In Part 1, we used Robert Kurson’s book ROCKET MEN (Random House 2018) as a reference to examine how NASA stepped away from their normally cautious process of training crews for space missions over an 18 month period. The idea was to keep ahead of the Russians in the Space Race when intelligence reports pointed to the Soviets making an all out effort to send a manned flight to the Moon before the United States. With this bit of news from the CIA in hand (that the Russians were indeed planning a manned lunar orbiting mission by the end of 1968), NASA shuffled their next four Apollo missions and shortened the mission training schedule to four months in order to send Apollo 8 on their own lunar orbiting flight before the Russians. It was a calculated risk born of necessity as the Lunar Excursion Module (or LEM) needed for the actual Moon landing wasn’t ready. It was a case of wait, or shuffle the test flight schedule to buy time while the work on the LEM continued. The whirlwind of activity following the successful test flight of an unmanned Apollo 7 capsule in September of 1968 paved the way for the flight of Apollo 8. Neil Armstrong described Apollo 8 as “an enormously bold decision” on NASA’s part. In Part 2, we find the Apollo 8 crew lf Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders sitting on top of the 363 foot tall Saturn V rocket poised to be the first crew to ever launch a mission aboard a new spacecraft that had only flown two unmanned test flights.
Except for the shortened schedule, there had been nothing unusual about the training period up to the Apollo 8 launch. If there were any indications the crew was concerned about sitting on top of the largest manned rocket ever launched, they didn’t say it out loud. Having been deeply involved in redesigning the capsule after the tragic Apollo 1 fire that had claimed astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee, the Apollo 8 crew had confidence in their new bird. Kurson described the launch: “Apollo 8 strained to separate from Earth, explosions of smoke and fire channeled to the sides of the launchpad by a massive, wedge-shaped flame deflector designed to prevent the fire from rebounding up into the rocket. Four hold-down arms held the rocket in place, waiting for the Saturn V’s engines to attain the proper thrust. A fraction of a second later, these arms released to allow the rocket to ascend. Five swing arms, each weighing more than twenty tons, remained for a split second longer with their connections to the rocket intact. As the Saturn V began to rise, they, too, withdrew and the six-and-a-half-million-pound beast broke free from its bonds. A half inch off the pad, it was already too late for the rocket to settle back down if something went wrong. If there was any major failure now, Borman would have to twist the abort handle and allow the rocket-propelled escape tower at the top of the rocket to pull the capsule free and hurtle them out to sea. There was no failure.” Eleven minutes and twenty-five seconds later, they were orbiting the Earth at a speed of 17,425 mph. Two and a half hours later, (less than two full revolutions of the Earth), the crew reignited the third stage engine for the critical Translunar Injection (TLI) burn that would accelerate them to the 25,250 mph velocity needed to break free from Earth’s gravity.
Lovell was the first to unstrap his harness and float free during the equipment check orbit and immediately became nauseated. The larger Apollo capsule had more room to move about than capsule he had flown on the Gemini missions and he warned his crewmates to not move their heads until they acclimated. Snagging his Mae West life jacket, Lovell was irritated with himself when it inflated. They tied it down and decided to vent the CO2 in the vest through the waste dump port later so they would not overload the capsule’s environmental system with excess CO2. It took a little over three minutes for the J2 engine to get the craft up to speed and as soon as it shut down, gravity from the receding Earth began to slow it down. The capsule would keep slowing down until it reached the point where the Earth and Lunar gravity held equal sway (called the LaGrange Point). There the Moon would take over and begin pulling Apollo 8 toward it, slowly increasing its velocity.
When the third stage that had pushed them out of Earth orbit was spent, it was jettisoned and Borman proceeded to turn the Command Service Module (CSM) around to practice the maneuver that would be used to extract the LEM from the spent third stage. With the simulated LEM extraction confirmed (the unfinished LEM was replaced by a tank of water to simulate its weight on this flight), the six-story third stage would follow the CSM away from the Earth at 20,000 mph. Unfortunately, the crew lost sight of the spent stage and endured an uncomfortable interlude knowing they were too close to it but weren’t at liberty to simply fire their engine to move away. Eventually, some feverish mathematical wrangling by the Mission Control team gave them the data needed to speed them up without radically altering their trajectory toward the Moon, thus removing them from harm’s way. With the barbeque mode programmed in (to slowly rotate the CSM to keep it from overheating on one side and freezing on the other), the crew settled in for the long coast to the Moon. Two hours after breaking orbit, the craft had already slowed from 24,000 mph to 9,450 mph. They would continue to slow until Apollo 8 was five-sixths of the way to the Moon.
All appeared to going well eleven hours in when Borman found himself becoming violently ill. He had taken a sleeping pill because he could not calm his mind enough to get any sleep. While he had never experienced any symptoms of motion sickness flying planes or spacecraft, he now felt a rising tide of nausea. “I’m sorry guys,” was the last thing Borman said before he launched zero-G blobs of vomit all over the capsule. In the small space capsule, the odor was overwhelming and Anders grabbed a gas mask and cranked up the oxygen flow to max flow. To make matters worse, Borman added diarrhea to the floating globs which Lovell and Anders were trying to dodge and collect. When the situation was somewhat under control, Anders thought that they needed to contact Houston right away. Borman gave him the short answer, “Absolutely not!” It wasn’t that Borman was embarrassed by his sudden illness. He was more concerned that the space agency’s medical director would “cancel the mission for the good of the crew.” As the commander, he felt that it was his call and although he was ill, he knew that he could manage the situation without endangering the crew. Lovell agreed with Borman. Anders still wasn’t sure, but as long as Borman was the commander, news of his illness would not be conveyed to Houston.
