This Christmas it is 50 years since the first humans got an up close and personal look at the Moon. Apollo 8 was launched on 21 December 1968 and entered lunar orbit on 24 December, just in time for the crew to celebrate Christmas further from the Earth than anyone had ever celebrated Christmas, or anything else, ever. The mission was an important step towards the eventual landing of humans on the Moon with Apollo 11 in 1969. But before they could take that momentous step, NASA had to test successfully getting into orbit and back to Earth again. This was the job of Apollo 8 and it’s crew of three including Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders and of course the tens of thousands of people working on the Apollo programme back on Earth.
Apollo 8 was launched from Launch Complex 39, pad A at 7:51am on 21 December 1968 atop the massive Saturn V rocket from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. Originally Apollo 8 was supposed to be an unmanned mission with dummy loads but the both Apollo 6 and 7 had gone well enough to change plans and put humans on Apollo 8. Apollo 7 was successfully completed on 22 October 1968 and the all clear for the next mission was given 12 November. The opportunity to have Apollo 8 as a manned mission meant that the whole programme had a bit of a boost that ultimately enabled the human mission to land on the Moon to occur within the decade. A mission of this nature is hugely complex with many things that could go wrong so it was roughly broken into three parts, Earth orbit, transit and Moon orbit insertion with go/no go decision points prior to each which gave the crew escape options if things were not going well.
As it happened the mission went without a hitch with all objectives achieved and the crew enjoying Christmas Day where no one had gone before. As well as being the first mission to send people around the Moon it was also the first time that humans had been attached to the massive Saturn V rocket, previous flights of the two stage version had been unmanned. The humans on board were commanded by Colonel Frank Borman from the United States Air Force, his backup was no other than Neil Armstrong. Borman had been the commander of the Gemini 7 missions and he was 40 years old by the time of Apollo 8. The pilot of the command module was Captain James Lovell of the United States Navy, and also 40 years old. He had commanded Gemini 12 and was the pilot for Gemini 7 with Borman. Lovell’s backup was Buzz Aldrin. The final crew member was Major William Anders from the United States Air Force whose job it was to pilot the Lunar Module. Anders was 35 at the time and it was his first time in space.
Apollo 8 entered Earth orbit about 20 minutes after takeoff travelling at 28,000 km/h. The next phase speeded the spacecraft up to nearly 39,000 km/h which placed it on a trajectory to the Moon. The transit to the Moon took a little over 66 hours. Whilst whizzing around the Moon, the crew sent a Christmas message back to the Earth stating “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.” About one billion people were estimated to have heard that message which was a rather amazing feat for 1968. Apollo 8 then returned to the Earth and after 146 hours from the original launch the space craft reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, with considerably less parts than it launched with. The crew had traveled farther from the Earth than anyone had ever been reaching a maximum distance of 377,349 km.
If the weather is good on Christmas Day and evening, spare a moment to remember the events of 50 years ago when the people of the Earth looked up and viewed the Moon, they would have been witnessing the first people to orbit another celestial body.