That August, around the time that Anders’ E mission was beginning its metamorphosis into C-prime, Apollo command module 103 arrived at Cape Kennedy for testing. Its mission, unofficially, ranged from circumlunar to fully orbital, with around ten circuits of the Moon planned. During the translunar coast, to qualify the ‘make-or-break’ SPS engine, it would be test-fired for a few seconds. If the engine refused to work, the astronauts could still be brought home safely, thanks to a safety feature built into Apollo 8’s trajectory design. Known as the ‘free return’, it would allow the crew to essentially loop around the Moon and use its gravitational influence to ‘slingshot’ them back to Earth without using the SPS. In fact, if Borman, Lovell and Anders did find themselves with a useless engine, they would only need to perform a couple of mid-course correction burns, using the service module’s thruster quads, to keep them on track for home.
Aside from the chance of an SPS failure, a host of other concerns worried Borman. One of them surrounded Apollo 8’s splashdown in the Pacific at the end of the six-day mission. To achieve a splashdown in daylight hours would require a trajectory design which included at least 12 lunar orbits. Borman, though, could not care less whether he landed in daylight or darkness. ‘‘Frank didn’t want to spend any more time in lunar orbit than was absolutely necessary,’’ wrote Deke Slayton, ‘‘and pushed for – and got – approval of a splashdown in the early morning, before dawn.’’ Apollo 8 would stick at ten orbits. To understand Borman’s reluctance to do more than was necessary is to understand part of his character and military bearing: he was wholly committed to The Mission, whatever it might be. On Gemini VII, he strenuously rejected any addition to the flight plan which might complicate his and Lovell’s chances of fulfilling their primary objective: to spend 14 days in space. Now, on Apollo 8, Borman’s mission was to reach the Moon and bring his crew home safely. Nothing else mattered.
All non-essential, ‘irrelevant’ requests irritated him. “Some idiot had the idea that on the way to the Moon, we’d do an EVA,’’ he recounted years later in a NASA oral history. ‘‘What do you want to do? What’s the main objective? The main objective was to go to the Moon, do enough orbits so that they could do the tracking, be the pathfinders for Apollo 11 and get your ass home. Why complicate it?’’
The four months leading up to the mission were conducted at a break-neck pace. The lunar launch window opened on 21 December, at which time Mare Tranquilitatis (the Sea of Tranquility, a low, relatively flat plain tipped as a possible first landing site) would be experiencing lunar sunrise and its landscape would be thrown into stark relief, allowing Borman, Lovell and Anders to photograph and analyse it. In the final six weeks before launch, the Apollo 8 crew regularly put in ten-hour workdays, with weekends existing only to wade through piles of mail. At the end of November, outgoing President Lyndon Johnson threw them a ‘bon voyage’ party in Washington. Then, on the evening of 20 December, the legendary Charles Lindbergh, first to fly solo across the Atlantic, visited their quarters at Cape Kennedy. During their meal, the topic of conversation turned to the Saturn V rocket, which would burn over 18,000 kg of fuel in its first second of firing. Lindbergh was astounded. ‘‘In the first second of your flight tomorrow,’’ he told them, ‘‘you’ll burn ten times more fuel than I did all the way to Paris!’’
Shortly after 2:30 am on launch morning, Deke Slayton woke them in Cape Kennedy’s crew quarters and joined them for the ritual breakfast of steak and eggs. Also in attendance were chief astronaut Al Shepard and Apollo 8 backups Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. (The third backup crew member, Fred Haise, was busily setting switch positions inside the command module at Pad 39A.) Shortly thereafter, clad in their snow-white space suits and bubble helmets, they arrived at the brilliantly-floodlit pad, where their Saturn V awaited. First Borman, then Anders and finally Lovell took their seats in the command module, joining Haise, who had by now finished his job of checking switches. After offering them his hand in solidarity and farewell, Haise crawled out of the cabin and the heavy unified hatch slammed shut at 5:34 am. Years later, Bill Anders would tell Andrew Chaikin that, at one point, he glanced over at a window in the boost-protective cover and saw a hornet fluttering around outside. ‘‘She’s building a nest,’’ he thought, ‘‘and did she pick the wrong place to build it!’’
