Looking back: The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission
The Apollo 8 astronauts watched the desolate, crater-pocked surface of the moon pass beneath them. Then, something unexpectedly stunning happened. Rising above the horizon was a beautiful sphere. It was familiar and yet unfamiliar. It was a blue marble that beguilingly stole the space voyagers’ attention. What they saw was heart-stopping, heavenly, halcyon—home.
This image would capture the human imagination. Ironically, it could only be seen when Earthlings left home for the first time. The three men traveled hundreds of thousands of miles to look back and discover the jewel they had left behind. It was so far away that a raised thumb could hide this sapphire oasis in the void.
“Everything you’ve ever known is behind your thumb,” Apollo 8 astronaut Jim Lovell said decades later. “All the world’s problems, everything. It kind of shows you how relative life is and how insignificant we all are here on Earth. Because we are all on a rather small spaceship here.”
Flight Director Christopher Kraft told Frank Borman’s wife Susan that the odds of her husband’s return were fifty-fifty. As launch day arrived on December 21, 1968, many “engineers and scientists at NASA question[ed] whether the crew” would ever return.
There was nothing easy about this flight. The big Saturn V missile that would power the trio’s ship into space had launched only twice. It succeeded once, but it failed miserably on its second liftoff. And riding a rocket with such a short and unencouraging record was just the astronauts’ first potential obstacle.
“Barreling along in its orbit at 2,300 miles per hour the moon was a moving target, some 234,000 miles from Earth at the time of the astronauts’ departure,” noted author Andrew Chaikin. “In an extraordinary feat of marksmanship, they would have to fly just ahead of its leading edge. Then, firing the Apollo spacecraft’s rocket engine, they would go into orbit just 69 miles above its surface.”
Borman, Lovell and Bill Anders relied on nearly perfect performance from computers and engines. These would take them to the moon, into lunar orbit and back toward Earth. They traveled through a thin slice of atmosphere to splash down in the Pacific.
“Everyone involved accomplished many, many firsts with that flight,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony. “It was the first time humans travelled to another planetary body. It was the first time the Saturn V rocket was used. It was the first time humans didn’t experience night, and sunrises, and sunsets. It was the first time humans saw Earthrise. It was the first time humans were exposed to deep-space radiation. They traveled farther than ever before.”
The astronauts seized the attention of at least one-fourth of the planet’s residents, with more than 1 billion people following the flight. The Soviet Union even lifted its Iron Curtain enough to allow its citizens to follow this historic moment in human history. In France, a newspaper called it “the most fantastic story in human history.”
Day in and day out, people around the world listened to communications between the Johnson Space Center and the distant Apollo 8. A complete record of communications is available online today. Much of the back-and-forth sounded like business as usual, three men at work. But there were rare moments. Lovell spontaneously created the word “Earthshine” to explain what was obscuring his vision at one point. Until that moment, no one on Earth knew that the planet emitted a noticeable glare.
The astronauts added a touch of poetry to their Christmas Eve broadcast. They read the first ten verses from the Bible’s book of Genesis, with visual images of the barren moon rushing beneath their words. The reading ended with Borman saying, “God bless all of you, all of you on the Good Earth.”
Borman had been advised to “say something appropriate,” for that Christmas Eve broadcast, according to Muir-Harmony. He had sought input from others before Apollo 8 lifted off. The reading from Genesis, she says, “was done with the expectation that it would resonate with as many people as possible, that it wouldn’t just be a message for Christians on Christmas Eve.” Its emotional impact startled many viewers, including CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, whose eyes filled with tears. (In 1969, famed atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair filed suit against the then-head of NASA Thomas O. Paine challenging the reading of the Bible by government employees. One federal court dismissed the case, and in 1971, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the lower court’s dismissal.)
Fifty years later, the names Frank Borman and Bill Anders are not well recognized. Jim Lovell was made famous by Ron Howard’s 1995 movie about the saga of Apollo 13’s near failure. But neither the first men to leave the Earth nor their mission are prominent fixtures in America’s historical memory. Even more lost are the 400,000 other humans who labored to make this miraculous voyage possible. That in no way diminishes their accomplishment or its effect on people who found inspiration in their fearless feat.
At the close of the turbulent year 1968, one American wrote to Borman with a simple message: “You saved 1968.” The year saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. There were race riots in many American cities and protests. There was a war and a president’s political downfall. All marked that year as one of the most memorable in 20th century history, but the Apollo mission, indeed, allowed it to end on a momentous note. It proved that human beings could do more than struggle, oppress and kill: They could accomplish something wondrous.