By Kevin Shannahan
NASA’s Saturn V rocket towers three hundred sixty-three feet over the launch pad. It is 58 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty and weighs 6.7 million pounds loaded with fuel. The rocket remains the most powerful machine ever built, capable of lifting 50 tons into orbit. A Saturn V is a delicately balanced orchestra of thousands of parts working in concert under incredibly stressful conditions, balanced on the knife edge of disaster. In December of 1968, it was far from a proven commodity. Less than a year before, the three astronauts of Apollo 1 died in a fire on the launchpad during a training session, trapped in their capsule. Apollo 8 was only the third flight of a Saturn V and was to be the first crewed one. Engineers had worked furiously to fix the rocket’s problems, but there was no way to be sure.
The United States had been badly rocked by the Soviet Union in the early days of the space race. The Soviets had put the first satellite into orbit with Sputnik in 1957. In 1961, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to go to space, completing a single orbit before returning to Earth. Several unmanned Soviet probes had reached the moon, to include taking the first photographs of the far side of the moon. President Kennedy’s vow to reach the moon with a manned mission before the end of the decade was in danger of becoming an empty promise, worse, a promise instead fulfilled by the Soviet Union. That would have been a crippling blow to America’s standing in the world, and indeed of the free world itself.
This was the background in which three men, Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders, strapped themselves into a Saturn V’s capsule high above the Florida seashore on December 21, 1968. Apollo 8 was to fly to the moon, orbit and return to Earth. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before. The mission was intended to prove some of the concepts that would be used in later Apollo missions that were to land on the moon. Everything they did was to break new ground. The list of things that had to go perfectly was truly daunting. There was peril at every turn.
Apollo 8 was to be an unqualified success. The astronauts were the first men to leave Earth’s orbit and reach another body in the solar system. They were the first to orbit the moon and the first humans to see the moon’s dark side. They tested equipment and maneuvers that were to be integral to a mission less than a year later when Apollo 11 landed on the moon itself.
On Christmas Eve, 1968 astronaut William Anders took one of the most iconic photographs in human history. While orbiting the moon, he photographed the Earth rising over the lunar surface. He and his fellow astronauts were the first human beings to see such a sight. The crew also made a television broadcast from orbit that night in which they showed views of the spacecraft and the moon. James Lowell said, “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” The crew ended the broadcast by taking turns reading from the Book of Genesis.
The Apollo missions remain some of the most complicated scientific and engineering projects ever attempted. Their success is all the more noteworthy when one considers it was accomplished using slide rules and computers that took up whole rooms and had less power than found in a modern smartphone. Sixty-five years, almost to the day, after the Wright Brothers flew the first powered flight, men were orbiting the moon.
Christmas 1968 was indeed one to remember!
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