On December 21, 1968, Apollo 8, the second crewed spaceflight mission in NASA’s Apollo program was launched and became the first crewed spacecraft to leave low Earth orbit, reach the Moon, orbit it, and safely return. It was also the first crewed launch of the Saturn V rocket.

The astronauts who spent Christmas around the Moon: Apollo 8
Christmas Eve, 1968. As one of the most turbulent, tragic years in American history drew to a close, millions around the world were watching and listening as the Apollo 8 astronauts – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders – became the first humans to orbit another world. As their command module floated above the lunar surface, the astronauts beamed back images of the moon and Earth and took turns reading from the book of Genesis, closing with a wish for everyone “on the good Earth.”

Apollo 8 astronauts returned to Earth on December 27, 1968, when their spacecraft splashed down in the Northern Pacific Ocean. The crew members, Frank F. Borman II, James A. Lovell Jr., and William A. Anders were named Time magazine’s “Men of the Year” for 1968 upon their return.

They became the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit, see Earth as a whole planet, and enter the gravity well of another celestial body.

In February, one of the crew members of Apollo 8, William A. Anders visited Johnson Space Center for a BBC documentary interview in which he talked about the Apollo 8 mission, its historical significance, his personal experiences during launch and lunar orbit, and how he managed to shoot the unforgettable Earthrise photo. During his visit, Anders also paid a rare visit to the Apollo photo lab to open the storage vault where the negative of the Earthrise photo is kept.

Apollo 8 Crewmembers
Apollo 8 Crewmembers, from left to right: Command Module Pilot James Lovell, Lunar Module Pilot William Anders, and Commander Frank Borman.

Apollo 8 Launch and Lunar Orbit Experience

Apollo 8 Launch
The Apollo 8 (Spacecraft 103/Saturn 503) space vehicle is launched from Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center (KSC), at 7:51 a.m. (EST), Dec. 21, 1968. The crew of the Apollo 8 lunar orbit mission is astronauts Frank Borman, commander; James A. Lovell Jr., command module pilot; and William A. Anders, lunar module pilot. Apollo 8 was the first crewed Saturn V launch. Image: NASA website

Anders recalled, “sitting on top of the Saturn V, which was a mini nuclear bomb itself.” He said he remembered the announcement of Sputnik, and that it was viewed as a big blow to the United States. The Apollo 8 mission was of high importance if the United States were to claim the title of a leader in space travel.

“When the rockets went off, that was a different matter, because we thought we had simulated every possible crack and cranny of this mission, and yet at the very beginning, we all three realized that we had not simulated the physical environment of the launch of the Saturn V,” Anders said. “It was violent. There had been nobody on it beforehand to tell us… It was so noisy we couldn’t talk.”

As they went through the launch sequence, they could not see outside. A thermal shield prevented the crew from seeing beyond one tiny little hole. When the thermal cover was pulled off the spacecraft by the launch abort rocket, they were able to see out of their windows, facing upward but could only see the sky above them.

“I was very busy,” Anders said. “I was the flight engineer, and anyway, Frank Borman told me if he caught me looking out the window, he’d fire me. So even in Earth orbit, I snuck a glance of Australia, nothing but big huge thunderstorms at night that looked like big light bulbs, and also did a quick peek as we went over my hometown of San Diego, which unfortunately was covered with fog. We didn’t really get much of a view in Earth orbit.”

Anders said their job was not to look at the Earth but to simulate a lunar mission. It was not until things had calmed down and they were on their way to the moon that they actually got to look back and take a picture of the Earth as they had left it.

“That’s when I was thinking ‘that’s a pretty place down there,'” Anders said. “It hadn’t quite sunk in like the Earthrise picture did because the Earthrise had the Earth contrasted with this ugly lunar surface.”

Anders described the view of Earth before Earthrise as “kind of like the classroom globe sitting on a teacher’s desk, but no country divisions. It was about 25,000 miles (40,000 km) away where you could still recognize continents.”

“Going into orbit around the moon is like driving your hot rod to try to beat the train to the railroad crossing,” Anders said. “It’s going through, God knows, how many thousands of miles an hour around the Earth, and we scoot right in front of it and slow down and go into orbit, [a] pretty dynamic maneuver.”

Anders said they were in darkness as they were, “just starting to go around, behind the moon, still in contact with the Earth, but in the shadow of not only the sun but also Earthshine, Earthshine being six times brighter than moonshine.”

It was at that time Anders looked out of his window and, saw all these stars, more stars than you could pick out constellations from,” and suddenly there was the moon.

“And I must say, the hair kind of went up on the back of my neck,” he said.

Here is the edited footage of the Apollo 8 launch, with several camera views compiled.

Edited footage of the Apollo 8 launch, several camera views compiled. Runs from T-00:25 through T+03:25. See the mighty Saturn V launch vehicle in action, carrying humans for the first time. Watch out for an excellent shot of the staging sequence at the 3-minute mark in the video.

Apollo 8 Mission Objectives

The mission objectives for Apollo 8 included a coordinated performance of the crew, the command and service module, or CSM, and the support facilities. The mission also was to demonstrate translunar injection; CSM navigation, communications, and midcourse corrections; consumable assessment; and passive thermal control. The detailed test objectives were to refine the systems and procedures relating to future lunar operations.

