Remembering a Great Adventure: The First Circumlunar Mission


The Apollo 8 crew is photographed posing on a Kennedy Space Center (KSC) simulator in their space suits. From left to right are: James A. Lovell Jr., William A. Anders, and Frank Borman.

The Apollo 8 crew is photographed posing on a Kennedy Space Center (KSC) simulator in their space suits. From left to right are: James A. Lovell Jr., William A. Anders, and Frank Borman.

After a piloted orbital mission to test the Apollo equipment in October 1968, on December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 took off atop a Saturn V booster from the Kennedy Space Center with three astronauts aboard—Frank Borman, James A. Lovell Jr., and William A. Anders—for an historic mission to orbit the Moon. At first it was planned as a mission to test Apollo hardware in the relatively safe confines of low Earth orbit, but senior engineer George M. Low of the Manned Spacecraft Center at Houston, Texas, and Samuel C. Phillips, Apollo Program Manager at NASA headquarters, pressed for approval to make it a circumlunar flight. The advantages of this could be important, both in technical and scientific knowledge gained as well as in a public demonstration of what the U.S. could achieve. So far Apollo had been all promise; now the delivery was about to begin.

In the summer of 1968 Low broached the idea to Phillips, who then carried it to the administrator, and in November the agency reconfigured the mission for a lunar trip. After Apollo 8 made one and a half Earth orbits its third stage began a burn to put the spacecraft on a lunar trajectory. As it traveled outward the crew focused a portable television camera on Earth and for the first time humanity saw its home from afar, a tiny, lovely, and fragile “blue marble” hanging in the blackness of space. When it arrived at the Moon on Christmas Eve this image of Earth was even more strongly reinforced when the crew sent images of the planet back while reading the first part of the Bible—”God created the heavens and the Earth, and the Earth was without form and void”—before sending Christmas greetings to humanity. The next day they fired the boosters for a return flight and “splashed down” in the Pacific Ocean on December 27. It was an enormously significant accomplishment coming at a time when American society was in crisis over Vietnam, race relations, urban problems, and a host of other difficulties. And if only for a few moments the nation united as one to focus on this epochal event.

Apollo 8 had been a sporty mission. Christopher C. Kraft, director of NASA’s mission control, called the decision “gutsy” since he estimated it had a 50-50 chance of success. That it had been successful went far toward NASA’s rehabilitation from the Apollo 1 accident that killed three astronauts in January 1967 and returning Apollo to a schedule that would allow a Moon landing by the end of the decade. But it symbolized much more. The unrest of 1968—especially the crisis over Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, racial strife, and urban problems—had torn the United States asunder. At the year’s end Apollo 8 provided a rallying point for the nation. A facile anecdote offered by Apollo 8 mission commander Frank Borman made the point well. He received a telegram after the mission with only four words: “Thanks, you saved 1968.” While one might appropriately analyze this affirmation of traditional values in the midst of 1968’s social transformation, the place of NASA in buttressing the national status quo was secure.

One of the critically significant events of Apollo 8 was the “Earthrise” photograph taken from lunar orbit. It fundamentally forced all peoples of the world to view the planet Earth in a new way. On its outward voyage, the Apollo 8 crew focused a portable television camera on Earth and for the first time humanity saw its home from afar, a tiny, lovely, and fragile “blue marble” hanging in the blackness of space. When the Apollo 8 spacecraft arrived at the Moon on Christmas Eve of 1968 the image of Earth was even more strongly reinforced when the crew took images of the planet. Writer Archibald MacLeish summed up the feelings of many people when he wrote at the time that “To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold, brothers who know now that they are truly brothers.” The modern environmental movement was galvanized in part by this new perception of the planet and the need to protect it and the life that it supports. It had the most profound effect on public consciousness of any image from the lunar surface. It came to symbolize a new era of concern for the ultimate fate of the home planet.

Apollo 8 returning to Earth from the Moon.

Apollo 8 returning to Earth from the Moon.

The return of the Apollo 8 capsule with the crew safely aboard signaled a major waypoint in the Apollo program. Two additional missions took place in the first part of 1969 to pave the way for a lunar landing. Apollo 9 tested the Lunar Module in Earth orbit; and Apollo 10 did the same in lunar orbit.

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2 Responses to Remembering a Great Adventure: The First Circumlunar Mission

  1. Dan Adamo says:

    Missing from this account is the pragmatic motivation NASA had to change Apollo 8’s flight plan from low-Earth orbit (LEO) to circumlunar. In order to carry out its original objective to checkout the Lunar Module (LM) in LEO, Apollo 8 would have to be postponed several months to circa March 1969 because the LM wouldn’t be ready for flight until then. That delay was intolerable with 1970 and President Kennedy’s deadline looming. So, Apollo 8 went circumlunar without a LM, arguably the riskiest mission ever flown to the Moon since there was no “lifeboat” for crew self-rescue as on Apollo 13. When NASA next flies humans to cislunar space in the 2020s, the flight plan will be without a lifeboat, a cislunar safe haven, or any ground-based rescue capability.

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