December 21-27, 1968: the Apollo 8 crew of Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, Jr., and William A. Anders journeyed to the Moon, into lunar orbit, and back to Earth. Launched by a Saturn V rocket, traveling in the Apollo spacecraft, and finally descending under parachutes into the Pacific Ocean, they completed an epic voyage that set the stage for an even more daring journey six months later—to land on the Moon. Apollo 8 was humanity’s first foray beyond nearby space—our first venture to another world.
Three men nestled shoulder to shoulder in a vehicle with barely as much interior room as a typical 1960s station wagon sped toward the Moon. The Moon! The first ever to attempt such an audacious feat, these pilots ranked among the best of America’s best.
They were not supposed to make this journey just yet, but under the pressure of the Cold War Space Race, NASA decided to accelerate their planned lunar orbiting mission without delay. Perched atop a powerful behemoth rocket that had not yet launched astronauts, they reached a velocity never before achieved by human beings—almost 25,000 miles per hour—fast enough to escape from Earth and cross the void to the Moon.
Thus began their quarter-million-mile voyage to the Moon. As the earth grew smaller behind them, its gravitational pull weakened until the moon’s gravity embraced them. If all went perfectly well, if all the calculations were correct and the computer codes ran without error and the vehicle systems operated as they should, these men would streak home safely a week later, after spending almost a day in lunar orbit and traveling almost a half million miles. Was that really conceivable, or truly possible?
During their 20 hours circling the Moon, they passed through the soft twilight of earthshine and witnessed an extraordinary view—our home planet, the shining blue and white Earth, rise above the horizon of the gray, lifeless Moon.
All did go remarkably well, and these three Americans reached the Moon flawlessly. Their spacecraft disappeared behind the Moon out of sight and out of contact with the world they left behind, then emerged from the far side, and curved into orbit just 60 miles above the surface of the Moon. In ten orbits, they saw craters and peaks never viewed directly by human eyes, and recognized on the familiar Earth-facing side an intended site for a bold landing mission.
During their 20 hours circling the Moon, they passed through the soft twilight of earthshine and witnessed an extraordinary view—our home planet, the shining blue and white Earth, rise above the horizon of the gray, lifeless Moon. Had they been travelers from another world, would they have guessed this jewel-tone planet was inhabited? As men from Earth, they suddenly saw its beauty, fragility, and solitude in the vast universe
Before leaving lunar orbit for their return home, they telecast a Christmas message to citizens of the world. Turning to scripture, they jointly read the timeless first verses of Genesis, the biblical creation story, and then offered a benediction: “God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.” Those moments of simple eloquence captured the spirit of Apollo, transcending the particulars of this mission and fostering a spirit of awe, wonder, and unity felt around the world.
Join us for a year-long celebration of the Apollo Program, as we look back at the legacy of our first small steps on the Moon. Follow along with #Apollo50.