LINDSAY: This upcycled episode of History Daily originally aired on December 21st, 2021.
It’s early morning, December 21st, 1968, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Bill Anders, a 35-year-old rookie astronaut, sits in his spacecraft, the Apollo 8. Anders flexes his fingers in the stiff gloves of his pressure-suit. He is uncomfortable. He’s been strapped to his chair for almost three hours, as the crew outside work on the rocket that will launch the Apollo 8 into space.
Beside him are two other astronauts: Mission Commander Frank Borman and Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell. Their mission is a historic one. They will be the first men to leave Earth’s orbit and the first to journey to the far side of the moon.
But before they can achieve their mission, they have to get off the launchpad, and that's perhaps the most dangerous part.
Anders is tired of waiting. But his fellow astronauts - Borman and Lovell - know that this is all part of the process. The two of them have been to space together before, on a mission a few years back.
But this mission is different. And all three astronauts know it.
The Saturn V rocket that will take them into space is the biggest and most powerful ever made. It's as tall as a 36-story building and is filled with hundreds of thousands of gallons of liquified fuel. Today will be only the third time a Saturn V rocket has taken off and the first time the rocket will carry a crew.
As the countdown enters its final moments, Anders’ eyes flick over the constellation of dials and switches on the instrument panel in front of him. He quickly scans for any last-minute errors, any warning lights. But there’s nothing. And so the mission will continue.
At 9 seconds before launch, the Saturn V engines roar to life.
The cabin shakes around Anders and the two other astronauts as the rocket blasts out seven and a half million pounds of thrust.
The metal arms that hold the rocket to the launchpad detach and for a moment, the Saturn V rocket is free, standing alone on a ball of flame. This is the point of greatest peril. If the engines fail now, the entire rocket will collapse to the earth and explode.
But then, like a skyscraper hurling itself into the sky, the Saturn V rocket surges upward, clears the launchpad, and soars into the clouds. Apollo 8 and its crew are on their way into space.
Hundreds of thousands of people watch the launch on the ground in Florida and millions more watch on television sets around the world. 1968 has been a year of violence and discord in America and overseas. There have been assassinations, riots, and wars. For many of the people watching this momentous event, the launch of Apollo 8, and its daring mission into space, provide something that has been desperately missing: hope.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is December 21st, 1968: Apollo 8 Goes to the Moon.
Act One: The Challenge
It’s September 12th, 1962, 6 years before the launch of Apollo 8.
In the bright Texas sun, John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, steps up to a podium and looks out at the sea of faces before him.
40,000 people have packed into a football stadium at Houston’s Rice University to hear the President speak. He has come to tell them why he believes America should land a man on the moon.
America is losing the space race. Their Cold War rivals, the Soviet Union, shocked the world in 1957 by launching the satellite Sputnik into orbit. Then in April 1961, they beat the Americans once again by sending the first man into space: Yuri Gagarin.
For Kennedy, who has only been President a few months, it was a national humiliation, and one he took personally. Previously, he had shown little interest in the American space program, but after Gagarin’s flight, that all changed.
If there was going to be a space race, Kennedy was determined that the United States should win it. The Soviet Union though had a head start, so any goal the President set had to be ambitious enough that America would have time to catch up. That’s why he resolved to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.
But since announcing this plan to a Joint Session of Congress in 1961, Kennedy has struggled to win over the public, to explain why this matters and why it must be done now. So, he has come to Rice University in Houston, Texas, to address these students – and the nation.
The government is building a new Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. In his speech, Kennedy ties the construction of that center into Houston’s history as a frontier town. According to the President, the space program is the latest incarnation of America’s pioneering spirit.
“ J. F. KENNEDY: We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”
It's a romantic, patriotic vision – and a compelling one. Ultimately, Kennedy’s optimistic vision will inspire the public support.
