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Apollo 8: why NASA's Christmas mission to the Moon was a bright end to a dark year

David Woods follows the trail of Apollo 8 and the first men who went to the Moon – not to land, but simply to see if humans could get there and back again in one piece. Their rushed mission, inspired by a Cold War-fuelled will to outdo the Russians, was a glimmer of light in the dark

The Apollo 8 crew in a capsule during training
Published: December 24, 2021 at 10:05 am
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T’was the night before Christmas in 1968, the end of a traumatic year for the US that had borne witness to political assassinations, student riots and war in the Far East. But, 400,000km away, a tiny American spaceship was orbiting the Moon. The cramped cabin of Apollo 8 was occupied by three astronauts who had travelled more than 250 times farther from Earth than any human had before.

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After three full orbits, as they appeared from behind the Moon, commander Frank Borman rolled the spacecraft around. It was then that lunar module pilot Bill Anders unexpectedly caught sight of Earth rising from behind the lunar horizon. “Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there!” he exclaimed in amazement. “Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!”

Earth looked like a colourful Christmas bauble of blues and browns, sprinkled with white, set against the black of space and the grey, forbidding lunar landscape. Anders snapped a photograph with black and white film, though he knew it couldn’t capture the beauty of this exceptional sight.

He hustled command module pilot Jim Lovell. “You got a colour film, Jim? Hand me that roll of colour quick, would you.” One of the two pictures he then took was the first colour earthrise photograph taken by a human. It became one of the 20th century’s most iconic images, thought by many to be a catalyst for the environmental movement. Apollo 8 had arrived six hours earlier.

Earthrise as seen from the Moon, taken during the Apollo 8 mission
Earthrise as seen from the Moon, taken during the Apollo 8 mission (Photo by Heritage Space/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

As it passed midway around the lunar far side, over mountain tops lit by a setting Sun, its main engine had fired, slowing sufficiently to remain in the Moon’s gravitational clutches. Apollo 8 had taken Borman, Anders and Lovell to where no men had gone before. They would make ten revolutions of this hostile, battered world before relighting their engine to come home. It was a moment that kept managers awake at night, because if it failed they would be stuck orbiting the Moon forever.

Who were the Apollo 8 astronauts?

Apollo 8’s crew were all high-achieving military pilots. Borman was in charge: a straight-talking, hard-driving man.

His first spaceflight was on Gemini 7 in late 1965. Just over a year later, in January 1967, he had suffered the loss of his closest friend, astronaut Ed White, when an oxygen-fed fire consumed the Apollo 1 cabin during a test. Borman testified before Congress on NASA’s push to recover from the setback. To him, Apollo was a battle in the Cold War against the Soviets and he brought a military mindset to his preparations.

Borman’s hard edge was in contrast to friendly and gregarious Jim Lovell, the command module pilot. As a boy, Lovell had dreamed of spaceflight and had kept faithful to this dream throughout his military and test pilot career. An easygoing man, he was the perfect foil to Borman, which helped when they spent two weeks sharing the cramped confines of Gemini 7. His role on Apollo 8 was as the ship’s navigator, sighting on the stars like a celestial mariner to guide the ship through space.

Bill Anders brought an academic science background to the trio. He was the ‘rookie’, having never flown in space before. Officially, he was the lunar module pilot, though he had no lunar module – the odd-looking lander of future Apollo missions was not yet ready to fly. Instead, he was to monitor the spacecraft’s systems and act as photographer. To some, Anders seemed like a younger Borman, and he took the mission’s propaganda role very seriously.

For six days, they were cooped up inside the command module, a cone of three by four metres. It sat at one end of the service module, a cylinder with a rocket nozzle at the opposite end. This combined command/service module (CSM) was only one part of the Apollo system. The other was Anders’ missing lunar module. Its absence was the reason that Borman and his crew found themselves around the Moon at Christmas.

What happened before Apollo 8?

There were many difficulties in the Apollo story: some tragic, most technical. By mid-1967, Kennedy’s deadline of placing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade was approaching, and NASA was in a dark place. It was running out of time to individually test the three rocket stages of the gargantuan Saturn V – the new launch vehicle being built to send men to the Moon. NASA instead opted to test the rocket stages exhaustively on the ground, then fly the whole lot in one go, so-called ‘all-up’ testing. But the Saturn V would have to prove itself twice before carrying humans.