As their 7:51 am launch time drew closer, a sense of unreal calm pervaded Apollo 8’s cabin. With five minutes to go, the white room and its access arm rotated away from the spacecraft and, shortly thereafter, the launch pad’s automatic sequencer took charge of the countdown, monitoring the final topping-off of propellants needed by the Saturn to reach space. Sixty seconds before launch, the giant rocket was declared fully pressurised and it transferred its systems to internal control. As the countdown ticked into the final dozen seconds, Borman, Lovell and Anders, despite being cocooned inside their space suits, could faintly hear the sound of fuel pouring into the combustion chambers of the five F-l engines, a hundred and ten metres below. As the clock inside the command module read ‘T-3 seconds’, that faint sound was replaced by a distant, thunder-like rumbling and, at some point in the calamitous commotion that followed, the first Saturn V ever to be trusted with human passengers took flight.
‘‘Liftoff,’’ radioed Borman, gazing at the clock on his instrument panel. ‘‘The clock is running.’’ After the mission, all three men would have their own recollections of what it was like to launch atop the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, but Chaikin summed it up best when he quoted Bill Anders: they felt as if they were little more than helpless prey in the mouth of a giant, angry dog.
Forty seconds into the climb, the rocket broke through the sound barrier and G loads on the three astronauts climbed steadily – three, now four, and still climbing – but when they hit 4.5 the uncomfortable feeling of intense acceleration ended as the Saturn’s S-IC first stage burned out and separated. ‘‘The staging,’’ Borman recounted, ‘‘from the first to the second stage, as we went from S-IC cutoff to S-II ignition, was a violent manoeuvre: we were thrown forward against our straps and smashed back into the seat.’’ So violent, in fact, was the motion that Anders felt he was being hurled headlong into the instrument panel. Seconds later, the now – unneeded escape tower and the command module’s boost-protective cover were jettisoned, flooding the cabin with daylight as windows were uncovered. For Anders, his first glimpse of Earth from space – mesmerising clouds, vivid blue ocean and a steadily darkening sky – were electrifying.
A little under nine minutes after launch, the S-II finally expired and the S-IVB picked up the remainder of the thrust needed to achieve orbit. ‘‘The smoothest ride in the world’’ was how Borman would later describe riding the Saturn’s restartable third stage, before it, too, shut down, at 8:02 am. Barely ll minutes had passed since leaving Cape Kennedy and the Apollo 8 astronauts were in orbit. In less than three hours’ time, assuming that their spacecraft checked out satisfactorily, they would relight the S-IVB for six minutes to begin the translunar injection, or TLI, burn and set themselves on course for the Moon. However, if Apollo 8 did not pass its tests with flying colours and the lunar shot was called off, they would be consigned to what had been uninspiringly termed ‘the alternate mission’: an Apollo 7-type jaunt for ten long days in Earth orbit, with little to do. Borman could think of nothing worse.
Indeed, at one stage, Lovell, working under one of the couches to adjust a valve, accidentally inflated his space suit’s life vest and his commander gave him a dirty look. In true Frank Borman fashion, nothing would be permitted to interfere with or distract their attention from The Mission. At length, it was Capcom Mike Collins, who had been recovered from his neck surgery since early November and had even fruitlessly approached Deke Slayton with a view to staying on the crew, who gave them the news they so badly needed to hear: ‘‘Apollo 8, you are Go for TLI!’’