Twenty-four hours into the flight, they were halfway to the Moon but with Earth’s gravitational pull slowing them down, they were still forty-five hours away from lunar orbit. Borman felt a little better so they decided that he would make a tape recording of his symptoms that could be sent to Houston for their recommendations. Had they just radioed this information, the press would have heard all the gory details and the crew wasn’t about to give them that much information. Though furious that he had not reported the illness immediately, the mission directors understood the astronaut’s distrust of the medical wing of NASA. They concluded that Borman had come down with the Hong Kong flu that had been widespread in the U.S. He had probably contracted it when summoned to the White House for a last minute send off instead of staying in quarantine. Following this line of reasoning, the doctors prescribed an antidiarrhetic and a motion sickness pill designed to combat his nausea. What the crew didn’t hear improved the mood on board Apollo 8: the medical team had not suggested the mission should be aborted. The press was led to believe that Borman was indeed fighting motion sickness and that it was being treated.
Commander Borman had not wanted to do any live broadcasts during this historic mission, but he was overruled by NASA. Even though he disliked the idea of interrupting the NFL playoff games that would be in progress, 100,000 miles from the Moon, the Apollo 8 crew gave their TV audience its first peak at the Earth as they crew saw it. Unfortunately, those back on Earth saw four minutes of a test pattern, then a bright, featureless orb that could have been the sun. Clearly, adjustments would have to be made so Borman turned the camera toward the crew cabin. The astronauts demonstrated various feats of weightlessness and Lovell wished his 73 year old mother Blanche a ‘Happy Birthday’. Having informed their audience that they needed to get the ship back into barbecue mode (which had been stopped so they could keep their antenna pointed toward Earth during the broadcast), with a wave, they went off the air. When the flight hit the 55 hour and 38 minute mark, mission control confirmed that they had reached their lowest velocity of 2,200 mph at a distance of 202,700 miles from the Earth. Their velocity began to increase and everyone in mission control knew that for the first time, a manned spacecraft was not being dominated by the Earth’s gravity. They were literally ‘out of this world’.
To enter Lunar orbit, the SPS engine on the CSM would need to burn for about four minutes, enough to slow them down to the proper orbital speed. The critical burn would take place behind the Moon and no one on Earth would know if the maneuver worked until they popped out on the other side. Unlike Apollo 13 crew who would have the LEM engine for back up, Apollo 8’s only chance rested on their main CSM engine. Without a burn of the proper thrust and duration, they would either crash on to the Lunar surface or they would slingshot around the Moon. Should the latter occur, they might shoot off on the wrong trajectory and never make it home. It would be thirty-six minutes from the time the craft slipped behind the Moon to the point where they could regain radio contact with the Earth. NASA controllers took a twenty minute break because there was no telemetry coming in from Apollo 8 and nothing anyone on Earth could do for them as they passed behind the Moon.
“Apollo 8, Houston. Over.” “Apollo 8, Houston. Over.” “Apollo 8, Houston. Over.” Finally, Lovell answered the Capcom’s call; ‘Go ahead, Houston, Apollo 8. Over. Burn complete.” and with that, the crew at mission control erupted with cheers and applause as did the astronaut’s families who had been following the mission at home via NASA supplied ‘squawk boxes’.
The Apollo 8 crew checked their systems and began photographing the Lunar surface before they passed behind the Moon again to begin the second of their ten orbits. It was December 24th and at precisely 7:30 AM, they began another TV broadcast, only this time from Lunar orbit. They showed the folks back on Earth images of the Moon and described the landscape that seemed close enough to touch. Borman was worried that they hadn’t had much sleep, but with only twenty hours to spend in orbit, he figured they could keep working on adrenalin alone at this point.
Rounding the Moon’s eastern limb, they finally aligned the spacecraft so it was flying nose forward. Four minutes before regaining contact with the Earth, They witnessed the first Earthrise from Lunar orbit. When Anders saw it, he exclaimed, “Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there. Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!” and reached for his camera. Lovell barked, “Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.” With the craft rolling, the shot was lost but Lovell had a change of heart: “Hey, I’ve got it right here. You got it? Well, take several of them.”
The crew was overwhelmed with what they had just seen. The photo has since been reproduced on posters and a US Postage stamp and is still one of the most iconic space photos ever taken.
The best was yet to come. With planet Earth in turmoil for much of 1968, the crew closed their final Christmas Eve TV broadcast by showing the Earth framed by the darkness of space as they read from the Book of Genesis. It made some angry back on Earth, but it seemed a fitting way to end the Lunar leg of the Apollo 8 mission before they started their long journey home. It had been a tumultuous year on Earth, NASA had committed to their most ambitious mission, and the crew rightly surmised that the Earth could stand to hear a little Good News.
Top Piece Video: The astronauts on Apollo 8 took the first live photos of Earth from Lunar orbit – so Rush’s Earthshine seemed an appropriate tune to celebrate their iconic photo.