Saturday, December 22, 2018

50 Years Ago Tonight

50 years ago tonight, Apollo 8 was on the way to the moon; the first three men in the history of history that will go around the moon, orbiting it for a day.  The six-day mission full of firsts lifted off on Dec. 21, 1968, with its crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders.  It would feature the first time that humans had looked down on the moon from orbit; the first time that humans had seen the farside of the moon.  And it would mark the first time men had ever seen the Earth rise over another world.

Apollo 8 was originally not conceived as the mission it became; it was intended to be part of qualifying the Apollo spacecraft in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).  There had been only one prior manned Apollo mission, Apollo 7, and that had been only two months before in October.  While a Saturn V had been test launched, it had never carried astronauts into orbit.
"NASA officials realized that this was risky, since Apollo 7 had not yet qualified the spacecraft when their tentative decision was made," a NASA historical document reported. The decision was further complicated by Apollo 8's need for a more powerful rocket, called the Saturn V, which had never been tested on a crewed launch. But after months of discussion, NASA decided to move forward with an Apollo 8 moon mission on Nov. 10, about a month before the launch.
Space fans from those days will remember that critical rocket burns happened while the Apollo capsule was out of radio contact - over the far side of the moon.  The burn to stop Apollo 8 from looping around the moon and returning to Earth had to take place while over the far side.  A day later, the burn to get them out of lunar orbit and returning to Earth took place over the far side as well.
All that remained was the return trip home. Mission controllers waited anxiously Christmas morning as the crew turned their engine on again, on the far side of the moon.

As they re-emerged, Lovell called out, "Please be informed, there is a Santa Claus," signaling that the ship was headed back to Earth. The crew landed successfully on Dec. 27.
A cursory look through the blog history looks like I've written about Apollo 8 every year, but only on Christmas Eve.  Christmas Eve was the day they orbited the moon, the day that the crew spoke to us of the "stark and unappetizing" look of the lunar surface and read from the book of Genesis, the first book in the Christian bible.  Here on Earth, 1968 had been a tumultuous year. There had been riots in many places, assassinations and troubles all around the globe. On Christmas eve, in awe of what these men were doing, it seemed like the world held its breath and watched.


  1. I remember watching all the early Apollo launches and missions. If I remember, one newsroom or NASA itself had an HO trainset set up in the profile of the mission, and showed the Apollo capsule and service module moving on the figure 8.

    Great days. Full of hope and promise.

    1. Sad to say, but I think we were living through "Peak America" at the time......

  2. I woder if SpaceX's proposed manned lunar orbit in 2023 will be done in the same time frame? Elon likes to play with history.

  3. Can you imagine NASA astronauts being permitted to do this today:


    1. No, I really can't imagine them being allowed or the networks even showing it. Notice how they omitted that detail in the CBS video.

      I used the CBS video because it has Jim Lovell in it, and we hardly ever see him anymore - or any of those giants.