NASA’s more general approach was to fly a progression of missions that would lead to a lunar landing. It began in November 1967 with Apollo 4, the first test of the Saturn V. The rocket acquitted itself astoundingly well, barely missing a beat as it ascended to space. Its second flight, Apollo 6, was not as smooth: the Saturn V’s first stage chugged in a pogolike manner that would have shaken a crew senseless. Worse, two of the five second-stage engines failed.

From arms race to Space Race

The mushroom clouds at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 signalled both the end of WW2 and the dawn of the atomic age, from which emerged the Cold War. The two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, knew that with the terrifying destructive power of nuclear weapons they could not risk all-out war, but that did not prevent an arms race in a tense competition for supremacy. Both sides strived to demonstrate how they had the superior weapons technology, delivery systems and, ultimately, political ideology.

The launch of Sputnik in 1957 – around the time they also tested intercontinental ballistic missiles – gave the Soviets a distinct advantage and spread fear in theb US. If the Russians could put a satellite into space, then they could launch rockets with nuclear warheads. This led to an unfounded belief in a ‘missile gap’, not helped by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s boast that his country was “turning out missiles like sausages”.

The US needed to respond, so poured huge amounts of money and resources into sending up their own satellites and eventually astronauts. Space became an arena for the Cold War. The race to the stars had all the opportunities to demonstrate technological and national prowess – along with a lurking threat – but without the nuclear Armageddon.

By the early 1960s, the Soviets were still winning the Space Race, leading President John F Kennedy to announce a bold goal for the US space programme: landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely.

Apollo 6 managed to limp to orbit, but there was a litany of other problems. Senior NASA manager Christopher Kraft would later describe Apollo 6 as a “catastrophic failure”, but in a tour-deforce of engineering detective work, each problem was addressed. NASA determined that the next flight of the Saturn V would be manned.

Apollo 7, the first Apollo mission to carry a crew into space, didn’t involve a Saturn V: that mission saw a smaller (two-stage) Saturn IB launch the CSM and its three astronauts into low-Earth orbit.

The intention was the next mission in the sequence, Apollo 8, would repeat this feat with a fully capable lunar module, the craft that would eventually ferry humans down to the lunar surface. But by the summer of 1968, NASA faced more problems. Grumman, the lunar module’s manufacturer, was struggling. The extremely thin wire used to save weight was prone to breaking.

Structural components, milled down to the bare minimum, suffered fractures. A crucial engine, which had to lift two astronauts off the Moon, was unstable.

At best, the lander would not be ready until February 1969, leaving managers in a quandary. Apollo 8’s CSM was ready to go, but a repeat of Apollo 7 would be a waste of time. So would holding off until Grumman solved their problems.

In August, NASA manager George Low conjured up an audacious workaround. Apollo 8 was to have tested the complete Apollo stack – that is, the CSM and lunar module combined – in low-Earth orbit. Since they lacked a lander, why not send just the CSM into high-Earth orbit? For that matter, why not go all the way to the Moon?

Apollo 8’s new mission would use a free-return trajectory, a fail-safe path that looped around the Moon so that, without intervention, the spacecraft would return directly to Earth. Low’s idea continued to blossom. If all was well, why not also enter lunar orbit and reconnoitre possible landing sites? Such knowledge would, in any case, be required for the lunar landing.

Low secretly shared his idea with a small cadre of managers, but NASA’s politically astute administrator, James Webb, was aghast at the suggestion. He eventually agreed provided that they wait until Apollo 7 had flown successfully in October. In the meantime, Apollo 8 was to be mentioned only in terms of being an Earth-orbital mission.

As well as a huge morale boost to the programme’s massive workforce, a successful Apollo 8 would have geopolitical benefits. In September the Soviet Union had successfully sent a spacecraft around the Moon with a collection of animals aboard. Would the next flight be crewed? It would be a coup for the Soviets to claim they had reached the Moon first, puncturing the prestige of an American landing.


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When did Apollo 8 launch?

