Apollo 8

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Podcast Transcript

On December 21, 1968, a Saturn V rocket was launched from Florida that did something that had never been done before. It took three men outside of the orbit of the Earth. 

They didn’t just leave the Earth’s orbit; they orbited the moon, and while they were in the orbit of the moon, they sent a message to Earth, which was the most widely listened to broadcast in human history up to that point. 

Learn more about the Apollo 8 mission and how it changed history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

On May 25, 1961, before a joint session of Congress, President John Kennedy publicly set a goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth. 

However, it wasn’t just a goal, it was a goal with a time limit. Kenney set a goal of achieving a moon landing before the decade was out. 

Landing someone on the moon was far from a guaranteed thing. It involved a whole host of technologies and procedures that had never been done before. 

No one had ever landed on a body other than Earth, no one had ever been launched from a body other than Earth, and no one had ever lived for even a limited amount of time outside of the safety of the Earth’s magnetic field.

Things went moving ahead at a solid pace. The Gemini program tested things like spacewalking, orbital rendezvous, and extended space flights. 

With the end of the Gemini program, the Apollo program started, which was to be the program that actually landed a man on the moon. 

The first flight of the Apollo program was scheduled to be Apollo 1. The plan was to launch Apollo 1 on February 21, 1967—however, a fire during a launch rehearsal killed all three of the Apollo 1 astronauts on January 27. 

The Apollo 1 fire was a devastating blow to the Apollo program. They had to go back to the drawing board to reevaluate almost everything. 

The entire launch schedule was pushed back almost 18 months, and the first crewed Apollo mission didn’t take place until Apollo 7 in October 1968. 

Apollo 7 was a test of the command and service modules in Earth orbit. It went well, but time was running out. There was a little more than a year left to achieve President Kennedy’s goal. 

Apollo 8 was originally intended to be a test of the lunar module in Earth orbit in December. However, the development of the lunar module was delayed. Apollo 8 wasn’t going to be able to test the lunar module in that time frame. 

So, the decision was made by George Low, the Manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, and other NASA officials to switch around the order of the flights and consolidate some of the missions. 

Instead of testing the lunar module in Earth orbit, Apollo 8 was now going to go directly to the moon, orbit the moon several times, and then return to Earth. 

Not only would it be a major publicity coup for the American space program, being able to claim that they beat the Soviets in orbiting the moon, but they would also get to test many important systems required for lunar flight. 

The crew for the mission was commander Frank Borman, command module pilot James Lovell, and lunar module pilot William Anders. Every Apollo mission had a lunar modular pilot assigned as a role, even though, in this case, there was no lunar module. 

Michael Collins, who would later go on to fly on Apollo 11, was originally scheduled to be the command module pilot, but he was changed when he had to undergo surgery for a herniated disc in his back.

The backup crew for the mission consisted of Neil A. Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Fred Haise.

At the time, NASA didn’t allow the crew to name their spacecraft, a policy they later changed. However, the crew indicated that if they could have named their spacecraft, they would have named it Columbiad, named afte the cannon in Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon that shoots the spacecraft to the moon. 

The huge Saturn V rocket was launched at 12:51:00 UTC or 07:51 am Eastern Standard Time on December 21, 1968. 

The command and service modules went into Earth orbit and remained there for about two and a half hours checking systems. Once they confirmed that everything was okay, they received the command to conduct the first trans-lunar injection.

The trans lunar injection was a burn of the Saturn V stage 3 rocket for about five minutes, which accelerated the spacecraft from 7,600 to 10,800 meters per second, enough to send it to the moon. 

They separated from the third stage, practiced maneuvering it, and positioned the command and service modules to look back at Earth. 

Once they got far enough away, they were able to see something that no human beings had ever seen before. The entire Earth at once. 

Once the trans-lunar injection was over, there was little to do as the momentum took them to the moon.

During the cruise phase, they did a live television broadcast, showing people the inside of the spacecraft. 

55 hours and 40 minutes into the flight, Apollo 8 crossed a point where the gravitational pull of the moon was greater than that of the Earth.

After 64 hours, they burned the engines of the service module for a Lunar Orbit Insertion. This slowed the spacecraft down so it could enter into lunar orbit.

Being the first humans ever to have an upfront view of the moon, they began sending back descriptions of the surface and taking observations of future landing sites. 

As they went around the moon, they once again did something no one else had ever done. They flew around the far side of the moon. While they were on the other side of the moon, they had no radio communication with the Earth. 

Up until this point, the mission was certainly groundbreaking, but it wasn’t anything that was worthy of a podcast episode. However, two things happened while Apollo 8 was in orbit around the moon, which made the mission truly historic. 

