Fifty years ago this week, NASA launched the Apollo 8 mission. It was mankind's first adventure outside low Earth orbit, the first trip around the moon, and the first time anyone got to see Earth as a distant object, a blue marble in space. And it wasn't even supposed to happen.
Astronauts Frank Borman, Bill Anders and Lovell were not supposed to visit the moon at all. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had assigned these men to Apollo 9, a fairly routine test of the lunar excursion module (LEM) in Earth’s orbit. But during the summer of 1968, U.S. officials feared an unexpected Soviet jaunt to the moon, so just 16 weeks before the scheduled liftoff, they reassigned the astronauts to an incredibly ambitious and dangerous flight. This decision was essential “to put us on the right timeline for Apollo 11,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum and author of the new book, Apollo to the Moon: A History in 50 Objects.
Flight Director Christopher Kraft told Borman’s wife Susan that the odds of her husband’s return were fifty-fifty. As launch day arrived on December 21, 1968, many “engineers and scientists at NASA question[ed] whether the crew” would ever return.
One of the reasons for those low odds was because the Saturn V missile had only been used twice, and one of those times was a complete failure. Another was the crucial rocket burn that had to be performed on the far side of the moon, when the astronauts would be completely out of touch with Earth. But the decade was running out, and America was dead set on reaching the moon. What the public recalls about the mission was the Christmas Eve broadcast from the astronauts. You can read the rest of the story of Apollo 8 at Smithsonian.