Apollo 8 logo.

The shape of the insignia symbolized the Apollo CM. The red figure 8 circled the Earth and Moon, representing not only the number of the mission but the translunar and transearth trajectories. Credit: NASA

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Apollo 8 showed that the equipment, the astronauts and the entire Apollo program team were capable of flying a crewed mission to the Moon, conducting tasks in lunar space and returning the astronauts safely to Earth.

It demonstrated command and service module (CSM) performance in a cislunar (between the Earth and Moon) and lunar-orbit environment, evaluated crew performance in a lunar-orbit mission, demonstrated communications and tracking at lunar distances and returned high-resolution photography of proposed Apollo landing areas and other locations of scientific interest.

It also included some never-to-be forgotten moments, such as the first time humans saw their home world from the vantage point of deep space.

Nation United States of America (USA)
Objective(s) Trans-Lunar Crewed Demonstration Flight
Spacecraft Apollo 8
Spacecraft Mass 63,531 pounds (28,817 kilograms)
Crew
  1. Frank Borman (1928 - )
  2. James A. Lovell, Jr. (1928 - )
  3. William A. Anders (1933 - )
Mission Design and Management NASA
Launch Date and Time Dec. 21, 1968 / 12:51 UT
Launch Vehicle Saturn V
Launch Site Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA | Launch Complex 39A
Scientific Instruments 1. Photographic studies
2. Handheld photographs

Firsts

  • First crewed flight of the Saturn V rocket
  • First human excursion beyond low Earth orbit
  • First in-person observations of Earth from a distance
  • First crewed flight to the Moon

Key Dates

Launch: Dec. 21, 1968

Lunar orbit insertion: Dec. 24, 1968

Lunar departure: Dec. 25, 1968

Recovery on Earth: Dec. 27, 1968

Earth rising over the Moon
Apollo 8's iconic "Earthrise" image. This is the first time humans saw their home planet rising above the Moon with their own eyes.

Results

Before Apollo 8, the furthest anyone had been from Earth was about 850 miles (1600 kilometers). Apollo 8 increased that distance to nearly a quarter of a million miles. Its three crew members were the first human beings to fly to the Moon or to anywhere beyond low Earth orbit.

This mission also marked the first time that anyone rode atop a Saturn V, the enormous multi-stage rocket built specifically to propel crewed spacecraft to the Moon. The Saturn V was as high as a 36-story building, more powerful than 85 Hoover Dams and consisted of three million parts that all had to function reliably. There had been only two test launches of this massive vehicle, the most recent of which—the uncrewed Apollo 6 mission four months earlier—had suffered several major malfunctions.

But Apollo 8 went up without a hitch. The crew members, Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James A. Lovell, Jr. and William A. Anders (designated as Lunar Module Pilot even though the mission did not carry an actual lunar module), rode to the Moon inside a capsule essentially identical to the one that would carry the Apollo 11 astronauts the following year on their way to the first lunar landing. In place of a lunar module, which was not yet ready to be tested in a lunar mission, it carried an equivalent amount of mass.

In December of 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 became the first people to leave our home planet and travel to another body in space. But as crew members Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders all later recalled, the most important thing they discovered was Earth. Credit: NASA

Air Force General Samuel C. Phillips directed the Apollo program at the time. Reflecting upon this historic flight, he wrote, “In Mission Control early in the morning of December 24 the big center screen, which had carried an illuminated Mercator projection of the Earth for the past three and one-half years—a moving blip always indicated the spacecraft's position—underwent a dramatic change. The Earth disappeared, and upon the screen was flashed a scarred and pockmarked map with such labels as Mare Tranquillitatis, Mare Crisium and many craters with such names as Tsiolkovsky, Grimaldi and Gilbert. The effect was electrifying, symbolic evidence that man had reached the vicinity of the Moon.”

The astronauts began orbiting the Moon on Dec. 24, 1968 and became the first humans to see first hand the mysterious far side, the face of the Moon that always points away from Earth. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke later wrote that the crew told him they had been tempted to radio back the sighting of a giant black monolith, as seen in the movie Clarke wrote with Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Alas,” he wrote, “discretion prevailed.”

Over the course of 10 orbits lasting 20 hours, the astronauts took photographs for both operational and scientific purposes, described lunar topography to Mission Control as an aid to planning the upcoming lunar-surface missions and beamed television pictures of the Moon and of the Earth as seen from lunar orbit.

During a broadcast on Christmas Eve, they read aloud the Biblical account of creation from the book of Genesis. Then on Christmas day, they fired the service-module engine to break free of lunar orbit and return to Earth.

Apollo 8 Christmas Eve Broadcast

They splashed down in the Pacific Ocean before dawn on December 27, about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) SSW of Hawaii and less than three miles (five kilometers) from the recovery ship, USS Yorktown.

As General Phillips described the results of the mission, “Not only was the technology of going to the Moon brilliantly proven; men began to view the Earth as ‘small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence,’ as Archibald MacLeish put it, and to realize as never before that their planet was worth working to save. The concept that Earth was itself a kind of spacecraft needing attention to its habitability spread more widely than ever.”

The Apollo 8 Command Module is on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, Illinois.

Additional Resources

NASA History Office: Apollo Program

Apollo Lunar Surface Journal

Apollo Flight Journal

Apollo Expeditions to the Moon

Where No Man Has Gone Before: A History of Apollo Lunar Exploration Missions

Apollo 8 Objectives

What Was the Saturn V

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