The first was what they saw when they came out from behind the far side of the moon. As they rounded the moon, they saw the Earth come up over the Lunar horizon. They saw the first-ever Earthrise. It was Christmas Eve. 

Earthrise is something you can only see from the orbit of the moon. The surface of the moon is tidally locked such that the same side always faces the Earth, so you’d never experience the Earth coming over the horizon like you would see the Moon or Sun coming over the horizon of the Earth. 

While the astronauts were observing the Earthrise, Bill Anders took a color camera and took a photo of the Earth over the surface of the moon. 

That photo, known as Earthrise, is one of the most famous photos in the history of space exploration. Life Magazine named it one of the 100 photographs that changed the world in the 20th century. 

If you are listening to this episode on a podcast player that supports episode art, which most major ones do, the cover for this episode is the Earthrise photo. 

Earthrise has been on postage stamps and was referenced in Joni Mitchell’s 1976 song “Refuge of the Roads.”

The other thing the Apollo 8 crew did that day was a live television broadcast. There were a total of six broadcasts conducted during the entire mission, but the fourth broadcast was the most important.

It took place on Christmas Eve from 9:30 to 10 p.m. EST, right in the middle of Prime Time television in the United States. Moreover, the transmission was rebroadcasted, both live and recorded, all around the world. It has been estimated that a billion people heard the Apollo 8 transmission, which represented a quarter of the population of the planet at the time.

It was the most widely heard broadcast in human history at that point in time. 

The astronauts were given the freedom to say what they wanted. Their only instructions were to say something…..appropriate.

At first, the crew wanted to say something about peace on Earth, which seemed appropriate. However, with the Vietnam War raging while the mission was taking place, the crew felt it would end up sounding more like an apology for the war, so they scrapped that idea. 

Their next idea was to read a passage from the Bible to try and connect Christmas and the birth of Jesus. However, this wasn’t considered something that would play to a global audience. 

So, instead, they selected to read a passage from the Old Testament. In particular, the first several verses of the story of creation from the Book of Genesis. The script was written down on the flight manual and today is located at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

Not long after the broadcast, they made their trans-Earth injects to begin the flight back home. Prior to the trans-Earth injection, Jim Lovell told mission control, “Please be informed there is a Santa Claus.” 

It should also be noted that unbeknownst to the astronauts, the head of astronaut affairs at NASA, Deke Slayton, had hidden a turkey dinner in their meals, along with three tiny bottles of brandy. 

The commander, Frank Borman, ordered the crew not to drink them until they landed, but they never ended up drinking them or opening the bottles. One of the bottles sold at auction for $17,925.

The rest of the flight was rather mundane. It took two and a half days to return to Earth, and they managed to reenter the atmosphere and splash down without incident on December 27. 

I think Apollo 8 has become one of the most overlooked and underappreciated missions in the history of space flight. 

1968 was a horrible year in the United States. Not only was the Vietnam War going on, but it saw the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the Prague Spring. After they returned to Earth, Frank Borman received an anonymous telegram that simply said, “Thank you, Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”

In a year of turmoil and historic events, Time Magazine named the crew of Apollo 8 its People of the Year. 

The Earthrise photo was, in a very real and direct sense, the inspiration for the first Earth Day in 1970. 

Many space historians place Apollo 8 as the most historically significant mission of the Apollo program, not Apollo 11. 

Michael Collins, one of the crew members on Apollo 11, stated that “Eight’s momentous historic significance was foremost.”

As for the Apollo 8 crew, their careers took different paths. 

Frank Borman never flew in space again. He later became the CEO of Eastern Airlines from 1975 to 1986. He passed away on November 7, 2023, at the age of 95, at his home in Montana. 

Jim Lovell was the commander of the Apollo 13 mission, which failed to land on the moon. He became the first person to fly to the moon twice. He is currently retired and is still around at the age of 95.

Apollo 8 was Bill Anders’ only space flight. He later went on to work in several government agencies, including the Atomic Energy Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He served as a vice president at General Electric and as the ambassador to Norway.  He is also currently retired at the age of 90.

While they never landed on the moon, and subsequent missions overshadowed it, Apollo 8 remains one of the most important and historic space flights in history. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.

Today’s review comes from listener TeDiouS Boy, over on Apple Podcasts in the United States They write…

Clear, concise, correct

As a PhD physicist, I pay particular attention to the science episodes and am happy to report that Gary pretty much nails it every time. This gives me confidence in his research skills and the accuracy of the information he presents on other topics. Perfect show, no notes.

Thanks, TeDiouS Boy,! It is always good to have the seal of approval from another Ph.D. I don’t know if the show is perfect, but I do try to do my best.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.