The Sciences

Apollo 8: Humanity's First Trip to the Moon

On December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center atop a Saturn V rocket, beginning one of the most historic trips in human history.

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Photo Credits: NASA

Anders was originally trained as the lunar module pilot, but when the mission changed, he took on new tasks for the mission, including photography.

Lovell works at the command module's guidance and navigation station.

Photo Credits: NASA

From lunar orbit, the surface of the Moon was covered in craters. This photo, taken from on board Apollo 8, shows the 40-mile-wide Goclenius, which is crisscrossed with rilles (grooves in the lunar surface).

The Moon mission was a must-watch show on television for millions who were home for Christmas Eve.

The astronauts were also the first humans to directly view the unusual crater named Tsiolkovsky. On the far side of the Moon, it is never visible from Earth. It was first spotted by the Soviet spacecraft Luna 3 in 1959.

Photo Credits: NASA

Bill Anders, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell discuss the mission near a lunar module trainer in 1968. Their mission was changed from Earth orbit to lunar orbit just four months before launch.

Photo Credits: NASA

In the summer of 1968, astronaut Frank Borman was deep into training as the mission leader to test the Apollo command and lunar modules in Earth orbit. The flight would be risky. He and crew members Jim Lovell and Bill Anders would be the first humans to ride the Saturn V rocket. The massive vehicle was tested twice on unmanned missions (both ultimately successful) but the second flight had serious glitches, including vertical oscillations (dubbed the pogo effect) and premature engine shutdowns. 

By August, delays in the lunar module development meant that the mission would not have the very spacecraft it was intended to test. That’s when Apollo program manager George Low proposed a bold mission: orbit the Moon. The Apollo 8 crew would still fly, but their destination would be lunar orbit, but minus the lunar lander. A successful mission would give the United States a decisive lead in the space race against the Soviets.

Low’s pitch was accepted, and on August 19, 1968, NASA directors gave the Apollo 8 crew their new mission. They had just four months to learn how to fly to the moon.

As they pointed the camera to the lunar surface and panned to the distant Earth, they read from the Book of Genesis. To those watching the grainy video feed, it marked an astonishing end to a year filled with war, civil unrest and assassinations. Their safe return cemented the US lead in the space race and led to six successful landings on the Moon

Apollo 8 emerged from the moon’s far side on December 24, astronaut Bill Anders took this photo with a Hasselblad camera, a telephoto lens, and Kodak slide film. It became an iconic image of the space age.

Photo Credits: NASA

The first stage of the Saturn V rocket slated for the Apollo 8 mission had five F-1 engines that produced 7.5 million pounds of thrust. That the rocket was ready for a Moon flight was a crucial factor in deciding to go for the Moon.

Photo Credits: NASA

Borman floats in the cabin on the Apollo 8 lunar orbit mission. He was affected early in the mission by motion sickness, but recovered.

Photo Credits: NASA

The Apollo 8 mission lifted off from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center at 7:51 a.m. on December 21. It was the first time that a crew was on board a Saturn V launch.

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