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Why Apollo 8 marked a critical milestone — seven months before the moon landing

It's been 50 years since NASA’s critical Apollo 8, the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth, orbit the moon and return. The bold and risky mission paved the way for the moon landing seven months later, at a time when Cold War pressure weighed heavily on American space exploration. Jeffrey Brown has a look back at Apollo 8, also the focus of NOVA's "Apollo's Daring Mission."

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  • William Brangham:

    Most Americans know well that indelible, incredible moment of the first moon landing.

    But before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the moon, NASA's Apollo 8 mission was a crucial stepping-stone for America and its space program.

    Jeffrey Brown marks the 50th anniversary of that mission.

    It's this week's science on the Leading Edge segment.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It was a year of tragedy that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, civil rights protests and riots, growing anger around the Vietnam War.

    But as 1968 came to close, three American astronauts, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, forged a new chapter in human history, becoming the first to leave Earth's gravitational pull, orbit the moon, and return.

    It would set the stage for a moon landing seven months later. It was bold, incredibly risky and largely improvised in a matter of months, the story told in a new episode of "NOVA" airing tonight. It sets out the tensions and Cold War pressures behind the mission.

    Here's an excerpt.

  • Jim Lovell:

    We were training in California, the three of us, Bill, myself and Frank, when suddenly Frank got called back to Houston.

  • Frank Borman:

    He explained. He said: "Frank, I want you back here in Houston right away. I have to discuss something with you."

  • Narrator:

    Deke Slayton is in charge of the astronauts.

  • Frank Borman:

    And so I said: "Well, Deke, let's discuss it now. I'm busy. I can do it over the phone."

    And he reminded me who was boss. Things weren't gentle and politically correct in those days. We weren't candy asses, OK? And so I went back to Houston. And He said, "Close the door."

    So, I realized that something was big.

  • Narrator:

    A CIA spy satellite has photographed an enormous Soviet rocket on a launch pad. It can mean only one thing.

  • Frank Borman:

    The CIA had information that the Soviets were planning on sending a man around the moon in the year of 1968.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For more on the mission and its significance, we turned to Howard McCurdy of American University. He's an expert on space policy and author of "Space and the American Imagination."

    Welcome to you.

  • Howard McCurdy:

    Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, born of Cold war pressures and a rush to move quickly.

  • Howard McCurdy:

    This is the crucial battle in the Cold War.

    The Cold War is going to be fought out on technological grounds. And the battle, from the Soviets' perspective, is, can they get to the moon before the United States gets to the moon? And they have two programs under way, one to circle the moon and the other to land on the moon.

    They are very much in the competition that fall, before the Christmas flight.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But the decision, the U.S. decision is to rush forward quickly. What kind of risk did that entail?

  • Howard McCurdy:

    The Apollo fire two years earlier that had taken the lives of three astronauts completely scrambled the flight schedule to get the Americans to the moon.

    And the two largest risks were the Saturn V rocket had never been flown with astronauts, and the previous test flight, which was unmanned, was a failure. So they were flying a failed vehicle for the first time with astronauts on board, not knowing whether or not they'd be able to solve the technical problems.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Why was this mission, this next step, so important in terms of lunar exploration? What was it meant to do?

  • Howard McCurdy:

    What it was meant to do, essentially, was to test our ability, in the Soyuz craft for the Russians and for the Apollo spacecraft for the Americans, to leave the gravitational field of the Earth, travel to the moon, and ignite rockets on the backside of the moon to return safely back to Earth.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And never done before, right?

  • Howard McCurdy:

    Never done before.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And improvised.

  • Howard McCurdy:

    And done on the backside of the moon, besides…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Howard McCurdy:

    … out of contact with the Earth.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Howard McCurdy:

    No communication satellites on the backside of the moon to tell us whether or not the burn was successful. If the burn was not successful, they would — they could go anywhere.

    They could circle the moon eternally, or they could come back around and miss the Earth.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So take us to the drama of that particular moment. There was a successful launch.

  • Howard McCurdy:

    A successful launch.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It reaches the moon, and then?

  • Howard McCurdy:

    It reaches the moon.

    And, on Christmas Eve, as our present to the world, the three astronauts read from the Book of Genesis, the creation story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Man:

    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. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, let there be light.

  • Howard McCurdy:

    And looking down at the moon, which is completely barren, and then back at the Earth, they took a picture of the Earth rising over the horizon of the moon.

    It was the earthrise picture, and it was one of the first opportunities for us to see the Earth as it really exists in the cosmos, a fragile blue and white marble.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That photo became iconic, right?

  • Howard McCurdy:

    Iconic, along with the one from Apollo 17, which is the whole Earth and shows the cradle of civilization in Africa.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, that — I mean, history sort of swallowed Apollo — the Apollo 8 mission, when it was followed so quickly by the moon landing.

  • Howard McCurdy:

    But it was crucial…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Howard McCurdy:

    … because the Soviet Union could have beat us, if they had not had problems with their parachute drogues and their parachutes on the Soyuz craft with the unmanned vehicles.

    And, in fact, in the mission that was carried out in September, prior to the Apollo 8 mission, the Soviet Union put tape recorders on the Soyuz craft, so that our intelligence community thought that they were hearing the voices of cosmonauts, and the thought was temporarily, they beat us to the moon.

    They thought that propaganda spectacular would be enough to cancel out any advantage that we might have in finishing the Saturn V rocket and getting Armstrong and Aldrin to the surface of the moon.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, Howard McCurdy, thank you very much.

  • Howard McCurdy:

    Thank you.

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