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Apollo 8 astronauts talk about NASA’s epic first mission to the Moon

The Apollo 8 Crew included (L to R) Jim Lovell, Command Module (CM) pilot Bill Anders, Lunar Module (LM) Pilot; and Frank Borman, Commander/The Apollo 8 crew of start.
(NASA/MSFC)

On the damp morning of Dec. 21, 1968, NASA’s Apollo 8 spacecraft lifted off atop a Saturn V rocket from Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center on humanity’s first journey to another world.

Strapped to the inside of the spacecraft as it rose above the clouds in the Florida sky, the astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders would soon be the first people to see the far side of the Moon during a series of historical lunar orbits.

On the 50th anniversary of the mission, Borman and Lovell, who are both at the age of 90, recounted their incredible journey to Fox News as if it was yesterday.

Changes to NASA’s mission schedule meant that the crew had much less time to prepare for the Apollo 8, in comparison with other products. “We had a very short four months – it was like drinking water from a fire hose,” mission commander Borman explained, knowing that it was a stark contrast to the 12 months of start of preparation of the astronauts were used. “We had so much to do, so quickly.”

The second manned spaceflight of the Apollo program, Apollo 8 was an essential stepping stone for the famous Apollo 11 mission which landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon the following year.

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Apollo 8 entered lunar orbit on christmas Eve, 1968. In total, the spacecraft made 10 lunar orbits, so the astronauts have a remarkable view of the Moon. They were also the first people to travel to a place where the pull of the gravity of the Earth is less than that of another celestial body.

Searchlights penetrate the darkness surrounding Apollo 8 on Pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center.
(NASA/MSFC)

Both astronauts recall their amazement at the sight of the Moon near the Apollo spacecraft was only 60 miles above the lunar surface. “We were like three school kids looking through a candy store window,” said Lovell.

Borman told Fox News that, after examination of the moon’s surface, less than Lovell and Anders, he was surprised by what he saw. “It was very sad, all impact craters – I was surprised,” he explained.

The retired U.S. air force colonel said that the famous moment when the astronauts saw the Earth rise over the surface of the Moon for the first time will always live with him. Otherwise, captured the incredible scene in a photograph known as “Earthrise.”

“The thing I remember most was seeing the Earth on moon horizon – Bill Else got that photo,” he said.

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“Seeing the Earth for the first time on the moon horizon, I suddenly realized how far we were,” added Lovell.

The famous “Earthrise” taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders. (NASA)

On christmas Eve, the astronauts held a live broadcast from the spaceship in which they showed images of the distant Earth and took turns reading from the book of Genesis.

Lovell told Fox News that he tried not to focus on the immense danger he and his crewmates were facing. “We were so far away, anything can happen, but we put it in the back of our minds,” he said.

The astronauts began their trip back from lunar orbit on christmas day 1968.

“For me, the period of the greatest anxiety was when we fired the rocket to the Moon – if that hadn’t worked, we would still be in a job there,” said Borman. “We burned the motor on the back of the Moon – it was for 3 minutes, 16 seconds – something like that.”

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Lovell the experience of Apollo 8 would be an invaluable asset as he famously commanded the ill fated Apollo 13, he added. When Apollo 8 was on the way back from the Moon, the former Navy pilot pushed the wrong button, placing the spacecraft in a pre-launch of the navigation position. “I hit the wrong button during the navigation, and put the spacecraft back on the launchpad’,” he joked. “We have to get back on course – that helped us on [Apollo] 13 because we had to turn off the guidance system to save power. So that [experience on Apollo 8] gave me a lot of training.”

The Apollo 8 crew launches on the first manned mission to the Moon.
(NASA)

During the approximately 30-minute conversation, Borman told Lovell that are manual navigation of the stricken Apollo 13 spacecraft is regarded as the best accompaniment of the entire Apollo program.

Apollo 8 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, on Dec. 27, 1968, and the astronauts were recovered by the USS Yorktown. Lauded as heroes, the crew members were named in Time Magazine’s “Men of the Year” for 1968.

Almost 50 years to the day, both men marvel at how the Apollo-8 spacecraft carried out during the six-day mission. “The hardware worked perfectly during the entire mission,” said Borman.

“It was a great flight,” Lovell added. “Everything worked, go around the Moon at Christmas.”

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The astronaut also notes that Apollo 8 came at the end of a difficult year for the country, marred by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the bloody Tet offensive in Vietnam and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. “It was a real uplift, coming after a bad year,” he explained. “There was a lofty something positive that the American people can look back on and say: ‘we have done this, this is something we can be proud of’.”

Apollo 8 Commander Colonel Frank Borman leads the way as he, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot Major Bill Anders head to the launch pad for mankind’s first journey around the moon and the first aboard the Saturn V vehicle.
(NASA)

Although the key figures in the american space history, neither Borman nor Lovell the lunar surface. “I really did not care about walking on the lunar surface, that I was there, because it was a battle in the Cold War,” said Borman. “Jim was much more of an explorer than I was.”

“I was proud to be part of a historic mission of Apollo 8,” said Lovell.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the astronauts’ trip to space, PBS will air the NOVA documentary “Apollo’s Daring Mission”, on Dec. 26. Launched earlier this year, the book “Rocket Men” tells the story of America’s first mission to the Moon. “[Apollo 8] was a real odyssey,” the book of the author Robert Kurson told Fox News. “It was the first time we have ever left our world.”

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As for the future of the exploration of space, both Borman and Lovell think that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is the purpose of the establishment of a colony on Mars is wide of the mark. “I think the idea of the colonization of Mars is nuts, I don’t think it will happen,” said Borman. “But I think that the idea of putting [someone] on there, and perhaps the creation of a scientific lab like at the south pole is a good idea.”

The Apollo 8 Crew included (L to R) Jim Lovell, Command Module (CM) pilot Bill Anders, Lunar Module (LM) Pilot; and Frank Borman, Commander.
(NASA/MSFC)

Lovell agreed with his friend, noting that, thanks to the deployment of unmanned vehicles, such as NASA’s Mars rovers, we have more information from the Red Planet’s surface than Neil Armstrong did on the Moon’s surface.

The astronaut thinks that NASA is wise to re-focus its attention on the Moon. “I think we are only scratching the surface of the Moon with the Apollo,” he said. “When we go to Mars, can we use a ‘building block’ of the Moon.”

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

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