50th Anniversary of Apollo 8

This Friday, December 21, is the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 8, the first manned space flight to orbit the moon.

From the AP:

Everybody makes a big deal about Apollo 11, and quite reasonably so, but this was the Apollo mission that amazed me at the time, and is still the one that stands out as the breakthrough, in my recollection.

Up until then, our manned space program - and the Russians’ - had both been limited to low Earth orbit, a hundred or so miles above the Earth. And now we were going a quarter of a million miles away, all the way to the moon and back.

On Christmas Eve, I think I’ll read the beginning of Genesis to my wife and son. And remember. :slight_smile:

Wouldn’t it drive you crazy to go all the way to the Moon and not land?

Kind of like going to Disneyworld from Alaska and just circling the parking lot.

… if there are no roads to Disneyworld, and you had never driven a car before, cars had just been invented four months ago, stopping at Disneyworld might kill you, and your entire goal is to prove that the car works.

The goal was never to land on the moon. The goal was to prove it was possible to go to the moon with their technology, under an absolutely insane time constraint. Actually building things like the landing module would have added years to the effort.

Or the Apollo 10 astronauts, just 8 miles from the surface and this time with a lunar lander. Supposedly they had just enough fuel to land and ascend, but not within safety margins. They probably would have been given a stern talking-to if and when they returned.

I don’t recall which book I read that described the entire mission as “what the hell, it might fail, but we’ve got a timeline to keep” along with the publicity it would attract. Personally (I was 10 at the time) I thought it was very exciting. The Apollo 8 patch is both graphically pleasing and very simple. When I got some mail with the commemorative stamp it was a nice souvenir.

Maybe now it would. But in their case, it was so far beyond where any human being had ever been before.

I have to think it would have been extremely frustrating to be one of the Apollo 10 astronauts, though. To be within a few miles of the Moon’s surface, and not be allowed to land.

Not to mention, the landing is the only thing Apollo 11 does that Apollo 10 doesn’t, and they get all the glory, while only hard-core space junkies remember who was on Apollo 10.

Apollo 8 gave us one of the most iconic early images of manned space exploration: Earthrise.

I shall play Public Service Broadcasting The Other Side loudly to commemorate them

Sometimes I wonder if they needed the Saturn 5 just to get those guys’ giant brass balls into orbit…

I know Apollo 11 gets all the attention, but 8 is the mission to me. These were the first humans to ever be someplace where they could not see the Earth. That moves me greatly.

Indeed - for the first time, out of the cradle and cut off from Earth.

And Apollo 8 originally was supposed to be the LEO flight-docking test of the LM, but they could not have the whole thing ready in time for a 1968 test. And the USSR had by then done a circumlunar-and-return flight with a Zond probe, basically an unmanned Soyuz vehicle, raising concern about a “first around” stunt shot.

So the missions were flipped in sequence and the profile was changed. For the best.

Why was it so risky? I’ve seen this comment a few times, but no-one’s really gone into the details.

Mostly, it has to do with trying to cram everything into a very tight timeframe. A few points:

The Apollo 1 mission was intended to be a test of the command and service module in low earth orbit. Before they even made it to the launch, all three crewmembers died in a tragic fire. So everyone from NASA to Congress was really doing some soul-searching about whether the risks were worth it and how they could best continue.

On top of that, the lunar module was also plagued with all manner of design and production problems, and it was disrupting the entire timeline. NASA decided that the best idea was to send a mission without the lunar module, just to see if we could make it around the moon. Apollo 8 was another low-earth orbital test of the C&S module, and at the last second they decided to turn a low-orbit mission into a real to a trip to the moon. So a process that normally took 12-18 months had to be compressed into 4 months.

Author Robert Kurson put it this way: “Planned, trained for, and executed in four months time… There were all kinds of other risks and the idea that we weren’t ready to do it yet. NASA had to build software very quickly and calculate the trajectories. Everything had to be rushed and compressed into this very tiny timeframe.”

On top of this, the first unmanned launch of the Saturn V rocket went okay but the second unmanned launch (Apollo 6) was practically a disaster. I suppose it was good in the sense that it revealed the malfunctions, but there were no intermediate launches to make sure the bugs were worked out. So launch number two was a colossal mess, and launch number three had live human beings strapped to it on a trip to the moon. (Apollo 7 was a low earth orbit test of the command and service modules, but did not use the Saturn V rocket.)

Recall also: There was no lunar module on Apollo 8. This meant that (A) the crew had no backup engine by which they might propel themselves out of the moon’s orbit if the first engine failed, and (B) the crew had no backup cabin they could retreat to, as they did in Apollo 13. It was one of those times literally everything had to go right on the first try, while simultaneously planning and building everything in a rush.

I recall one of the Apollo 11 crew (I think it was Neil Armstrong) made a remark -and I’m paraphrasing here - where he pointed out: Almost everything Apollo 11 did had been done before. Apollo 8 orbited the moon. Apollo 9 tested the C&S module and the lunar module together. Apollo 10 orbited the moon, detached the lunar module, and descended to a lower lunar orbit. The only thing Apollo 10 did not do was actually land on the moon. So by the time Apollo 11 came along, most of these things had already been tried and tested and cleared. The Apollo 11 crew actually thought Apollo 8 was the riskier mission, because Apollo 8 did not have those same advantages.

Like he said –

  1. The early Apollos were true “test pilot” exercises, having an actual crew doing basic systems testing on first flight of the given hardware. This was the first man-carrying launch of a Saturn V (always a clenching proposition) and only the second crewed flight of the remodeled CSM. The public did not know it yet, but apparently several unmanned tests, after the fire and before Apollo 7, had been inconclusive about several systems and procedures. So someone had to go up and test it in person.

  2. First circumlunar-and-return run being at the same time first manned - unlike of the prior missions where first run was unmanned to see if it even would work (see: Zond)

  3. First flight where if something went wrong in the Service/Systems module you could not, as you would in LEO, ditch and go for emergency balistic reentry.

  4. This in a mission profile with a multiplication of situations in which you could end up with the vehicle fired into a trajectory that loses it in the void or leaves it stranded in lunar orbit or slams it like a shot into Earth.

Fascinating. Thanks for the explanations. I had always assumed it was just part of the natural progression of the program.

Yes, thank you for the explanations.

I’;; bet now the astronauts wouldn’t be allowed to read out a religious text like that, and wish everyone Merry Christmas. But if they didn’t care about what happened when(if) they got back, then what could NASA do?

I was almost fourteen when this mission happened, I recall it nearly as well as Apollo 11.

Madelyn Murray O’Hare raised a stink about it, as I recall, but there’s not much disciplinary power that you can exercise over guys orbiting the Moon.

Slightly malapropos, but English band Public Service Broadcasting’s Race For Space is pretty much essential listening: it’s a post-rock concept album based on American and Russian broadcast recordings from the period, and it’s mesmerising. Listen with the Youtube visuals if you can.

Apollo 8 even gets its own track, “The Other Side”. It uses recorded NASA mission broadcasts, and even 50 years later when you know the outcome, it’s still gripping.

As mentioned in post #7 :slight_smile:

Apollo17.org is very cool if you want to experience the last moon landing in real time.