Apollo 8 launched on December 21, 1968, and it’s sort of a Christmas miracle for the space age.
After losing three astronauts in the Apollo 1 fire on January 27, 1967, the necessary revisions to the main crew module, the command-service module put NASA behind schedule to reach the Moon by the end of the decade. But all things considered the agency recovered fairly quickly, returning to manned missions in October of 1968. The timely recovery was due in large part to some bold decisions made at management level. Like the decision to fast-track the Saturn V’s schedule. Rather than test the individual pieces of the Saturn V rocket, NASA’s administration pushed for all-up testing, that is, a complete test of the rocket on an unmanned mission. This was done on Apollo 4, the mission that confirmed the Saturn V was ready to take men aloft.
Similarly, Apollo 8 marked a move away from the original Apollo mission schedule in favour of a bold move that promised significant payoff.
NASA’s original plan for its Apollo missions had all the systems and both spacecraft — the command-service and lunar modules — tested fairly extensively in Earth orbit, a phase that included one high Earth orbit to simulate return and atmospheric reentry from the Moon. Only then would a mission actually make the trip to the Moon, for a dry run followed by a landing attempt. But the end of the decade was approaching and the lunar module was running so far behind schedule that sticking to this original progression of missions would have NASA miss the end of decade lunar landing deadline. So rather than wait, the space agency opted to take Apollo 8 to the moon with just the command-service module and a dummy lunar module for ballast. It was a contingency mission that became a prime mission.
And it was a mission of firsts. It was the first time men rode the Saturn V rocket off the Earth; the first time men left Earth orbit; the first time men saw the farside of the Moon; the first time humans saw the Earth rising above the lunar horizon; and the first successful mission to go into orbit around the Moon and return again.
It was also the first time we got a sense of how dull it is to get to the Moon and back; those three-day transits weren’t particularly thrilling. There was a lot of housekeeping and a lot of normal day-to-day stuff. Like meals. On December 23, LMP Jim Lovell made the statement that “happiness is bacon squares for breakfast,” to which Capcom Mike Collins replied, “if you don’t eat them all, bring them back, and we’ll polish them off here.” So Apollo 8 was the mission on which we learned astronauts in space and on Earth love bacon.
Going to the Moon was both awesome and very human.
For the 45th anniversary of the flight last year, I “live tweeted” the mission. You can check out the archived live tweet here, though it’s in reverse chronological order. And for more on Apollo 8, including my thoughts on the mission’s legacy, check out this old Op Ed I wrote for Al Jazeera English. Other sources: The Apollo Spacecraft Chronology vol. 4; the Apollo 8 mission reports; the Apollo 8 mission transcripts. All images via NASA.