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Apollo 8

David Woods follows the trail of the first men who went to the Moon – not to land, but simply to see if humans could get there and back again in one piece. Their rushed mission, inspired by a Cold War-fuelled will to outdo the Russians, was a glimmer of light in the dark

FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON

The most famous image from the mission was this one – Earthrise– revealing both our planet’s isolation and its fragility
NASA

T’was the night before Christmas in 1968, the end of a traumatic year for the US that had borne witness to political assassinations, student riots and war in the Far East. But, 400,000km away a tiny American spaceship was orbiting the Moon. The cramped cabin of Apollo 8 was occupied by three astronauts who had travelled more than 250 times farther from Earth than any human had before.

After three full orbits, as they appeared from behind the Moon, commander Frank Borman rolled the spacecraft around. It was then that lunar module pilot Bill Anders unexpectedly caught sight of Earth rising from behind the lunar horizon. “Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there!” he exclaimed in amazement. “Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow is that pretty!”

Earth looked like a colourful Christmas bauble of blues and browns, sprinkled with white, set against the black of space and the grey forbidding lunar landscape. Anders snapped a photograph with black and white film, though he knew it couldn’t capture the beauty of this exceptional sight.

He hustled command module pilot Jim Lovell. “You got a colour film, Jim? Hand me that roll of colour quick, would you.” One of the two pictures he then took was the first colour earthrise photograph taken by a human. It became one of the 20th century’s most iconic images, thought by many to be a catalyst for the environmental movement.

Apollo 8 had arrived six hours earlier. As it passed midway around the lunar far side, over mountain tops lit by a setting Sun, its main engine had fired, slowing sufficiently to remain in the Moon’s gravitational clutches. Apollo 8 had taken Borman, Anders and Lovell to where no men had gone before. They would make ten revolutions of this hostile, battered world before relighting their engine to come home. It was a moment that kept managers awake at night, because if it failed they would be stuck orbiting the Moon forever.

The command module formed half of the Apollo CSM – this was the part the crew were strapped in
NASA X5

DID YOU KNOW?

The transmission from one of Apollo 8’s orbits of the Moon on Christmas Eve was watched by an estimated half a billion people, around one-seventh of the world’s population at the time. The broadcast went on to win an Emmy.

MEN OF COURAGE

Apollo 8’s crew were all high-achieving military pilots. Borman was in charge: a straight-talking, hard-driving man. His first spaceflight was on Gemini 7 in late 1965. Just over a year later, in January 1967, he had suffered the loss of his closest friend, astronaut Ed White, when an oxygen-fed fire consumed the Apollo 1 cabin during a test. Borman testified before Congress on NASA’s push to recover from the setback. To him, Apollo was a battle in the Cold War against the Soviets and he brought a military mindset to his preparations. Borman’s hard edge was in contrast to friendly and gregarious Jim Lovell, the command module pilot. As a boy Lovell had dreamed of spaceflight and had kept faithful to this dream throughout his military and test pilot career. An easygoing man, he was the perfect foil to Borman, which helped when they spent two weeks sharing the cramped confines of Gemini 7. His role on Apollo 8 was as the ship’s navigator, sighting on the stars like a celestial mariner to guide the ship through space.

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About History Revealed

Fifty years ago, astronauts Frank Borman, Bill Anders and Jim Lovell became the first men to escape the clutches of Earth's gravity and journey to the Moon - and in doing so, stole a march on the Soviets in the Space Race. Discover how this mission, hatched amid setbacks and failures, and shaped by the wider tensions of the Cold War, gave the US something to hope for after the trauma of 1968. Plus: History's greatest coincidences, what happened to fallen French emperor Napoleon after the Battle of Waterloo, the value of Britain's battlefields, why King James VI and I was obsessed with witch hunting, and more.