In September 1963, the Houston Space Center opens. Two months later, however, on another visit to Texas, President Kennedy is assassinated as he rides in his motorcade through the city of Dallas. But the pioneering spirit he spoke of at Rice University will not die with him.
It’s August 1968. Five years after President Kennedy's assassination.
At the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, engineer George Low hurries down a corridor to a conference room. Low is manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office. It’s his job to make sure the new vessels that will take men to the moon are ready to fly. And he has just come back from vacation with an idea that could save the Apollo Space Program.
Kennedy’s goal of putting a man on the moon by 1970 is hugely ambitious. NASA, the American space agency, is well-funded. But their Apollo Space Program has been plagued by technical problems and human tragedy. Just a year before, on January 27, 1967, three astronauts lost their lives in a fire during a routine test on the launchpad. The accident set the Apollo program back by months and resulted in a massive redesign of the spacecraft. It was George Low who led those efforts.
There are three major components to an Apollo flight. First, the Saturn V rocket that launches the astronauts’ spacecraft out of Earth’s orbit. Second, the command and service module that carries them toward the moon. And third, the lunar module – nicknamed the LEM – that takes the astronauts down to the surface of the moon.
NASA has had trouble with all three components. But right now, it’s the LEM that has George Low worried. The Apollo 8 mission is meant to be the LEM’s first test flight. On this mission, NASA had planned to test the module's capabilities in an earth orbit.
The Apollo 8 mission is meant to be the LEM's first test flight. But the lunar module is nowhere near ready. George Low knows that if NASA is forced to delay the Apollo 8 mission, all subsequent missions will also be pushed back. And if that happens, there is a real danger NASA will miss President Kennedy’s end-of-the-decade deadline.
So Low sits down to meet with other senior staff in Houston to lay out his new plan. Instead of waiting for the LEM to be ready, Low proposes something even more ambitious than the original mission. Low suggests that they send the Apollo 8 command module, without the LEM, on a mission to the moon. The astronauts won’t be able to land on the moon, but they will be able to navigate to it, and maneuver in and out of lunar orbit. As Low explains, such a mission would be invaluable; it would prove that NASA can make the calculations necessary to fly to the moon, and it would keep the Apollo program on target for a moon landing in the summer of 1969.
Low’s plan is approved. But there are many who doubt it will succeed. The Apollo 8 command module has flown just once with astronauts on board and even then only in earth’s orbit. Now, NASA wants to send three astronauts all the way to the moon. It’s risky. Even the slightest miscalculation could kill the crew. And another NASA tragedy will not only mean missing Kennedy’s deadline, it will jeopardize the entire American space program altogether.
Act Two: The Flight of Apollo 8
It’s December 22nd, 1968, 18 hours after Apollo 8 blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
On board the cramped spaceship, astronauts Bill Anders and Jim Lovell try to keep quiet as they test out navigation systems. Floating in zero gravity beneath their feet is mission commander Frank Borman. It’s his shift to rest, but Borman can’t sleep. The constant radio chatter, and the hum of instruments and machinery, is keeping him awake. And now he is beginning to feel sick.
Later, it will be determined that Borman is suffering from "Space Adaptation Syndrome”, a condition that affects one in three people in zero gravity. But in this moment, Borman has no idea what’s ailing him. So he forces his eyes shut and tries to sleep it off.
The astronauts are only a third of the way to the moon. They have already traveled further in space than any other human beings in history and, through the tiny windows of their spacecraft, they are the first people to have seen the whole of the Earth at once.
The men didn’t expect to be part of the Apollo 8 mission. Their original assignment was Apollo 9, due early the following year. But when lunar module production fell behind schedule and NASA changed the parameters of the mission, the crews of Apollo 8 and 9 were switched. Borman and his men had just 16 weeks to train for their new assignment.
At first, Bill Anders was disappointed with the swap. He was a Lunar Module Pilot on a mission without a lunar module. But in the weeks building up to the launch, Anders realized what an incredible opportunity Apollo 8 was. If all went well, he would be among the first three people ever to leave earth behind and see the dark side of the moon.
