Round the Moon and Back: Historic Journey of Apollo 8 to the Moon (Part I)

The decade of 1960 was incredible for space exploration. Many remarkable events happened in those 10 years. If not the final frontier, space was the next big frontier. USA and the former USSR went head to head to try and become a front-runner in space. The Apollo 8 mission launched by NASA 48 years ago, on December 21, to orbit the moon put the US in the front foot in this space race. Let us take a closer look at this Apollo 8 mission.


On April 21, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space. USA, with the fear of being left behind in the space race, responded immediately to the Soviet’s move on May 5 the same year by sending its first manned flight to space.

The-then US president John F. Kennedy wanted American superiority over USSR and the world in the field of space exploration and missile defense. And he knew USA was a long way behind the Soviets during that time. So, to narrow this gap, president Kennedy, on May 25, 1961, proposed a manned moon mission within a decade. He wanted USA to be the first country to land man successfully on moon and return him safely to the earth.

“… I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

– President John F. Kennedy


President Kennedy giving historic speech to congress

At the time of the proposal of this project, only one American, Alan Shepard, had flown in space just 20 days earlier. So, this was a very ambitious project. It would require a lot of financial and human resource. But president Kennedy was prepared to give NASA whatever it took. Thus, the Apollo space mission took shape.

Abe Silverstein, the NASA manager, gave the Apollo mission its name in early 1960. Apollo is the Greek God of music, poetry, art, oracles, archery, plague, medicine, sun, light and knowledge.

The beginning

The predecessors of the Apollo mission—Mercury and Gemini missions—were a huge success. There were a total of sixteen successful liftoffs and sixteen successful splashdowns. So the expectations from the Apollo mission were very high.

But the beginning of the Apollo mission was not good at all. The first Apollo mission (Apollo 1) was never flown. The Apollo 1 spacecraft which was supposed to carry astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee to space and bring them back safely, exploded before the launch. Its three crew members died in the explosion inside the spacecraft.

This was a huge setback for NASA in its goal to put man on moon by 1970. NASA did not fly the Apollo 2 and 3 missions in respect to the deceased astronauts.

Apollo 8 or Apollo 9?

After the Apollo 1 fire, NASA did not do a manned spaceflight for nearly a year. However, there were unmanned flights of Apollo 4, 5 and 6. Then came the manned spaceflight of Apollo 7. It was also a fairly successful mission. Astronauts Wally Schirra, Walt Cunningham and Donn Eisele landed safely back on earth.

After the success of its subsequent missions, NASA wanted the Apollo 8 mission to test the Command/Service Module (CSM) and Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). A CSM is a spacecraft that astronauts would use to enter the Earth. And an LEM is a spacecraft that astronauts would use to descend to the moon and again ascend back to the moon’s orbit. CSM and LEM together was called Apollo spacecraft.

According to NASA’s plans, a rocket would take the CSM and LEM to the moon’s orbit. Then the LEM would separate from the CSM and land man on the lunar surface. The CSM would be orbiting the moon. When it was time to fly back to the earth, the LEM would ascend back to the orbit where it would dock on the CSM and the CSM would eventually carry the astronauts back to the earth safely. This mode is called Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOP).


Apollo 8 mission profile | Image credit: NASA

Apollo 8 was planned to be launched on December 21, 1968. It was planned to be a CSM/LEM mission, i.e. Apollo 8 mission would test the CSM and LEM. But the lunar module was not ready in time. NASA had two options here. One, wait for the lunar module to be ready and then launch Apollo 8 mission. The other option was to reassign Apollo 8 to orbit the earth just like Apollo 7 and make Apollo 9 the CSM/LEM mission.

Coincidentally, the USSR had sent two tortoises, mealworms, wine flies, and other lifeforms around the moon on September 15, 1968 aboard its Zond 5 spacecraft. One more unmanned Zond 6 flight and USSR would put a cosmonaut on Zond 7 to head for the moon.

On November 10 that year, USSR launched Zond 6, an unmanned spacecraft that would swing around the dark side of the moon and fly back to the earth. Everything was going just as planned until Zond 6 crash landed in Kazakhstan.

Despite this setback for the Soviets, CIA strongly believed that the USSR would repeat this feat with humans before the end of the year. So with the two options in hand, NASA administrator George Low proposed a third option: launch Apollo 8 without the lunar module on its slated date and take it to the moon’s orbit.


