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Race to the Moon | Article

Looking at the Moon from Apollo 8

The astronauts of Apollo 8 were the first men to see the far side of the moon with their own eyes, without the aid of optical devices. From their orbital altitude of 69 statute miles, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders were able to describe the surface of the moon in detail.

"The back side [of the moon] looks like a sand pile my kids have played in for some time. It's all beat up, no definition, just a lot of bumps and holes."
— astronaut William Anders


The Dark Side of the Moon
As Apollo 8 neared its target, the spacecraft was turned so that its rocket engine pointed into the direction of flight. Bill Anders would later describe how he first became aware of the moon, as the spacecraft moved into the shadowed region where neither sunlight nor reflected light from Earth was visible -- what the astronauts called the "double umbra." As Anders recalled, "Suddenly, we saw millions of stars, more than you could see in a planetarium, to the point where it confused the constellations. So that was rather spectacular. And I remember looking at them because I was interested in astronomy, and then I looked kind of over my left shoulder and suddenly, the stars stopped. And there was this big black void, black hole. And that was the moon! That was the moon shielding the stars and yet not illuminated. It was as black as I've ever seen black. That was the only time in the flight the hair kind of came up on the back of my neck a little bit."

Black Velvet Sky
Jim Lovell remembered that after they fired their engine, "On the computer then it said words to the effect 'You are now in lunar orbit. Your orbit is 60X130 nautical miles.' We all looked out the window but we didn't see any moon. All we saw was black velvet sky. And then we rotated the spacecraft around 180 degrees and there, slowly slipping by, were the ancient old craters on the far side of the moon, just about sixty miles below.

A Big Beach
As they went around the far side of the moon, their radio connection to Earth was blocked by the moon's bulk. Their reactions to the far side were recorded on tape:


Lovell: Hey, I don't see a thing. Where are we?
Anders: It looks like a big beach down there...
Lovell: Hey, you know something; it's gray, huh?

Essentially Gray
Once they looped around the far side, they could once again communicate with mission control. Fellow astronaut Jerry Carr was acting as Capcom, the voice of Houston.

Carr: "Apollo 8, Houston. What does the ole moon look like from 60 miles? Over."

Lovell: "Okay, Houston. The moon is essentially gray, no color; looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a grayish beach sand. We can see quite a bit of detail. The Sea of Fertility doesn't stand out as well here as it does back on Earth. There's not as much contrast between that and the surrounding craters. The craters are all rounded off. There're quite a few of them, some of them are newer. Many of them look like -- especially the round ones -- look like hit by meteorites or projectiles of some sort."

Lovell: "We're getting quite a bit of contrast as we appear -- as we approach the terminator [the line between night and day]. The view appears to be good, no reflection of the Sun back to our eyes; it appears that visibility at this particular spot is excellent. It's very easy to pick out our first initial point; and over this mountain chain we can see the second initial point, the triangular mountain."

Before the flight, Lovell had named that triangular mountain Mount Marilyn, after his wife, and the name stuck.


Vast, Lonely, Stark
Later, during their Christmas Eve broadcast, the astronauts shared their impressions of the moon with the television audience.

Borman: "The moon is a different thing to each one of us. ... I know that my own impression is that it's a vast, lonely, forbidding type of existence or expanse of nothing. And it certainly would not appear to be a very inviting place to live or work."

Lovell: "The vast loneliness up here at the moon is awe inspiring, and it makes you realize what you have back there on Earth. The Earth from here is a grand oasis in the big vastness of space."

Anders: "The thing that impressed me the most was the lunar sunrises and sunsets. These in particular bring out the stark nature of the terrain."

Data for Future Flights
The photographs and films that the crew of Apollo 8 took of the moon gave scientists valuable information and helped NASA plan future landing missions. Just as important, data on the orbit of the spacecraft allowed controllers back on earth to better understand the moon's gravitational field, allowing them to plan future flights with real data, rather than mathematical models.

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