The 50th anniversary of Apollo 8: Humanity’s first trip to the Moon

On December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center atop a Saturn V rocket, beginning one of the most historic trips in human history.
By | Published: December 21, 2018 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
The Apollo 8 mission lifted off from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center at 7:51 a.m. on December 21, and slid into lunar orbit three days later, astounding the world with a live television broadcast on Christmas Eve.
National Geographic Creative/Bruce Dale
In the summer of 1968, astronaut Frank Borman was deep into training as the mission leader to test the Apollo command and lunar modules in Earth orbit. The flight would be risky. He and crew members Jim Lovell and Bill Anders would be the first humans to ride the Saturn V rocket. The massive vehicle was tested twice on unmanned missions (both ultimately successful) but the second flight had serious glitches, including vertical oscillations (dubbed the pogo effect) and premature engine shutdowns.

By August, delays in the lunar module development meant that the mission would not have the very spacecraft it was intended to test. That’s when Apollo program manager George Low proposed a bold mission: orbit the Moon. The Apollo 8 crew would still fly, but their destination would be lunar orbit, but minus the lunar lander. A successful mission would give the United States a decisive lead in the space race against the Soviets.

Low’s pitch was accepted, and on August 19, 1968, NASA directors gave the Apollo 8 crew their new mission. They had just four months to learn how to fly to the moon.

Their assignment was contingent on the success of Apollo 7, in which three astronauts took the command module on an 11-day, Earth-orbit shakedown cruise in October 1968. The green light for the lunar mission came on November 12, just five weeks before its scheduled launch.

Borman, Lovell and Anders were quick studies. They blasted off on December 21 and slid into lunar orbit three days later, astounding the world with a live television broadcast on Christmas Eve.

As they pointed the camera to the lunar surface and panned to the distant Earth, they read from the Book of Genesis. To those watching the grainy video feed, it marked an astonishing end to a year filled with war, civil unrest and assassinations. Their safe return cemented the US lead in the space race and led to six successful landings on the Moon.