Apollo 8

Half a century ago today, a spaceship left earth to take astronauts not just beyond LEO, but all the way to and around the moon. That was when we won the race.

Bob Zimmerman reflects.

[Update Sunday morning]

More thoughts from John Wenz. This statement isn’t inaccurate, but it is a little misleading:

It was the first time humanity had orbited another body that wasn’t our home planet.

Yes, it was, but some have concluded from that fact that they weren’t orbiting earth. None of the Apollo missions left earth orbit, because they never reached escape velocity, and when you orbit a moon that is in orbit around a planet, you remain in orbit around that planet along with it. No human has ever left earth orbit, but Elon seems to have the most serious plans to do so.

One other point, unrelated to Wentz’s piece. I was looking at the Wikipedia page for the mission, and found this bit of (misleading, at best) history:

On August 9, 1968, Low discussed the idea with Gilruth, Flight Director Chris Kraft, and the Director of Flight Crew Operations, Donald Slayton. They then flew to the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, where they met with KSC Director Kurt Debus, Apollo Program Director Samuel C. Phillips, Rocco Petrone, and Wernher von Braun. Kraft considered the proposal feasible from a flight control standpoint; Debus and Petrone agreed that the next Saturn V, AS-503, could be made ready by December 1; and von Braun was confident that the pogo oscillation problems that had afflicted Apollo 6 had been fixed. Almost every senior manager at NASA agreed with this new mission, citing confidence in both the hardware and the personnel, along with the potential for a circumlunar flight providing a significant morale boost. The only person who needed some convincing was James E. Webb, the NASA administrator. Backed by the full support of his agency, Webb authorized the mission. Apollo 8 was officially changed from a “D” mission to a “C-Prime” lunar-orbit mission.

Webb may have authorized it in August, in the sense of changing the mission category, but this was probably to keep the option open, not because he supported doing it. I’m pretty sure he continued to oppose it, and it may be that one of the reasons for his retirement in October was to not have it happen on his watch (though he probably would have left anyway in the New Year, with the incoming administration of Nixon). Tom Paine (who did favor it), as Acting Administrator, actually made final approval in November, a few weeks before the flight.

14 thoughts on “Apollo 8”

  1. All of the Apollo missions were risky, but Apollo 8 was especially dangerous. If an Apollo 13 type event had happened, there was no LEM lifeboat. That said, all of the moon flights faced that risk on the return flight. Those men knew how to face danger.

  2. There’s been quite a bit written about the necessity of this mission and whether it should have even been attempted *before* what took place on Apollo 9. But of course, I’ve forgotten most of it.

    Can someone enlighten me again? Why Apollo 8?

    1. Because they could? The Soviets had already sent animals around the moon in a Zond. Paine was afraid that they’d beat us to another “first” by sending men. The LEO dress rehearsal wasn’t necessary to test out the CSM on a lunar mission.

      1. The LM not being ready and the concern that the Soviets were going to beat us, definitely. I think Apollo 8 may have ended the race to the Moon, as that mission showed how far ahead we had gotten.

        Sad to think it’s been 50 years.

      2. The Heavy Zond (a Soyuz mod or from another Design Bureau?), I believe was supposed to do a loop-around-the-Moon that Apollo 13 ended up having to do. Apollo 8 actually entered and left lunar orbit, but if the Russians got their first, that my have been to some a distinction with a difference they didn’t understand.

        I read that the problem with the Heavy Zond is that they had problems getting it to reenter on a path that wouldn’t kill a human crew, which was challenging because they didn’t have the setup to land in the Pacific Ocean like Apollo, which required a major naval task force to execute. They were constrained from landing in China, even for an emergency, because these socialist bros had a falling out?

        Was the flight with the live poultry on it one they could have crewed, or did they “chicken out” because they hadn’t successfully recovered the craft before?

        1. The Soviet lunar sample return missions (Luna program) faced the same issue as a manned Soviet lunar mission; they required a skip reentry to land in Soviet territory (due to the high latitude). You can’t do a direct return from the moon and do a direct-entry landing in high or low latitudes. You need a skip reentry for that.

          The Soviets did use an Indian Ocean splashdown to recover at least one circumlunar unmanned flight (carrying worms, fruit flies, etc). However, at that time they’d never attempted a splashdown with a manned spacecraft design. The only one of those they ever did was accidental, on a manned Soyuz in 1976 (landed in a lake).

          1. Zond 5 was actually supposed to land in Kazakhstan. The failure of skip reentry put it in the Indian Ocean. At the time, of course, the Soviets insisted that the ocean landing had been planned all along. The Americans had no way of knowing yet that they were lying, and it therefore made the Zond program look more successful than it really was.

      3. There’s been a surprising amount of dispute about just what *did* motivate what we now call “the Apollo 8 decision.” What really seems to have triggered it was Frank Borman’s claim that he had been informed that the Soviets were very close to staging a circumlunar flight, and that this drove the decision to rework his mission as a lunar orbit, “C Prime” mission.