Drifting high above the Pacific Ocean at the time, the astronauts knew that the burn would be entirely controlled by the computers and, with ten seconds to go, a flashing number ‘99’ appeared on the command module’s display panel. In essence, it asked them to confirm that they wanted to go ahead with the specific manoeuvre. Lovell punched the ‘Proceed’ button and at 10:38 am, some two hours and 47
Had the Saturn V risen or had Florida sunk? On 9 November 1967, the maiden flight of the mighty Saturn V got underway with “naked power, lots of noise and light”. A little more than a year later, Apollo 8 would carry its first human crew.
minutes into the mission, the third stage ignited with a long, slow push. Although Borman kept a keen eye on his instruments in the event that he had to assume manual control, Collins relayed updates from the trajectory specialists that Apollo 8 was in perfect shape. It did not feel that way to Borman, who was convinced from the intense shaking and rattling that he might be forced to abort the burn. Steadily, as Anders watched the third stage’s propellant temperatures and pressures, they turned from ‘Earth-orbiting’ astronauts to ‘Moon-bound’ adventurers. By the time the S-IVB finally shut down after five minutes and 18 seconds, their velocity had increased from 28,100 km/h to 37,300 km/h – the ‘escape velocity’ needed to reach the Moon. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were travelling faster than any human beings had ever flown before.
Surprisingly, though, with no outside point of reference, there was not the slightest sense of the tremendous speed at which Apollo 8 was moving. Then, when Borman separated the command and service module from the now-spent S-IVB and manoeuvred around to face the third stage, they saw for the first time the effect of TLI: their home world, Earth, was no longer a seemingly-flat expanse of land and sea and cloud ‘below’ them, but a planet, spherical, its curvature obvious in the black void. They could actually see it receding from them as they continued travelling outwards. At length, as their altitude increased, Earth grew so small that it seemed to fit neatly inside the frame of one of the command module’s windows, then could be easily hidden behind a thumb. ‘‘Tell Conrad he lost his record,’’ Borman radioed Collins. Jim Lovell promptly launched into a geography lesson and even asked Collins to warn the people of Tierra del Fuego to put on their raincoats, as a storm seemed to be approaching.
Manoeuvring Apollo 8 with its nose pointed toward Earth and the S-IVB had not been done simply for sightseeing: Borman’s next task was to rendezvous with it, just as future crews would need to do in order to extract their lunar modules from the enormous ‘garage’ atop the S-IVB. After completing this demonstration, he pulled away for the final time and Apollo 8 set sail for the Moon. Five hours into the flight, after finally removing his space suit, Lovell set to work taking star sightings with the 28-power sextant and navigation telescopes. If they lost contact with Earth, he might have to measure the angles between target stars and the home planet and punch the data into the computer to figure out their position. He would do the same in lunar orbit, measuring craters and landmarks to help refine Apollo 8’s flight path. Not for nothing was ‘navigational expert’ one of the senior pilot’s main responsibilities.
Shortly after 6:00 pm, the first test firing of the SPS engine was performed, lasting just two seconds, which satisfied the astronauts and ground controllers that it could operate as advertised. As the first workday of Apollo 8 drew to a close, Lovell and Anders watched the instruments whilst Borman, unsuccessfully, tried to sleep.
Heading across the vast cislunar gulf, more than 370,000 km wide, the astronauts awakened the first sensations of space sickness. Borman, it seemed, suffered the most. A number of cases of gastroenteritis had plagued Cape Kennedy in the days before launch and it was suggested that this ‘24-hour intestinal flu’ could have triggered the malady; alternatively, Borman had taken a Seconal tablet to help him sleep and blamed the medication for his discomfort. Upon awakening to begin his
The S-IVB recedes into the blackness of cislunar space as Apollo 8 heads for the Moon.
second day aloft, he suffered both vomiting and diarrhoea, but recovered sufficiently by the third day to tell Mission Control that “nobody is sick”. Unknown to Borman, his “case of the 24-hour flu” had caused much consternation amongst the flight surgeons on the ground and even led to suggestions that the mission might have to be terminated. Fortunately, all three men were indeed fine and, even if they were ill, the SPS could not be fired to about-face them back to Earth. They were heading for the Moon, whether they liked it or not.
Strangely, since the Moon was barely a crescent to them at the time, none of the crew really saw it until shortly before their arrival. “I saw it several times in the optics as I was doing some sightings,” admitted Lovell, but “by and large, the body that we were rendezvousing with – that was coming from one direction as we were going to another – we never saw … and we took it on faith that the Moon would be there, which says quite a bit for ground control.” As they headed towards their target, Apollo 8 slowly rotated on its axis in a so-called ‘barbecue roll’, to even out thermal extremes of blistering heat and frigid cold across its metallic surfaces.
