The Apollo space program has long been celebrated for having put the first humans on the surface of the moon. But as it was unfolding, there was no guarantee of success. In 1968, in fact, time was running short on President Kennedy's bold bid to accomplish that mission by the end of the decade. In December of that year, while work continued on the lunar module that would eventually land on the moon, Apollo 8 was sent aloft to fly an interim mission to orbit the moon--and for the first time, carry humans beyond Earth's orbit.
Pictured here, from left to right, are the Apollo 8 crew: William Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman.
As countdown nears the appointed lift-off hour, the Apollo 8 astronauts leave the Spacecraft Operations Building. Borman and Lovell had already flown more hours than any other astronauts, while Anders was making his first flight, according to NASA.
Lift-off of the 363-foot-tall, 6.2-million-pound Saturn V, whose five first-stage engines had a combined thrust of 7.5 million pounds, took place on December 21, 1968.
"They no sooner lift this thing off than I realize that we had missed one major part of the simulation--the sideways vibration of those big, huge 1.5-million-pound-thrust-each engines, gimbaling around, trying to keep this thing straight," Anders said in a recent reminiscence, included in NASA's commemoration of the event. "The center of gravity was way down here, we were up here like a ladybug on the end of your automobile antenna."
Apollo 8 circled the moon 10 times during its stay in lunar orbit--about 60 miles above the surface--between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. The astronauts described the moon as vast, lonely, and forbidding, and overwhelmingly gray, rather like plaster of Paris.
A spacecraft, especially one from the early days of the Space Age, is no place for the claustrophobic. This still image of flight commander Borman, like the previous image of Lovell, is from film taken by a 16mm movie camera.
The menu for the Apollo 8 mission featured classic fare, in manageable proportions, from pea soup and pot roast to sugar cookies and a certain orange drink--Tang, anyone? (This is from NASA's December 15 press release (PDF), issued a week before lift-off.)