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…
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.
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.