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Part 2: Apollo 8 – In the Beginning There Was Liftoff

In mid-August of 1968, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders received a call telling them to cancel their winter holiday plans — they were going to the Moon…

Part 1: To the Moon and Back – Apollo 8 and the Future of Lunar Exploration

Though some may romanticize the revolutionary 1960s, they were troubled times. The year 1968 was shaped by the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Bobby Kennedy, which fueled violent riots and antagonized already severe discord over the Vietnam War. At the advent of the television era, such conflicts played out in living rooms across the country.

Amidst this atmosphere — and surely not immune to the country’s troubling overtones — NASA engineers huddled in sequestered, cinder block buildings and strategized with abandon. They focused their collective efforts on the task readily at hand: responding to John F. Kennedy’s call, made seven years prior, to send Americans to the Moon and return them safely to Earth by the close of the decade.

NASA understood that such a trailblazing mission would not be a forgiving one. Failure was not an option. The astronauts and the NASA employees on the ground executed their jobs with focus and precision, with the cultural and historical impact of the mission yet to be felt.

As Saturn V stood magnificently on the launch pad, illuminated like a beacon in early morning Florida darkness, those in Mission Control Houston, the engineers at the assembly facility, and the astronauts and their families were counting on those monstrous engines to fly as truly as when tested. 

Apollo 8's Saturn V
Searchlights penetrate the darkness surrounding Apollo 8 on Pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center. This mission was the first manned flight using the Saturn V. The towering 363-foot Saturn V was a multi-stage, multi-engine launch vehicle standing taller than the Statue of Liberty. Altogether, the Saturn V engines produced as much power as 85 Hoover Dams. Credits: NASA/MSFC
illustration of 1960s human spaceflight rockets
This illustration compares the sizes of American space launch vehicles of the 1960s, set to scale with the Statue of Liberty. Each vehicle was used for crewed spaceflight launches, which means that humans sat atop each of these massive rockets and were launched upward through the atmosphere. The Saturn V, the farthest to the right and the largest of the bunch, is the launch vehicle that took Americans to the Moon. Credits: NASA

On Dec. 21, 1968, the Saturn V rocket was visible for miles from Cape Kennedy, now known as Cape Canaveral, in the center of Florida’s Atlantic coast. Thousands gathered on nearby sandy beaches to watch the historic event — the first time this powerful rocket would take humans beyond Earth’s orbit. Perched atop the 36-story-tall rocket filled to the brim with nearly 1 million pounds of fuel, astronauts William Anders and Frank Borman were strapping into their seats. As Command Module Pilot and Navigator, Jim Lovell was the last to enter the Apollo 8 spacecraft and took a moment of pause to look around him. He reflected on this moment in a 2013 interview with the National Air and Space Museum:

“Everyone else is a comfortable three and a half miles away … and my companions, they walk across the gantry [the bridge] to the spacecraft and so I’m left alone, fully suited up, breathing pure oxygen, and I look into the night and I see these lights from the press corps, I look down to the ground and I said … these people are really serious! We’re gonna go to the Moon!”

Just prior to 8 a.m., the Saturn V’s 7.6 million pounds of thrust pushed the crew up through the atmosphere. Anders later said he felt like “a ladybug at the end of your car antenna” in the 2013 interview.

The crew felt the crushing forces of 3.9g (like suddenly feeling 3.9 times your normal weight) as they embarked on a journey unlike any before, hoping to establish a new precedent of flight and human achievement that would stand for generations to come.

Apollo 8 launch
The launch of the Apollo 8 space vehicle from the Kennedy Space Center at 7:51 a.m. (EST), Dec. 21, 1968, was the beginning of the historic journey to orbit the Moon and return. The Apollo 8 astronauts who made the first trip around the moon were Frank Borman, commander; James A. Lovell Jr., command module pilot; and William A. Anders, lunar module pilot. Apollo 8 was the first manned Saturn V launch. Credits: NASA

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