Apollo 8 – a Christmas mission to the Moon

Apollo 8 blasted into space two months after Apollo 7’s flight, this time hoisted by a giant Saturn V rocket. Apollo 8, with its crew Commander Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, set new space records as it became the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth’s orbit and fly to the Moon.

The view of a rising Earth taken by astronaut Anders on December 24, 1968, as Apollo 8 came from behind the Moon. Image credit: NASA

The Apollo 8 mission was an important dress rehearsal for the Moon landings to come. The difference was that it did not carry a Lunar Module, just a dummy as ballast to balance the weight within the spacecraft assembly.

A six-day adventure, the spacecraft’s launch came on December 21, 1968, meaning that the crew would be away over Christmas. They marked the holiday by reading from the Bible’s Book of Genesis on Christmas Eve in a live TV broadcast from their Command Module, now orbiting the Moon. They ended by wishing everyone on Earth a “Merry Christmas”. It was one of six broadcasts made.

As well as testing the spacecraft’s hardware, communications and life-support systems, and seeing how astronauts responded on a flight far from home, the mission allowed the crew to photograph much of the lunar surface. They took many photographs of the near and far sides of the Moon, gathering information that would help with the upcoming landings.

The astronauts also became the first humans to see the Earth rising above the lunar horizon, a spectacle that provided one of the mission’s most memorable images.

After 10 orbits of the Moon, the Service Module’s burned on Christmas Day to send the astronauts heading home again. They splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, 1,000 miles southwest of Hawaii, to be picked up by the USS Yorktown.

Astronauts Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and Bill Anders pose for a portrait in their space suits less than a month before launch. Image credit: NASA

Next: Apollo 9 – lunar module is tested in Earth orbit