Suggested Searches

4 min read

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

Muscle cars. Film cameras. Concert tees stuffed into bell-bottomed jeans. Rotary phones and 8-track tapes, TVs measured in cubic footage, crowded wallpaper. Slide rules and chalkboards and all-paper filing systems and vacuum tubes. It’s 1968, and we’re sending men to the Moon.

engraved invitation
Prior to the Apollo 8 launch, a select group of politicians, celebrities, and families and friends of the astronauts received this official letter from NASA inviting them to attend the historic event. The letter reads, “You are cordially invited to attend the departure of the United States Spaceship Apollo VIII on its voyage around the Moon, departing from Launch Complex 39A, Kennedy Space Center, with the launch window commencing at seven a.m. on December 21st, 1968. R.S.V.P., The Apollo VIII Crew” Credits: Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library
mission patch with moon, earth, figure-8
Frank Borman and Jim Lovell were in California when they received news that their new mission would be going to the Moon. On orders to return to Houston immediately, Borman flew a plane back to Texas while Lovell sat in the passenger seat, sketching ideas for a mission patch. His illustration, which serves the double purpose of a large red ‘8’ for Apollo’s 8th mission and a figure 8, which outlines the path the Apollo vehicle took on its journey, was polished off by a NASA artist and later adapted as the official patch for the landmark mission. Credits: NASA

Apollo 8 was supposed to be a test flight, meant to simulate atmospheric re-entry from the Moon but never meant to go there. Hurtling toward Earth at 25,000 miles per hour is hairy business and NASA, having never done so before, needed practice. But then the USSR successfully launched two of its own Moon-shots (unmanned Zond 5 and 6) on the heels of President Kennedy’s call for men on the Moon by the end of the ’60s. It felt to most like a matter of time before America lost its space race for good.

NASA’s plan for Apollo 8 had to change.

Following a spark of ambitious vision, NASA reorganized, galvanizing a wild rush of fervor and late nights. In mid-August of 1968, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders received a call telling them to cancel their holiday plans—they were going to the Moon.

By December, the three men were suddenly farther away than any human had ever been from our home planet, traveling faster and seeing more than could be seen in the entire history of life on Earth. From prehistoric cephalopods to T-Rex to our ape-like ancestors to Alexander the Great, no single pair of eyeballs had ever been so far from Earth’s gravitational influence until Dec. 21, 1968.

We were shooting for the Moon and we got there, sure enough, but the real triumph of Apollo 8 was beyond nationalism, beyond the tumultuousness of an age that catapulted these three men into the dark unknown. Apollo 8 was the fruition of ancient Chinese stargazers, renaissance dreamers and mid-century physicists. It was, above all, our first good look at ourselves, with the best possible perspective.

Today, leading up to the anniversary of one of humankind’s most audacious missions, we begin to celebrate 50 years of learning, inspiration, altitude and ingenuity not only about our nearest neighbor but also about Earth and where modern lunar exploration will take us next.

three men in spacesuits
Astronauts James (Jim) Lovell, Frank Borman, and William (Bill) Anders pose for a portrait in their space suits on November 22, 1968, just less than a month before they would orbit the Moon. Credits: NASA

This is the first in a five-part series on the Apollo 8 mission and its influence on human exploration.

Related Links