Two hundred and twenty-three thousand kilometres from Earth, approximately two-thirds of the way to the Moon and 31 hours since launch, they began their first live telecast from Apollo 8. Borman had tried to have the camera removed from the mission, but had been overruled, and now found himself using it to film Jim Lovell in the command module’s lower equipment bay, readying a dessert of chocolate pudding. Next there was a shot of Bill Anders, twirling his weightless toothbrush. ‘‘This transmission,” Borman commenced for his terrestrial audience, ‘‘is coming to you approximately halfway between the Moon and the Earth. We have about less than 40 hours to go to the Moon… I certainly wish we could show you the Earth. Very, very beautiful.’’
Unfortunately, a telephoto lens fitted to the camera by Anders did not work and when they switched back to the interior lens it resolved the home planet as little more than a white blob, giving away little of its splendour. Borman was disappointed that he had been unable to show viewers the ‘‘beautiful, beautiful view, with blue background and just huge covers of white clouds’’. Lovell closed out the transmission by wishing his mother a happy birthday, after which Borman placed Apollo 8 back into its barbecue roll, which took the high-gain antenna off Earth. A day later, their second telecast was somewhat better, allowing Lovell to describe for his spellbound audience the appearance of the western hemisphere: the royal blues of the deep ocean trenches, the varying browns of the landmasses, the bright whites of the cloud structures.
Lovell was an explorer at heart. His excitement in wanting to fly Apollo 8 was motivated equally as much, if not more so, by the simple urge to explore and see new sights and places than by a desire to carry out scientific investigations. The science was important, but Lovell’s sentiment could perhaps be best tied to a statement made three years later by Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott: that going to the Moon was “exploration at its greatest’’. At one stage in the flight, Lovell turned to Borman and wondered aloud what alien travellers might think as they approached Earth. Would they believe it to be inhabited or not? Would they decide to land on the blue or the brown part of its surface?
“You better hope that we land on the blue part,” deadpanned Anders.
By the afternoon of 23 December, almost 60 hours since their Saturn V left Earth, the gravitational influence of their home planet was finally overcome by that of the Moon. At this point, Apollo 8 was more than 300,000 km from Earth and just 62,600 km from its target and the spacecraft’s velocity had slowed to 4,320 km/h as it moved farther into its gravitational ‘well’. As they sailed towards Lunar Orbit Insertion (LOI), their trajectory was near-perfect: only two of four planned mid-course correction burns had been needed to keep Apollo 8 locked into its free return trajectory. At 3:55 am on Christmas Eve, Capcom Gerry Carr, a member of the Apollo 8 support crew, radioed Borman with the news that they were ‘‘go for LOI’’.
The three astronauts had still not seen the Moon, despite their close proximity to it, since their angle of approach caused it to be lost in the Sun’s glare. At length, Carr asked them what they could see. ‘‘Nothing,’’ replied Anders gloomily, adding ‘‘it’s like being on the inside of a submarine’’. Less than an hour later, at 4:49 am, Apollo 8 passed behind the Moon, with Lovell telling Carr that ‘‘we’ll see you on the other side’’. Eleven minutes later, moving at 9,300 km/h and ‘backwards’, they fired the SPS engine for four minutes to reduce their speed by 3,200 km/h and brake themselves into a 111 x 312 km orbit. The burn was flawless, although Lovell admitted that it was ‘‘the longest four minutes I ever spent’’. Had the engine burned too long or too short, they could have ended up either crashing into the Moon or vanishing into some errant orbit. Just to be sure, Borman hit the shutdown button as soon as the clock touched zero.