The crew of Apollo 9 had nine months to prepare for their mission. The crew consisted of Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders. Borman and Lovell were the veterans of the Gemini mission. They had flown together in the Gemini 7 for 336 hours. William Anders was a rookie from third astronaut class. He was an expert in LSM. He knew LSM better than the people who had designed it.

Apollo 8 Crew

Apollo 8 crew is photographed posing on a Kennedy Space Center (KSC) simulator in their space suits. From left to right are: James Lovell, William Anders, and Frank Borman
Image credit: Space Frontiers/Getty Images

One afternoon when they were training for their Apollo 9 mission, Borman received a call from NASA that they had been reassigned to Apollo 8 and they would fly to the Moon—the first time for any man. But the preparation period was very short, sixteen weeks. Borman and his crew quickly agreed to take the mission.

The backup crew included Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Fred Haise.


So after just sixteen weeks of preparations, the Apollo 8 mission was launched from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on a massive Saturn V rocket. Borman, Lovell and Anders became the first humans to go beyond the gravitational field of the Earth.

But just about one hour after the launch, there was a problem. Commander Borman started to feel queasy. The doctors on the ground studied his symptoms and suspected two things—radiation poisoning from the Van Helens belt or even worse, a virus. They immediately advised Borman to cancel the flight and return home. Borman, on the other hand, thought that his body was taking some time to acclimatize to the zero g environment. He quickly dismissed the idea. And he was right. It was over in about an hour and half. That was a big relief for the ground control center. Later in interviews, Borman said he was not sick enough to jeopardize the mission.

After two hours and fifty-six minutes of flight, the crew performed the trans-lunar injection (TLI), a procedure that put the spacecraft on its way to the moon. moon’s gravity would capture the spacecraft one it reached its sphere of influence. The crew then cut-off the third stage of the Saturn V rocket.

Just after that, they saw something that no man had ever seen—the earth as a whole. Sure, the astronauts and cosmonauts had seen the earth form space. But it was only the vastness of the earth stretched across their window. This was different. The crew saw the earth as a round ball floating in the darkness. Anders quickly took some photographs of this historic moment. Then they quietly headed for the moon.

Meeting an Astronaut

The lady proudly announced the name Vladimir Dzhanibekov. A tall, bald but well-built man, may be in his late sixties, climbed up the stairs and reached the dais. There was a huge applause from the crowd. I was quite surprised because I had thought the man would be younger, in his fifties may be. He sat on a chair quietly. I was waiting when he would come up to the microphone and start his talk. After a brief formal session, there he was, the man himself, Vladimir Dzhanibekov.

Earlier today in my college, I was told that a Russian cosmonaut would be delivering a talk at the Russian Center of Science and Culture today. I had read about many astronauts but never had a chance to meet one in person. I have always been amazed by space,  space ships and space explorations. This may be the effect of Star Wars, Star Trek many other sc-fi movies (I know I watch a lot of movies!). I immediately cancelled all my plans for the day and headed to the venue where the program would be held. How could I miss this opportunity of meeting an astronaut in person?!

And there was the man of the moment, twice Hero of the Soviet Union (1978 & 1981), Vladimir Dzhanibekov. I held my nerves when he came up to the podium and started to speak. Damn, he spoke Russian! Everyone in the audience looked perplexed (including me). A few moments later, a Nepali guy translated his words, in Nepali of course. The crowd was relieved. I took out my diary and a pen and scribbled a few notes as he spoke.

Dzhanibekov in 1974

Dzhanibekov in 1974

Vladimir Dzhanibekov was born on May 13, 1942 in the middle of the Second World War. He had always been interested in flying. In 1965, he  became a flying instructor in the Soviet Air Force. In 1970, he was selected in the team of cosmonauts. He made five flights,  Soyuz 27, Soyuz 39, Soyuz T-6, Soyuz T-12 and Soyuz T-13. All in all, he stayed 145 days, 15 hours and 56 minutes in space over this five years.