Launch was on 21 December 1968. Final preparations, simulated endlessly, had gone so smoothly that Anders fell asleep in the spacecraft awaiting lift-off. But simulations could not prepare them for the fury of the first stage. As the spectacular and near flawless Saturn V rose, it shook them from side to side. Anders quipped that it was “like an old freight train going down a bad track”.

Aside from Lovell’s inadvertent inflation of a lifevest, all was well once they reached Earth orbit. With checks of the spacecraft complete, they relit the Saturn’s third stage and headed for the Moon to become the first humans to swap Earth’s gravitational hold for that of another celestial body. But soon the flight plan began to fall apart.

What went wrong during Apollo 8?

Borman fell ill with vomiting and diarrhoea, this at a time when Hong Kong flu was rampant and had killed thousands. Normally never motion sick, Borman was appalled that his condition might threaten to abort the mission. As those on the ground wrung their hands, Apollo 8 coasted farther from home and Anders marvelled at the physics of a blob of weightless vomit that approached him.

Borman recovered and the flight settled down. But living so close together wrecked their sleeping schedule. With at least one crew member on watch at all times, the incessant chit-chat from the ground disturbed the others and sleep deprivation soon set it. As Christmas Eve and their rendezvous with the Moon arrived, Borman worried about how they would cope in lunar orbit. They had 20 hours of intense activity ahead, at the end of which, they would have to operate a large, complex engine without error to get them home.

“What does the ole Moon look like from 60 miles?” Capsule communicator Jerry Carr on Earth was keen to discover what the intrepid explorers could see. “The Moon is essentially grey, no colour,” replied Lovell. “Looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a grayish beach sand.”

A busy schedule of tasks had been planned for humankind’s first foray to the vicinity of another world. Lovell checked out NASA’s favoured landing sites, Anders concentrated on lunar photography and Borman manned the spacecraft’s controls.

As Apollo 8 approached its final few orbits, Borman noticed that tiredness was taking its toll. The upcoming engine burn that would send them home was unforgiving, so he informed mission control that the flight plan, for now, was toast. “We’re scrubbing everything ... I want Jim and Bill to get some rest.” He then sent his crew to bed.

Anders, always keen, pushed back but Borman stood firm. “God damn it, go to bed! To hell with the other stuff! We’ll bust our ass for it.” Lovell and Anders acceded and as Christmas day approached, all was quiet aboard Apollo 8.

When the spacecraft appeared around the Moon’s limb on the penultimate orbit, a great dish antenna on Earth was ready to receive a television signal. As images of passing craters flickered into view, Lovell announced, “Welcome from the Moon, Houston.” For the next 23 minutes, Borman directed an extraordinary broadcast from the spacecraft.

Knowing the historic significance of the flight and given his own faith and the Christmas season, he had arranged a climax to the show. As the landscape passed the camera’s field of view, the crew read passages from the Book of Genesis that related to the creation of the Universe. Then, just as they crossed the spectacular ‘terminator’, the boundary line between lunar day and night, Borman wound up the broadcast. “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you - all of you on the good Earth.”

Borman had timed it perfectly. As the picture slipped into darkness, he kept his crew quiet to reinforce the moment. His vision had been masterly in its execution and the power of that broadcast has never been forgotten, even if it was later eclipsed by Neil Armstrong’s “One small step”. Amazingly, none of it was choreographed by his bosses beyond a request to do “something appropriate”.

On their next orbit, Apollo 8’s main engine ignited over the far side and accelerated the ship on a homeward path. Fifteen minutes later, early on Christmas Day in Houston, they reappeared around the limb, on time and with a buoyant Lovell expressing his relief: “Please be informed there is a Santa Claus.”

The astronaut wives club

The introduction of the Mercury Seven in 1959 gave the US its first astronauts, who became overnight heroes. But it also shone a light on a group of women: the quintessential housewives who stood by their men through the rigours of NASA training and the lifethreatening dangers of spaceflight.

Astronauts’ wives, from Mercury to Apollo, became celebrities. Their private lives became public record as their homemaking, fashion and lifestyles were splashed all over Life magazine. They took part in ticker tape parades and met heads of state, all while keeping a happy and supportive home for their hard-working husbands. That was the image NASA wanted to encourage and doled out as propaganda. The truth, however, was that while this was an extremely exciting time, many women struggled with the constant pressure and received little guidance.