Back on Earth, a tense world – nearly a billion people were listening in, NASA estimated, scattered across 64 different countries – waited for word of their insertion into lunar orbit. If Apollo 8 had not fired the SPS, then Borman, Lovell and Anders would come back into communications range ten minutes sooner than planned. At length, right on time, following a 45-minute blackout, public affairs officer Paul Haney announced with joy: ‘‘We got it! We got it!’’ Fifteen minutes later, the astronauts’ first close-range descriptions of the Moon came across more than three hundred thousand kilometres of emptiness: ‘‘The Moon,’’ Lovell began, ‘‘is essentially grey; no colour; looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a greyish deep sand. We can see quite a bit of detail. The Sea of Fertility doesn’t stand out as well here as it does back on Earth. There’s not as much contrast between that and the surrounding craters. The craters are all rounded off. There’s quite a few of them; some of them are newer. Many of them – especially the round ones – look like hits by meteorites or projectiles of some sort… ’’
The lack of even the slightest vestiges of an atmosphere lent a weird clarity to what was, in effect, a scene of the utmost desolation, silence and stillness; the Moon was literally a world frozen in time. Only weeks earlier, the film of Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ had premiered and even the astronauts imagined the lunar terrain to be composed of dramatic, sharp-edged mountains and jagged cliffs. Instead they were presented with an essentially dead place, seemingly ubiquitous in its dullness and blandness. Anders, tasked with the bulk of the lunar photography, had spent hours before launch with the only geologist-astronaut, Jack Schmitt, discussing the features of the surface, and had his own flight plan to plough
The lunar farside, never before seen directly by human eyes.
through, but found it hard because of dirty windows. In fact, only the command module’s two small rendezvous windows remained reasonably clear.
For Anders, the far side of the Moon, never seen from Earth or ever by human eyes, resembled “a sand pile my kids have been playing in for a long time… it’s all beat up, no definition, just a lot of bumps and holes’’. He considered the lunar surface to be an unappealing place, albeit with “a kind of stark beauty’’ of its own, and all three men found pleasure in giving temporary names to some of the craters to honour their colleagues and managers: Low, Gilruth, Shea, Grissom, White, Webb, Chaffee, Kraft, See, Bassett and others. “These,” said Borman, “were all the giants who made it work.’’ At one stage during the excitement, when flight controller John Aaron noticed that the command module’s environmental control system needed adjustment, they responded by naming a crater for him, too. (Before the flight, Lovell had even given his wife Marilyn a photograph of a mountain, near the eastern edge of the Sea of Tranquility, which he had unofficially named for her: Mount Marilyn.)
Four hours after entering orbit, another SPS burn, this time thankfully shorter at just 11 seconds, adjusted Apollo 8’s path around the Moon into a near-perfect 111 km circle. Then, at 10:37 am on 24 December, their first glimpse of colour entered a Universe of endless blackness and greyness: the three astronauts became the first humans to witness ‘Earthrise’ from behind the lunar limb. Borman was in the process of turning the spacecraft to permit Lovell to take some sextant readings, when all at once Anders yelled: ‘‘Oh my God! Look at that picture over there.’’ It would become a running, though light-hearted competition among the crew over who took the ‘Earthrise Picture’ which has since become world-famous: a shot of our home planet, a pretty blue-and-white marble, rising in the void above the Moon’s grey-brown surface. With Lovell in attendance, it was Anders who, after fitting the colour magazine and aiming the telephoto lens, snapped one of the most iconic images of the Space Age. In perhaps no other image has the beauty, fragility and loneliness of Earth been captured with more meaning. Years later, Anders would win praise from environmentalists for his assertion that Apollo 8’s goal was to explore the Moon. . . and what it really did was discover the Earth!
The astronauts’ intense workload during their 20 hours in orbit was getting the better of them, with tiredness causing them to make mistakes. On occasion, Lovell had punched the wrong code into the command module’s computer, triggering warning alarms, and Anders was overcome with his own schedule: stereo imagery, dim-light photography and filter work. At length, clearly irritated that the timeline was too full, Borman snapped at Capcom Mike Collins that he was taking an executive decision for his two crewmates to get some rest. ‘‘I’ll stay up and keep the spacecraft vertical,’’ he told Collins, ‘‘and take some automatic pictures.’’ With some difficulty, he had to force Lovell and Anders to pry their eyes away from the windows and get some sleep.
