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Remembering Apollo 8, Man’s First Trip to the Moon

6 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger

Commander Frank Borman was very clear about the fact that no one aboard his spacecraft would be getting drunk on the way back from the moon. NASA had packed a couple of miniatures of brandy aboard Apollo 8 for the occasion — it wasn’t enough for three grown men to get anything close to tipsy, but it was a couple of minis more than any crew had ever taken into space before, and when you’re piloting a ship that is screaming to Earth at 25,000 miles per hour and you have to hit a narrow atmospheric corridor just 2.5 degrees wide in order to survive the fireball of reentry, a cautious commander would also consider it a couple of minis too many. So Borman ordered his crewmates, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, to keep the brandy stowed.

Certainly, though, the Apollo 8 crew had earned the right to celebrate. It was Christmastime 1968 — the end of a hard year. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered; in June, Bobby Kennedy followed; in August, the Democratic Convention in Chicago dissolved into bloody rioting; and in each month of that exceedingly bloody year, 1,200 Americans had died in Vietnam. So people had bigger things on their minds in October when Apollo 7 — the first of the three-man Apollo ships — had orbited the Earth. And people might have been equally indifferent in December when Apollo 8 went aloft — except that Apollo 8 would be traveling a little farther than Earth orbit. (Read TIME’s Top 10 Scientific Discoveries of 2008.)

In August, the CIA got word to NASA that the Soviet Union was planning to send a Zond spacecraft around the moon before the end of the year. It was not certain that the Zond would carry a man, but if it did, it would be one more black eye to the U.S. — which had lately caught up in the space race with the Soviets — in a year that had been full of them. So that summer, NASA told Borman, Lovell and Anders to cowboy up. Their original Earth orbit flight plan would be changed to a lunar orbit.

“I gave some thought to the odds,” Anders, now 75, says. “I figured we had a one-third chance of success, a one-third chance of a survivable accident and a one-third chance of not coming back.”

Lovell, now 80, for whom Apollo 8 was a third trip to space, didn’t even bother to crunch the numbers. “If you worried about whether or not you were coming home,” he says, “you wouldn’t go in the first place.”

But Apollo 8 did go. On the morning of Saturday, Dec. 21, 1968, the crew blasted off aboard the 36-story, seven-million-pound Saturn V rocket into Earth orbit. Five hours later, the crew fired the Saturn’s upper stage engine and Apollo 8 peeled out for the moon.

The three-day translunar trip was unremarkable — as unremarkable as man’s first journey to the moon could be. There were two broadcasts back to Earth — the usual all-is-well waving-to-the-camera fare. News reports were read to the crew by Houston: Eleven GI’s were released in Cambodia; Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower were married in New York; the Cleveland Browns beat the Dallas Cowboys 31 to 20 on Sunday and the Minnesota Vikings would be playing the Baltimore Colts on Monday. Lovell picked Baltimore.

“The spacecraft was so good there was nothing to do but hang on and take pictures,” Anders jokes today.

But on Christmas Eve the crew got busy. Settling Apollo 8 into orbit around the moon was a high-wire maneuver that involved turning the ship backward and firing its powerful service propulsion engine for precisely four and a half minutes — an eternity in a business in which barely a breath from a thruster is enough to set a ship spinning off course. The engine burn was designed to slow the spacecraft down just enough to ease it into a lunar orbit without losing so much altitude that it crashed into the moon instead. Orbital mechanics also demanded that the maneuver occur on the dark side of the moon, entirely out of radio contact with Earth. At 68 hours and 58 minutes into their journey, the crew buckled in and vanished around the moon’s far side.

Ten minutes later, Lovell typed the instructions for the engine burn into the on-board computer, and the computer flashed back “99:40,” which was code for “Are you sure?” Lovell hit the Proceed button. The engine lit and the burn worked exactly as scripted, inserting Apollo 8 into an initial lunar orbit 169.1 miles high at its peak and just 60.5 miles above the lunar craters at its nadir. Even before the crew re-emerged around the other side of the moon and back into radio contact with Houston, Anders snapped what is surely the most iconic photo of the space age and one of the most iconic of any age: Earthrise over the lunar surface.

That evening, as families finished their Christmas Eve dinners, the astronauts pointed their camera out the window and beamed home a grainy, gray view of the alien world they were circling. Everywhere on the planet, viewers tuned in, making up what was then the largest TV audience in history. Borman, Lovell and Anders had been instructed to do whatever they felt was appropriate to mark the moment. A friend of Borman’s had suggested they read from the book of Genesis, and so its first 10 verses had been typed up on a piece of fireproof paper before the crew left Earth. They took turns reading aloud.

When they finished, Borman, as the skipper, concluded the broadcast: “And from the crew of Apollo 8,” he said, “we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

The crew circled the moon 10 times over the next 20 hours. On their final orbit, once again alone behind the moon, the crew re-lit the engine that was their only ticket home. If it had failed to burn, they would have been stranded forever in lunar orbit. The flight controllers — to say nothing of the families — waited anxiously for the astronauts to emerge from radio blackout. When they did, it was Lovell’s voice that broke the silence.

“Houston, Apollo 8,” he said. “Please be informed that there is a Santa Claus.” And in 1968, at last there was.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com