Apollo 8: First Around the Moon
The Apollo 8 astronauts broadcast never-before views of the Earth and moon on December 24, 1968.
Credit: NASA

Apollo 8, the second manned mission of the Apollo program, took astronauts farther than anyone had gone before and showed humanity just how small and special our planet is. During their seven-day flight in December 1968, the crew became the first people to orbit another world. Awed by the sight of Earth rising over the moon's horizon, they took one of the most iconic photographs in history.

This historic mission happened through a relatively last-minute decision on the part of NASA management. Initial plans were to test the lunar and command module components of the Apollo spacecraft first before striking out for the moon. But NASA management heard rumors that the Russians were planning a crewed mission to lunar orbit.

After consultation with engineers and the astronauts, NASA did a risky do-se-do and decided to send the Apollo 8 command module alone around the moon, without a lunar module backup if something were to go wrong.

Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and Frank Borman, crew of Apollo 8.
Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and Frank Borman, crew of Apollo 8.
Credit: NASA

The astronauts

Spacecraft commander Frank Borman and crew member Jim Lovell were also crewmates on the Gemini 7 endurance mission. They spent nearly 14 days living together in a spacecraft about as big as a phone booth. Borman had also distinguished himself by serving on a review board investigating the Apollo 1 fatal fire in 1967.

Bill Anders was a former fighter pilot in the Air Force. He had not flown in space before, but served as a backup crew member for Gemini 11.

Across the Atlantic, and the lunar gulf

The night before launch, aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh paid a visit to the Apollo 8 crew. "Lucky Lindy" became the first man to solo the Atlantic41 years before. When chatting with the astronauts, Lindbergh asked how much fuel they would need to get into space. When told the rocket would consume 20 tons a second, Lindbergh smiled and said, "In the first second of your flight tomorrow, you'll burn 10 times more fuel than I did all the way to Paris."

Apollo 8's own journey across the Atlantic took only minutes after the launch on Dec. 21. They were the first astronauts to launch atop the Saturn V rocket. After settling into orbit around Earth, the crew did their final checks and received the "go" from NASA to do trans-lunar injection. This meant they were clear to fire their engines and point for the moon. [Video: Leap to Lunar Orbit]

Just 18 hours after launch, Apollo 8 experienced a major problem: its commander got sick, vomiting and also experiencing diarrhea. Borman felt better after getting some sleep, but as a precaution the crew radioed his predicament to Earth on a private channel.

It took a few hours before NASA heard what had happened, as it was difficult for the crew to alert officials to listen without tipping off the public. But when the agency did, it was much concerned. Flight surgeon Chuck Berry consulted with Borman and senior NASA management to determine if the mission should be altered to bring the astronauts back home as quickly as possible. But after hearing Borman was better, they cautiously gave the thumbs-up to continue.

Christmas Eve at the moon

Placing the Apollo spacecraft in orbit was not an easy task, and compounding the difficulty, the engine "burn" to put it in the right spot had to happen while the spacecraft was out of contact with Earth, on the far side of the moon. But they made it.

The astronauts stared at awe at the landscape below. (At least, Lovell and Anders did, while Borman was reportedly more concerned about setting themselves up to head home.) But one thing that did take them all by surprise was the majesty of the Earth rising above the moon.

Anders decided to take an unscheduled photo op. The resulting Earthrise photo, showing our delicate planet surrounded by blackness, is credited as a major impetus for the environmental movement.

On Christmas Eve, the crew had the chance to share their impressions with others via a public broadcast. Borman called the moon a "vast, lonely, forbidding type of existence," while Lovell paid tribute to the Earth's "grand ovation to the vastness of space." Then the crew read Genesis, reciting the Biblical story of how Earth came to be:

All that was left now was to come home. Mission controllers waited anxiously Christmas morning as the crew turned their engine on again on the far side of the moon.

As they re-emerged, Lovell called out, "Please be informed there is a Santa Claus," signalling they were headed back to Earth. The crew landed successfully Dec. 28.

It was a risk to bring Apollo 8 so far so fast, but the audaciousness of NASA captured the world's attention.

The success of the mission showed the world it was possible to bring people to the moon. Now, NASA just had to figure out how to help astronauts to the surface.