It seemed inevitable, after thousands of years of watching and wondering about the Moon, that humanity’s first visit would be commemorated in a religious, spiritual or symbolic way. Before the launch, Borman, Lovell and Anders had discussed this issue at length with friends and concluded that they would read the story of Creation from the first ten verses of Genesis. During their ninth orbit, on their second live telecast from the Moon, they read it to a spellbound world, first Anders taking a part, then Lovell and finally Borman closing with ‘‘Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you. . . all of you on the good Earth’’.
Eight minutes into Christmas morning, three days and 17 hours after launch, the return home got underway when the SPS engine was ignited to increase their speed by 3,800 km/h. As they rounded the Moon for the last time, Lovell told Capcom Ken Mattingly, who was just coming on duty in Houston, ‘‘Please be informed there is a Santa Claus’’. Mattingly replied that they were the best ones to know.
The return journey proved uneventful, with fogged windows, puddling water and clattering cabin fans creating mere annoyances. A final televised tour of Apollo 8 showed Anders preparing a freeze-dried meal. . . and, when the camera stopped rolling, they found a real treat in their food locker: real turkey and real cranberry sauce, wrapped in foil with red and green ribbons. It was a far cry from the
One of the 20th century’s most iconic images: Earthrise from Apollo 8.
toothpaste tubes of Project Mercury and even better, perhaps, than Gus Grissom’s corned beef sandwich. The turkey and cranberry sauce turned out to be their best meal of the entire flight, although Borman was annoyed that Deke Slayton had slipped three small bottles of brandy aboard as well. Why, if anything went wrong on the flight, the overzealous Borman fumed, the press and public would blame it on the ‘drunk’ astronauts. Lovell and Anders, who have admitted that they had no intention of touching the brandy, felt that Borman had gone a little too far. Christmas spirit returned, however, with festive presents: pairs of cufflinks and a man-in-the-Moon tie pin from Susan Borman and Marilyn Lovell and a gold ‘figure 8’ tie pin from Valerie Anders.
Only one minor trajectory correction burn was needed and early on 27 December, the astronauts fired pyrotechnics to jettison the service module and plunged into Earth’s atmosphere at 34,900 km/h. During re-entry, which carried them over northeastern China, then brought the command module in a long slanting path towards the south-east, Borman, Lovell and Anders were subjected to deceleration forces as high as 7 G. Splashdown came as Cape Kennedy clocks read 10:51 am, but still in pre-dawn darkness over the western Pacific, completing a mission of just over six days. At Mission Control in Houston, sheer pandemonium broke out, in the traditional American back-slapping way, and the smell of celebratory cigars scented the air for hours.
Among the cheering NASA throng was an overjoyed, though dejected Mike Collins. ‘‘For me personally, the moment was a conglomeration of emotions and memories,’’ he wrote. ‘‘I was a basket case, emotionally wrung out. I had seen this flight evolve in the white room at Downey, in the interminable series of meetings at Houston… into an epic voyage. I had helped it grow. I had two years invested in it – it was my flight. Yet it was not my flight; I was but one of a hundred packed into a noisy room.’’
A quarter of a world away, in the Pacific Ocean, some 1,600 km south-south-west of Hawaii, water came flooding through an open vent in the command module, drenching Borman and giving Anders the mistaken impression that the hull had cracked on impact. The ship overturned onto its nose, but quickly righted itself when Borman inflated the three airbags. It did not stop him from being sick. This time, Lovell and Anders, both of whom had served in the Navy, showed no mercy on their Air Force commander: ‘‘What do you expect from a West Point ground-pounder?’’
Amidst the radio chatter from a rescue helicopter despatched by the aircraft carrier Yorktown came an age-old question which the whole world now wanted answered. ‘‘Apollo 8, is the Moon made from Limburger cheese?’’
‘‘Nope,’’ replied Bill Anders. ‘‘It’s made from American cheese!’’