        But Dwayne Day over at the Space Review has been digging into this over the last few years, and so far as he can make out, almost all of the evidence points to the need to keep Apollo on schedule to meet Kennedy’s deadline as the real motivation for Apollo 8:

        “…the only evidence that intelligence information about the Soviets sending astronauts around the Moon prompted NASA to take the risky move and send Apollo 8 there first were claims made by the Apollo 8 crew. Extensive reviews of NASA records did not support this claim. In fact, there is considerable evidence that NASA officials made the decision primarily because the Lunar Module for the flight would not be ready and there was little point to flying Apollo 8 on any other mission—sending it around the Moon was bold, but it was also logical.”


        On that occasion, Day noted one new piece of evidence had emerged to at least suggest some support for Borman’s remarkable claim: a recently declassified October 1968 memo from the CIA’s Foreign Missile and Space Analysis Center, FMSAC, suggesting that its surveillance of Soviet activity at Baikonur had been instrumental in motivating NASA’s decision to send Apollo 8 to the Moon.

        The difficulty is that there’s been nothing else to back it up. Not a single senior manager at NASA at the time – Slayton, Low, Gilruth, Webb, Paine, etc. – was ever willing to support Borman’s claim. Every one of them insisted that sticking to the original schedule (which would have had Borman’s crew wait to run their mission after McDivitt’s crew tested out the Lunar Module in Low Earth Orbit in March 1969), would have made it tough to get a man on the Moon before the end of 1969 – and that was all they were worried about. Dwayne Day finds the FMSAC memo intriguing, but not enough to disrupt his conclusion that fear of a looming Soviet circumlunar flight really did not factor in to the Apollo 8 decision. Of course, there is still plenty of documentation yet to be declassified…

        I don’t know where the truth lies. And why would Frank Borman tell a tall tale like this? It is curious, though, why there would still be a felt need to cover up fear of a Soviet Zond flight as a motivation even after the Soviet Union collapsed.

  3. I remember the mission (and the Christmas broadcast) vividly. Even more, I remember the controversy the mission stirred up in the weeks leading up to it. We discussed it in my civics class, and the teacher (Mr. Cadwallader) took the position that it was reckless. But he did grudgingly admire the courage it showed.

    The success of Apollo 8 came at the end of a very bad year, and prompted someone (I forget who) to remark that “Apollo 8 saved 1968.”

    1. I wonder what your civics teacher would think of EM-2, if he thought Apollo 8 was reckless. The Apollo capsule and service module had been tested in orbit (both manned, once, and unmanned several times). And the Saturn 5 had flown several times.

      EM-2, on the other hand, is slated to be the first manned flight of Orion and its service module, and its first flight (of any kind) of its life support system (plus some other key components, like crew controls and displays in Orion), and it’ll be the second flight of SLS. And unlike Apollo with its powerful service module, there’s no direct abort option during the mission.

      1. They can’t really do any additional testing due to the supply of engines so while it is fun to make fun, nothing can be done.

        1. That’s not the case IMHO, though I think they are pushing that as an excuse.

          They could test life support in space on the unmanned EM-1 launch. That would not use any extra engines, launches, etc, the only change would be putting a complete Orion on EM-1 instead of a partially complete one. As is, they plan the first flight of a complete Orion to be manned, and to the moon.

          Given the utter hypocrisy, plus needless disregard for safety, NASA is displaying here, I think ridicule is warranted.

  4. I’ve always wondered: If the Russians had successfully put a crewed Zond around the Moon before Apollo 8, and could say they’d “won” the Race to the Moon, how different would history have been? Sure, we would have beaten them to a landing, but would they have stuck with and perfected the N-1 and made their own landing? Would their have been Moon bases, a real Apollo Applications Program (with MoLab, etc.) and a Race to Mars in the 1980s? Anyway, that’s what I hoped for after the first Zonds, after Apollo 7 and Soyuz 3, that fall when I was 18 years old and mainly wondering what Viet Nam would be like when I got there (but I got a high lottery number and didn’t have to go).

    1. You’re right: a circumlunar Zond flight would not be nearly as technically impressive as an Apollo lunar orbit flight. The ability to insert into lunar orbit and then exit it to return safely to the Earth demonstrates a lot more capabilities, not least capabilities needed to do a landing.

      Unfortunately, this reality would be lost on most human beings, either in the US or the USSR. The story would be “The Soviets beat the Americans again – they got to the Moon first.”

      I’ve seen a few credible efforts to explore such an alternate history, and they all agree in concluding – rightly, I think – that the result would have been a more serious and extended deep space exploration effort by both superpowers. The luster of not only Apollo 8 but even Apollo 11 would be dimmed by such a Soviet feat, and the Americans, even under Nixon, would feel driven to do more; the Soviets would have committed themselves to a deep space program in a highly public way that could not be disavowed as it was in our history, forcing the Politburo to fund such efforts.

      It’s interesting to think about because we now know that the Soviets *were* closer than we realized (or the Russians themselves have admitted even to this day) to attempting a Zond circumlunar flight in December 1968, with frantic activity underway at Baikonur right up to the last day of the Soviet lunar launch window. See here: http://www.astronautix.com/r/russiathereonlandinghoax.html

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