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
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 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 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.
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.