The Apollo 8 Spacecraft and The Trip to The Moon

In four days it is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8’s arrival at the Moon. The mission was overshadowed in 1969 by the monumental achievement of actually putting people on the lunar surface with Apollo 11. Notwithstanding that ultimate prize, Apollo 8 was ground breaking in its own right in that it was the farthest humans had travelled and it set the schedule for the landing mission in 1969. Following on from our article a few days ago about the mission in general we though it would be good to cover some aspects of the actual launch and life on the spacecraft. The launch system was the massive Saturn V rocket and this was the first time people had been attached to it and the spacecraft itself was the complex arrangement between the different stages, the command module and the lunar module (though it was just a dummy load on Apollo 8).

The Apollo 8 mission lasted just over 6 days and was launched at 7:51am local time from the Kennedy Space Centre on 21 December 1968. The launch was the first manned Saturn V mission and the crew described the experience as being smoother than the Gemini launches but they noted the continual gimbling as the rocket adjusted trajectory. Because of the shape of the rocket and its immense size it meant that the centre of gravity was very low so any adjustment in direction by its huge F-1 engines would translate into significant movement where the crew were at the top of the rocket. The crew described the launch as being violently thrown around as the rocket maintained its trajectory. It was so violent that the crew were unable to communicate with each other for about the first 10 seconds. After 2 minutes and 34 seconds the first stage cut and the F-1 engines shut down (the Saturn V had 5 F-1 engines on the first stage). At this point the crew were found forward in their harnesses before being pushed back once the second stage kicked into life.

The second stage burned for 6 minutes and 8 seconds and by the time it had finished its burn they were hurtling along at 24,140 km/h. The had reached an altitude of 174 km by the time the third stage had kicked in which burned for about 2 minutes 30 seconds and resulted in a final speed of 28,054 km/h. After a few orbits of the Earth the third stage re-ignited to get the spacecraft out of Earth orbit and on the way to the Moon. Once that burn had completed the third stage separated from the rest of Apollo 8.

The final stage after separation (Credit: NASA)

The trip to the Moon was not all that pleasant for the crew, especially for Borman as he suffered vomiting and other unpleasant experiences resulting in the crew having to endure the unpleasant aroma and globules of vomit floating around the spacecraft. Fortunately they were able to take some medicine to settle them down and the rest of the trip improved. The view of the Moon by the crew was washed out by the powerful glare of the Sun so the crew didn’t get the amazing view they had hoped for though they did get very touching views of the Earth which was slowly diminishing in size until they could cover the whole planet with their thumbs, the first humans to be able to that.

Once they got to the Moon they were the first humans to see the dark side of the Moon and during that 32 minutes they were without contact with the Earth. During that time they had to slow the spacecraft down to get into lunar orbit. This was down by firing a rocket engine for just over 4 minutes. This slowed them sufficiently to put them into an elliptical orbit. During the orbits of the Moon the crew captured the famous Earth rise image. Anders spotted the blue and white ball of the the Earth rising above the lunar horizon. Anders replaced the black and white film with colour to get the famous image but in the interim while he was waiting for Lovell to hand him the new he film he snapped the below black and white image.

Just before the Earth rise picture (Credit: NASA)

The colour image became one of the most famous photos ever taken and it showed, for the first time, just how fragile and small the Earth is.