As many astronauts’ families lived in the same neighbourhood outside Houston, they turned to each other. They referred to themselves as the Astronaut Wives Club (under the motto ‘Proud, Happy, Thrilled’) and it proved a valuable sisterhood in difficult times. When an astronaut went on a mission, his wife was left at home to deal with anguish, doubt and fears for his safety. NASA would install a ‘squawk box’ so the wives could hear communications between the spacecraft and mission control, but this could just add to a sense of helplessness.

Then there were strains on marriages. Wives put up with their husbands spending little time at home, and turned a blind eye to rife infidelity. As divorce, or even therapy, would be too scandalous, some turned to drink and drugs. The majority of marriages collapsed, although three of the seven that survived were those of the Apollo 8 crew.

All that remained was a 57-hour, 400,000-kilometre fall to Earth and a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. But their trials were not over. They were exhausted, yet Lovell was scheduled to continue his navigation tasks. With a slip of tired fingers at the computer keyboard, he inadvertently reset the guidance system to its launch configuration.

In a heartbeat, the computer lost knowledge of its orientation in space, information crucial to operating the ship. Essentially, the spacecraft didn’t know which way was ‘up’. His crewmates were furious and he was angry with himself. Space can be utterly unforgiving of mistakes, as can astronauts. Nevertheless, with time on his side, Lovell restored the guidance system and his colleagues made sure not to transmit their ire to the ground.

When did Apollo 8 return to Earth?

On 27 December 1968, the tiny command module barrelled into Earth’s atmosphere travelling at 11 kilometres each second (the service module having been jettisoned a few minutes earlier). The light show generated by falling all the way from the Moon astounded even Borman and Lovell, spaceflight veterans who compared it to being on the inside of a fluorescent tube. They landed in the pre-dawn darkness on the Pacific Ocean, ending a voyage that was arguably as pioneering as Apollo 11’s seven months later, and certainly more dangerous.

The Apollo 8 crew on the deck of their recovery ship, the USS <em>Yorktown</em>. They were subsequently named <em>Time</em>'s 'Men of the Year' for 1986
The Apollo 8 crew on the deck of their recovery ship, the USS Yorktown. They were subsequently named Time's 'Men of the Year' for 1986 (Photo by - / NASA / AFP) (Photo by -/NASA/AFP via Getty Images)

After their flight, the crew of Apollo 8 had successful careers in and out of NASA. After being an aide to President Richard Nixon, Borman became a senior manager with the now-defunct Eastern Airlines. Anders also entered the business world, and then began restoring and flying vintage warplanes. Lovell, ever the spaceman, stayed with NASA and commanded the ill-starred Apollo 13 mission. Later, he co-wrote a biography that focused on his last harrowing flight. It became a successful movie starring Tom Hanks.

When Lovell’s moonbound ship exploded, he and his crew were saved by using their lunar module as a lifeboat. Apollo 13 highlights the risks that were taken on Apollo 8: had such a mishap befallen the ship occupied by Borman, Lovell and Anders, there would have been no way out.

Soviets in space

Though the US would win the Space Race, it spent years playing catch up. Starting with the artificial satellite Sputnik in 1957, the Soviets achieved an impressive series of firsts, including the first human in space, followed by the first woman, the first twoand three-man spacecraft, and first spacewalk. The root of these successes can be put down to the Soviets’ lead engineer, Sergei Korolev, and his R-7 rocket, the first intercontinental ballistic missile. Soviet propaganda was rife. But then came Apollo, and the goal of getting to the Moon.

Huge launch vehicles would be needed and the Americans began work on the Saturn V, which would eventually become a game-changer for space travel. It was developed by Wernher von Braun, the German creator of the V-2 rocket, brought to the US after World War II. The Soviets’ answer, the N-1, barely got off the ground. As the 1960s progressed, the US space programme had more resources and money, and the slow-andsteady attitude was paying dividends. The Americans had superior craft, fuel and electronics, and a single-minded cohesiveness the Russians lacked.

Then, in 1966, Korolev died. The Soviets still led the race, though, and convinced the world that they were readying for a mission to the Moon, spurring NASA to recover from Apollo 1. With Apollo 8, the US seized the lead and never surrendered it.

David Woods is an Apollo historian

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This content first appeared in the December 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed

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