that believed in those myths that sent man to the moon. Besides, even science thinks that the first thing that was. . .was light.
I wasn’t there to see Apollo 8, I was but an egg, and that was only half of me, but going to the moon for the first time, that was something. I am almost in tears.

We should do it again some time.

BlueAmberol
Member
December 19, 2008 7:47 AM

I remember this so well. Mom’s cousins had invited us for Christmas dinner. As was noted at the time, it came during dinner hour on the west coast and many people did not see it.
There was no way that I was going to miss this so I sat on the floor with a plate of food in front of the cousin’s big color TV.
Later, we watched the actual moon landing on our little B/W TV with the moon shining in the big window.
That was nice but it was an anticlimax.

starman
Member
starman
December 19, 2008 7:56 AM

The ability and will to do daring things like this is indicative of a greatness lost, and a hope that it will be reborn. Are you listening, Mr. President-Elect?

Conic
Guest
December 19, 2008 8:44 AM

Strange to think that something done for the first time 14 years before my birth, wont happen again until I am almost 40.

Collin S
Guest
Collin S
December 19, 2008 9:31 AM
@Dave: Now I’m not a religious man but…just because we developed the science and technology to go into space and orbit the moon, that proves that God is a supersticious myth? It is called ignorance when someone blindly follows a faith and completely dismisses the possibility that there could be other explanations, scientific ones, for the existence of the Universe. So I say to dismiss the possibilty of there being a God is equally as ignorant. We just don’t know. Anyhow, I hope we can replicate the feat of landing on the moon in the very near future. As an engineer, I am excited at the possibility of working on some of this stuff…here’s to hoping it happens… Read more »
A physicist
Guest
A physicist
December 19, 2008 10:48 AM

My finest memory of the trip was the reading from Genesis. Religion aside, that reading from Apollo represented a wonderful marriage of the whole of human experience; the humanities and the sciences; the poetic and the technological; the transcendent and the practical.

For those, like Dave, who consider it inconsistent with science, I remind them that Isaac Newton also wrote books on theology and exegesis on the Jewish and Christian Bibles.

Spoodle58
Member
December 19, 2008 10:55 AM

“Apollo 8 was the first human mission to orbit the moon, but it wasn’t supposed to be.”

There in that statement is what never happens these days, a bold move. Bold moves should be made these days.

Dave24
Member
Dave24
December 19, 2008 1:05 PM
Thank you for the responses to my previous comment. With regard to Genesis making “predictions” or “observations” about the universe, it’s mere poetic coincidence, at best. There are more misses than hits, especially when the stories were based on imaginations that filtered reality through a deistic lens. Second, Genesis is wrong right out of the gate. It says that God created the heavens and the earth, and then He said let there be light. Really? Stars were made before planets, with every star releasing heat and light. And the first observational light occurred 380,000 years after the Big Bang, now in the form of microwave radiation, as I’m sure many of you already know. Science doesn’t disprove God,… Read more »
Mike Jackson
Guest
Mike Jackson
December 19, 2008 2:44 PM

“It’s absolutely possible that God exists, but to believe it based on nothing but hope and fear is truly ignorant.”

And of course your open minded description of people of faith as basing their beliefs on “hope and fear” is not ignorant, eh?

I’m not going to bother trying to convince you that your description is wrong. You don’t seem the type to be open to hearing anything that hints at tolerance for religious belief.

bob cain
Guest
bob cain
December 19, 2008 8:48 PM
This was an incredible astounding voyage. The historical description is right on. We were glued to our radios and black and white tvs. All we got really were the radio transmissions from the astronauts but it kept us enthralled. The reasons for the change in the mission are exactly what we were described. We knew why Appolo 8 was flying to the moon. NASA had this strange idea that the details of these missions should be available to everyone. Probably some kind of reaction to Russian secrecy. Cold war ploy? absolutely. We benefited from this ‘disclosure’ . Other writers have documented this exuberance, Believe me, it was real. I hope that the current tentative jabs at human exploration… Read more »
Matthias
Guest
Matthias
December 20, 2008 12:17 AM

I’m not religious at all, and still the Apollo 8 reading from the Genesis is one of the most impressive to me, just because of it’s setting. They might have read Shakespeare or Nietzsche, they read the Bible. So what?

KevinM
Guest
KevinM
December 20, 2008 12:18 AM
Belief in God is not “superstition”, it is perception of transcendent and eternal realities which surpass the limited and shallow realm of physics. To put it another way, science must remain open to the fact that time and matter are ultimately plastic, and not really limited to any rigid boundaries of arbitrary number. Matter itself is a subset of real phenomena, and not the whole. Faith is neither merely “hope” nor “fear”, but the real and certain intuitive knowledge or awareness that life is ultimately one thing only, and not the million separate things it appears to be on the surface. Almost every moment of our waking life is an act of blind faith in the future, not… Read more »
Black WiD/Oe H/Oe
Member
December 20, 2008 11:21 AM

That Earth Rise photo from Apollo VIII is one of the greatest pics of all time. Pale Blue Dot is another. Any shot from Space that lets us know just how small we really are.

Todd Flowerday
Member
December 20, 2008 12:09 PM
As a man of faith and science, I’m n ot sure I have anything concrete to add to this discussion. As a boy of ten during this mission, I took for granted the public face of confidence and competence in this mission, among the many others. Apollo 13 was a grave shock to me. I fully expected to be in space and perhaps on the moon in my lifetime, but I think history has shown that a great evil–the Cold War–jump-started us into space much, much sooner than we would have gone otherwise. I’m not sure that even today we would be much beyond Earth orbit. Without the development of rocketry aimed to annihilate innocent civilians, we might… Read more »
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