Moon Orbit, An Historic Mission
Dec. 21-27, 1968: On December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 took off atop a Saturn V booster from the Kennedy Space Center with three astronauts aboard Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, Jr., and William A. Anders for a historic mission to orbit the Moon. At first it was planned as a mission to test Apollo hardware in the relatively safe confines of low Earth orbit, but senior engineer George M. Low of the Manned Spacecraft Center at Houston, Texas (renamed the Johnson Space Center in 1973), and Samuel C. Phillips, Apollo Program Manager at NASA headquarters, pressed for approval to make it a circumlunar flight. The advantages of this could be important, both in technical and scientific knowledge gained as well as in a public demonstration of what the U.S. could achieve. In the summer of 1968 Low broached the idea to Phillips, who then carried it to the administrator, and in November the agency reconfigured the mission for a lunar trip.
After Apollo 8 made one and a half Earth orbits its third stage began a burn to put the spacecraft on a lunar trajectory. As it traveled outward the crew focused a portable television camera on Earth and for the first time humanity saw its home from afar, a tiny, lovely, and fragile "blue marble" hanging in the blackness of space. When it arrived at the Moon on Christmas Eve this image of Earth was even more strongly reinforced when the crew sent images of the planet back while reading the first part of the Bible "God created the heavens and the Earth, and the Earth was without form and void" before sending Christmas greetings to humanity. The next day they fired the boosters for a return flight and "splashed down" in the Pacific Ocean on December 27. It was an enormously significant accomplishment coming at a time when American society was in crisis over Vietnam, race relations, urban problems, and a host of other difficulties. And if only for a few moments the nation united as one to focus on this epochal event. Two more Apollo missions occurred before the climax of the program, but they did little more than confirm that the time had come for a lunar landing.
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