All primary mission objectives and detailed test objectives were achieved. All launch vehicle and spacecraft systems worked well. Engineering accomplishments included the use of the ground network with onboard navigational techniques to sharpen the accuracy of lunar orbit determination and the successful use of the Apollo high-gain antenna – a four-dish unified S-band antenna that deployed from the service module, or SM, after separation from the third stage.

The first “Earthrise” photo ever

On December 24, 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 took one of the most iconic photos of Earth, later dubbed “Earthrise”. During a broadcast that night, Jim Lovell said: “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”

Earthrise from Apollo 8. December 24, 2017
The first “Earthrise” ever seen directly by humans. It is photographed by astronauts on board Apollo 8 on December 24, 1968. On December 24, 1968, the crew of Apollo 8, the first crewed mission to the Moon and the second crewed spaceflight mission in the United States Apollo space program, took this photo, later dubbed “Earthrise”. During a broadcast that night, pilot Jim Lovell said: “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” This is a cropped image. You can see the full-size image on NASA.gov. AS08-14-2383 (24 Dec. 1968) – The rising Earth is about five degrees above the lunar horizon in this telephoto view taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft near 110 degrees east longitude. The horizon, about 570 kilometers (350 statute miles) from the spacecraft, is near the eastern limb of the moon as viewed from Earth. The width of the view at the horizon is about 150 kilometers (95 statute miles). On Earth, 240,000 statute miles away (386,000 km), the sunset terminator crosses Africa. The crew took the photo around 10:40 a.m. Houston time on the morning of December 24 and that would make it 15:40 GMT on the same day. The South Pole is in the white area near the left end of the terminator. North and South America are under the clouds. Camera Tilt Mode: High Oblique. Direction: West. Sun Angle: Near SSP Original Film Magazine was labeled B. Camera Data: 70mm Hasselblad. F-Stop: F-5.6; Shutter Speed 1/250; Lens: 250mm. Film Type: Kodak SO-368 Color ASA 64.

The first earthrise – a documentary

This video is in the public domain and can be downloaded from the NASA website.

Earthrise: the 45th Anniversary by NASA
In December of 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 became the first people to leave our home planet and travel to another body in space. But as crew members Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders all later recalled, the most important thing they discovered was Earth, our beautiful planet, our home, “a blue marble in the sky“.

The visualization draws on numerous historical sources, including the actual cloud pattern on Earth from the ESSA-7 satellite and dozens of photographs taken by Apollo 8, and it reveals new, historically significant information about the first Earthrise photographs. It has not been widely known, for example, that the spacecraft was rolling when the photos were taken, and that it was this roll that brought the Earth into view. The visualization establishes the precise timing of the roll and, for the first time ever, identifies which window each photograph was taken from.

The key to the new work is a set of vertical stereo photographs taken by a camera mounted in the Command Module’s rendezvous window and pointing straight down onto the lunar surface. It automatically photographed the surface every 20 seconds. By registering each photograph to a model of the terrain based on LRO data, the orientation of the spacecraft can be precisely determined.

The story of the first Earthrise Photo

Anders said after the first two-and-a-half to three orbits, they were going backward, head down, marveling at the lunar surface, and it wasn’t until after they had made a “collective maneuver to circularize our orbit at 60 nautical miles, that we rolled over, heads up and turned around, going forward, like you would be driving a car around the moon.”

The crew was in sunlight and Anders was shooting pictures out of the side of the spacecraft, as this was one of his designated jobs.

“I don’t know who said it, maybe all of us said, ‘Oh my God. Look at that!'” Anders said. “And up came the Earth. We had had no discussion on the ground, no briefing, no instructions on what to do. I jokingly said, ‘well it’s not on the flight plan,’ and the other two guys were yelling at me to give them cameras. I had the only color camera with a long lens. So I floated a black and white over to Borman. I can’t remember what Lovell got. There were all yelling for cameras, and we started snapping away.”

“Earthrise” is the name given to a photograph of the Earth taken by Anders during lunar orbit on Dec. 24, 1968. Earthrise became one of the most famous photographs from all of the Apollo missions and one of the most reproduced space photographs of all time.

It has been credited for inspiring the beginning of the environmental movement. In Life Magazine’s 100 Photographs that Changed the World edition, wilderness photographer Galen Rowell called Earthrise, “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” Another boost of fame came in 1969 when the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating the Apollo 8 mission.

Mission Summary and Splashdown

The spacecraft was placed in an elliptical lunar orbit at 69 hours 8 minutes after liftoff. After flying two elliptical orbits of 168.5 by 60 nautical miles with an inclination of 12 degrees to the Equator, the spacecraft was placed in a nearly circular orbit of 59.7 by 60.7 nautical miles in which it remained for eight orbits. Images of the lunar surface were transmitted for live television broadcasts on Earth.

At 89 hours 19 minutes, a transearth injection was performed from behind the Moon. A nearly flawless mission was completed on the morning of December 27 when splashdown occurred in the Pacific Ocean after a total elapsed time of 147 hours.

The primary purpose of this mission was to further progress toward the goal of landing men on the moon by gaining operational experience and testing the Apollo system. However, a great effort was also made to accomplish worthwhile scientific tasks with photography and visual information by the astronauts.


M. Özgür Nevres

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