Dzhanibekov started by talking about zero gravity in space, its usefulness and its danger for humans. He talked about the sixteen sunrises he observed each day from the space, about the oceans and high Himalayas on the Earth. At one point he joked that he saw so much water in the Earth that sometimes he wondered why the Earth was called Earth instead of Ocean. He said that he could spot Nepal from up in the space because of the snow-clad high Himalayas. A loud applause greeted his comment. This was a proud moment for me as a Nepali. Technically, Nepal is the nearest country from the space because of Mt. Everest. A friend sitting next to me said, “Now I understand why Mt. Everest is called the Roof of the World.”  I just smiled at him.

In the later part of his talk, Dzhanibekov said something that went straight to my heart. He said, “From the space, we did not see the borders of any country, we only saw one Earth, our home. But when we got back, we could see people divided by land, by race, by language, trying to destroy one another. The sight was very disheartening. We have only one home and that is the Earth  We should all work together to protect the planet for the betterment of humanity.”

This day changed my perception about astronauts and space exploration. I came to know that astronauts too are humans. They do not have any super power but they are the real heroes who risk their lives for the success for the mission to explore the unexplored arenas of the cosmos. Meeting Dzhanibekov made me realize that any one can be an astronaut, the only thing you need is the desire to be one.

(This post is from my personal diary dated April 11, 2013, Thursday.)

Name that Asteroid Contest !

You might have named a child many times. But have you ever wanted to name a planet or a star or even an asteroid?

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will fly to an asteroid in 2016 and return to the Earth in 2023 with sample (at least 60 grams) to Earth. The asteroid is called 1999 RQ36 at present. And The Planetary SocietyMIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and University of Arizona are asking students all around the world to suggest better name this asteroid.

OSIRIS-REx spacecraft at asteroid 1999 RQ36.

The contest is open to kids under the age of 18.  To enter, parents or teachers must fill out an online entry form with the proposed name and a short explanation of why that name is a good choice.

Asteroids can’t just be named anything. The International Astronomical Union governs the naming of big and small objects in the solar system and they have guidelines for naming astronomical objects. Here are the guidelines for naming 1999 RQ36:

  • no more than 16 characters long (including any spaces or punctuation);
  • preferably one word;
  • pronounceable (in some language);
  • written using Latin characters (transliterations of names from languages not written using Latin characters are acceptable);
  • non-offensive;
  • not identical with or even too similar to an existing name of a minor planet or natural planetary satellite.

Simulated asteroid image – topography overlaid on radar imagery of 1999 RQ36.

Enter the competition by December 2, 2012 and get an opportunity to name a part of the solar system. Don’t miss it!

Countdown to the landing begins

The rover Curiosity will land on the surface of Mars in just over 25 minutes from now. Here’s an amazing video where you can see how see the way it will get down to the surface.

You can watch the live steam of the landing at IEEE Spectrum also offers an updated timeline of events. You can also follow the rover Curiosity @MarsCuriosity.

You can also join the Virtual Landing Party at Google+ Hangout.

Curiosity Land on Mars

The year 2012, so far, has been very lucky for the scientific community. There have been many remarkable events. First it was the Mars Opposition on March 4 when Mars was closest to the Earth at a distance of 62.6 million miles. Then it was the annular solar eclipse when the familiar disk of the sun turned into a ring of fire. And on July 4, CERN announced that they discovered a Higgs-like particle.

And now it’s NASA with the new that the its rover, Curiosity, launched in November 2011 is all set to land on the surface of Mars on 1:31 a.m. EDT, August 6, 2012.  Curiosity was designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes. In other words, its mission is to determine the planet’s “habitability.”

As Curiosity prepares to make its historic descent to the surface of Mars, the Earth’s inhabitants will be watching… and waiting.  Officially known as the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity is the largest and most sophisticated vehicle ever sent to explore the surface of another planet.  With a landing system specially developed to lower the 900 kg rover safely to the Martian surface, Curiosity will be on its own for seven minutes as it descends towards Mars.  There’s nothing controllers at JPL back on Earth can do but wait, and the rest of the world will watch and wait with them.

Once safely on Mars, with its 8-month journey through interplanetary space completed, Curiosity begins its mission of exploration and discovery.  It’s a moment for all of Earth to celebrate as this extension of the human spirit of exploration looks out on unknown Martian vistas.

Here you can watch an artist’s depiction of the key events of NASA’s Mars Science Labarotory.

Articles,  images, videos and more can be found in the special section of MSL section of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) website.

You can also join the Virtual Landing Party at Google+ Hangout.