But not all is going well. Today, as he floats in zero gravity, Anders hears a retching noise and looks down as a glob of Frank Borman’s vomit drifts past his chin. Anders and Lovell help their shivering commander to his chair and strap him in. Lovell and Anders clean up as best they can, while they debate whether to tell mission control in Houston.
Borman insists, “absolutely not”. He doesn’t want anyone to know. But if Lovell and Anders fall sick too, the whole mission will be in danger. They have to tell Houston.
A hurried radio conference is held between the doctors on the ground and the astronauts on board. They decide Borman has either a 24-hour stomach sickness or a bad reaction to a sleeping pill. Either way, the mission will continue.
It’s Christmas Eve 1968. After three days journeying through space, Apollo 8 has finally reached the moon. On board the spacecraft, the astronauts open a locker and dig out a handheld camera in order to give the world its first look at the moon close up through a live television broadcast.
It’s been 86 hours since Apollo 8 left the Kennedy Space Center. Traveling through space at almost 4000 feet per second, the spacecraft needed a precisely calculated engine burn to slow down enough to enter the moon’s orbit. Too short a burn and the ship might careen off into space. Too long, they risk becoming another crater on the moon’s surface. Luckily, the precise calculations did not fail them. A four-minute and seven-second-long burn slowed down the Apollo 8 command module just enough.
Now, in lunar orbit, Apollo 8 skims over the surface of the moon, some 60 miles up. Over 200,000 miles away on earth, hundreds of millions of people watch as the astronauts describe what they are seeing through the ship’s tiny windows.
For Frank Borman, the moon is an “expanse of nothing”. Jim Lovell calls the vast loneliness he sees below awe-inspiring. And to Bill Anders, the moon and the stars beyond seem stark and forbidding.
But for all three men, the most spectacular sight of all is Earth, a glowing orb of color and life floating in endless black. Near the end of their broadcast, Anders reads from the book of Genesis.
“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep."
The astronauts take turns reading verses until Borman ends the broadcast with these words:
“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
By the end of their mission, the crew of Apollo 8 will have journeyed farther than any other humans in history. They will have seen the far side of the moon and taken more than 800 pictures of the surface. But it will be their message to the “good Earth” that will be remembered forever.
Act Three: The Good Earth
It’s December 27th, 1968, six days after Apollo 8 left Earth.
In the skies over the North Pacific, three bright red and white parachutes burst open. The Apollo 8 spacecraft, slung underneath, sways down towards the sea and splashes gently into the waves.
The outside of Apollo 8 is scorched from its trip through Earth’s atmosphere. But the astronauts inside, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, are alive and well.
Their mission has been a complete success. The navigation to the moon and entry into lunar orbit proved NASA’s technology worked. It’s a huge step towards meeting President Kennedy’s ambition of putting an American on the moon by 1970. And indeed, just seven months later, in July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first men to walk on the moon.
But Apollo 8 is more than just a technical triumph. People all around the world followed Borman, Lovell, and Anders from the moment they took off to the moment they splashed down in the Pacific. One in four people on the earth tuned in for their famous Christmas Eve broadcast.
And for many of these viewers, 1968 was a difficult year. The civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead in April. The politician Bobby Kennedy, younger brother of the assassinated President John Kennedy, was killed in June. And in Vietnam, America was on the verge of losing its unpopular war with the North Vietnamese. But for a brief few days in December, people across the world looked up to follow the journey of three men, and through them, saw the world in a whole new way.
On his return, the commander of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, will receive countless messages of congratulations. But there will be one telegram he will remember above all. An anonymous note that read simply: "Thank you. You saved 1968."
Next on History Daily.December 22nd, 1849. Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky is saved from execution by a last-minute reprieve, an event that shapes the novelist’s greatest works.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.