Sunday, December 21, 2008

Countdown: Apollo 8

Today, December 21, marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 8.

Apollo 8
, the second manned Apollo flight, was originally planned as a test in Earth orbit of the Command and Service Module (CSM) and the Lunar Module (LM). By the summer of 1968, though, with production of the LM hitting one snag after another, it was clear that the machine would not be ready for space by the end of the year.

Pushing back the mission would threaten John Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. And, NASA worried that a delay might allow the United States to be beaten into manned lunar orbit by a rumored Soviet Soyuz flight (which in the actual event never came). And so to keep the program on track, NASA made one of the boldest decisions in its history. Assuming that the upcoming Apollo 7 went well, NASA engineers proposed altering the mission of Apollo 8; they would send the CSM into space alone, without the LM, but not on a series of tests above Earth. They would send it all the way to orbit the Moon.

NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Paine was the one who presented the idea to Administrator James Webb. In his book A Man on the Moon, Andrew Chaikin relates Webb’s response: “Are you out of your mind?” In the summer of 1968, there had been no manned flights of either a Saturn V rocket or the Apollo spacecraft. The memory of the Apollo 1 fire, which killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, still loomed large. And no one had ever left Earth orbit, or entered (and then left again) the orbit of another body. Indeed, the highest anyone had been above the Earth was 850 miles. It was 240,000 miles to the Moon.

But it was decided that the mission, while bold, could be done, and so to the Moon it was for Frank Borman, Jim Lovell (who would later command Apollo 13), and William Anders. They became the first men truly to leave the Earth, to look out their window and see the planet whole, an experience they broadcast back to an eager audience on Earth.

On Christmas Eve they reached the Moon and settled into an orbit 69 miles above the surface. (Chaikin relates that Lovell asked his crewmates, “Did you guys ever think that on Christmas Eve you’d be orbiting the Moon?” Anders replied, “Just hope we’re not doing it on New Year’s.”) Here's a (very) British response to a broadcast to Earth describing the lunar surface:

That night, while the blue Earth rose over the harsh and pitted surface of the Moon, the crew ended a broadcast to Earth with a reading of the creation story from Genesis. (Video here. And, yes, church/state questions aplenty here. Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s response was swift.) Borman, with not a little awe in his voice, signed off with, “Good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

Apollo 8 splashed down safely on December 27 — just in time for Borman, Lovell, and Anders to be chosen as Time Magazine’s “Men of the Year” for 1968. Time’s essay on the choice is worth reading; it captures something of the time and places the triumph of the mission within the tumult and grief of that incredible year. You can find the essay here. A longer set of videos about the mission begins here.

Previously: Apollo 7

EDIT: "Robert Chaffee" corrected to "Roger Chaffee." (There are no copy editors here at the blog. Apologies and thanks to SDN for pointing out the error, gently.)

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