On 21 December 50 years ago, at 12:51 on the Greenwich meridian, a Saturn V missile started from the 39A ramp on the Cape Canaveral launch base. It was only the third launch of the largest missile ever built, and the first time it was used to bring a crew into space.
It was also the first time humans left to reach another heavenly body: Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders were going to the Moon.
Originally, the mission of Apollo 8 would have been to try the lunar module in Earth orbit, but the realization and the development of the LM were considerably delayed and the recent Soviet Zond missions seemed the prelude to an attempt by the USSR to launch a mission manned in a short time. These factors pushed NASA to try something more ambitious, and risky.
Apollo was still a new vehicle and had only done a manned flight – Apollo 7, commanded by the astronaut of onsernonian origin Wally Schirra – just over a month before. In January 1967 a fire during the ground tests of the capsule had caused the death of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee. The Saturn V missile had made only two unmanned flights aboard, and in the second there had been major problems of oscillation and structural stability, as well as reliability of the engines.
Without a lunar module, Apollo 8 could not attempt the moon landing but it was possible to get into orbit around the Moon, as long as all the onboard systems worked smoothly. Even so, there was a 50% chance that the crew would not survive the mission: two of the crucial maneuvers – the insertion in lunar orbit and the insertion in return trajectory – had to be performed by the astronauts during the passage behind the moon, beyond any possibility of contact with the Earth, and the engine of the service module had no redundancies. Moreover, an error in the operation or in the programming of the on-board computer, the AGC, could have caused Apollo 8 to crash on the lunar surface, to make it lose in space or to cause its destruction during the return to the atmosphere.
Instead, Apollo 8 and his crew reached the Moon on December 24, 1968, entered orbit around it and remained there for 20 hours. During this period Bill Anders took a photo of the Earth and the lunar surface seen from the orbit known as the Earthrise, one of the most important images in the history of photography not only for the historical occasion and for where it was taken, but for the strong contrast between the small blue globe full of life and the barren lunar surface. During the ninth orbit Anders, Lovell and Borman read the beginning of the Book of Genesis in turn and sent Christmas greetings to all peoples “on the good earth”.
On December 25, Apollo 8 began the return journey, which ended with the ditching in the North Pacific two days later. Borman, Lovell and Anders had become the first men to leave Earth, to cross the Van Allen belts and reach another world. Along the way they were able to experience the “space sickness” (especially Borman) and acquire the experience that would have been indispensable for future lunar missions.
There is an important “feminine touch” to remember when talking about Apollo 8 and the other lunar missions: the AGC program – the on-board computer responsible for navigation and the maneuvers of the command module as of the lunar module – came made under the direction of a woman, Margaret Heafield-Hamilton, who created the term software engineering in an era where programming was not yet seen as a separate discipline from hardware development.
Borman and Anders no longer flew in space. Lovell would have had to go to the moon with Apollo 13, but the mission was interrupted by the explosion of an oxygen tank in the service module. The story was told by Ron Howard’s film Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks as James Lovell.
Fifty years after the journey of Apollo 8, Earthrise continues to be one of the most important photos ever taken and the symbol of a new awareness of the fragility of the Earth and its environment, and the most important photo of an environmental character. As author Bill Anders put it, “we have come this far to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we have discovered the Earth.”
Article written by David Cuciz
“We have come this far to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we have discovered the Earth”. Bill Anders