The Unique Flight of Apollo 8

Posted on Sat, December 21, 2013

The second Apollo mission to carry astronauts into space provided NASA and the world with an unprecedented view of life on Earth. From the start, with its planned mission to fly three astronauts around the Moon and back, Apollo 8 became a touchstone for how people understood the process of spaceflight. The mission profile included a variety of firsts, including the first Saturn V launch with people inside the command module atop the massive rocket (Apollo 7, the first mission, was launched on a Saturn IB), views of Earth set against the blackness of space, and Earth as a backdrop to the cratered landscape of the Moon as seen with the human eye (Figure 1). Like other first time experiences in the history of exploration, Apollo 8 set a number of benchmarks with information collected for scientists, engineers, and the public. The mission left behind a legacy as the cultural highlight of an otherwise tragic year in American history, one marked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, clashes in Vietnam, and rioting around the nation.

Earthrise from Apollo 8

Figure 1. Earthrise as seen by Apollo 8 astronauts, AS08-14-2383 (NASA Photo)


For the National Air and Space Museum, there are a number of representations of this unique flight in our collections, research, and exhibit work. As the recipient of most Apollo-era NASA equipment, the Museum’s collection contains only a few remnants of the Apollo 8 mission. Where appropriate inside our own exhibits or at borrowing museums, these items are often used in exhibits to represent the mission. The command module, designated CSM-103, resides on loan at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago (see it being moved in photo, figure 2). Artifacts from the collection representing each of the astronauts, Frank Borman (Omega Speedmaster, figure 3), Jim Lovell (pressure bubble helmet, figure 4), and Bill Anders (checklist, figure 5), are currently part of the traveling exhibit 1968, organized by the Minnesota History Center. We display the rescue net used to recover the Apollo 8 astronauts from their floating command module as part of the Apollo to the Moon exhibit at the Museum in Washington, DC. A telescope and eyepiece like that used by the Apollo 8 crewmembers to navigate by the stars appears in the Time and Navigation exhibition (figure 6). As part of a plan to revise that exhibit leading up to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo program, representing the mission falls to exhibit curators and the way in which they decide to include the mission in their script. Lacking many signature mission artifacts may mean representation of Apollo via a mural of the iconic Earthrise photograph – perhaps the mission’s most memorable contribution to NASA’s cultural legacy.

Apollo 8 Command Module

Figure 2. The Apollo 8 command module being lifted through the roof of the Museum of Science and Industry, October 1971.



Frank Borman's chronograph

Figure 3. Frank Borman's chronograph.



Bubble Spacesuit Helmet

Figure 4. Jim Lovell's pressure bubble space suit helmet.



Bill Anders' lunar module pilot checklist

Figure 5. Bill Anders' lunar module pilot checklist.



Apollo Sextant and Scanning Telescope

Apollo sextant and eyepiece accompany the story of Apollo 8 in the Time and Navigation exhibition.


  As a part of our research as historians, Apollo 8 provides a point of comparison with other space flight experiences, but also as a connection point with other “first” journeys throughout history. One might relate Apollo 8 to the travels of the Vikings or other Europeans to the New World, expansion of Americans and Europeans across the African and North American continents, and exploration of the Polar Regions in the last century. While most comparisons thus far have an intellectual basis, practical issues of technology, science, funding, and public perception cut across these exploration projects as well. My own current project, a doctoral dissertation at George Mason University, highlights the connections between visual documentation of exploration through still photography. The goal of my research is to show how Apollo astronaut photography fits easily into the visual traditions established throughout previous expeditions that used cameras. Resources such as the Apollo Image Atlas and Apollo Flight Journal pull together visual and other documentation critical to seeing how NASA and the public viewed this historic flight. As we enter the holiday season, so memorable 45 years ago for the Christmas Eve broadcast by Borman, Lovell, and Anders from 240,000 miles away as they circled the Moon, let us remember that mission as a first step of its own, but also a new step in a long history of human exploration.