Video: Apollo 8: The first Earthrise

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/13/2011 7:51:33 AM ET 2011-06-13T11:51:33

Apollo 8 was the first flight to take humans beyond the grip of Earth’s gravity. During the Christmas season of 1968, astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and Bill Anders flew to the moon, entering orbit around its cratered surface and then safely returning to their native planet. They did not land on the lunar surface, but they did beat a Russian spaceship named Zond into an orbit around the moon. Their flight was a necessary prelude to landing astronauts on the celestial body closest to Earth. The complete story is in Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton’s book, "Moon Shot." Here’s an excerpt:

Image: "Moon Shot"
Open Road Integrated Media
"Moon Shot" recounts the story of the early space effort. NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree has updated the book, written with astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton as co-authors, for the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. and Soviet spaceflights.

Behind the mass of the moon, it was as if Apollo 8 and its three men did not exist.  There was no way to communicate with the spacecraft.  No telemetry signals could be received. The mission had gone quiet.

As the precise moment dictated by its flight plan, the big rocket fired in a soundless crash.  For 247 seconds the rocket blazed, a time period astronaut Jim Lovell described as the "longest four minutes I’ve ever spent."

It was a splendid and epochal moment.  Sixty-nine hours and 15 minutes after throwing off its shackles from the launch pad, Apollo 8 locked into lunar orbit.

No one on Earth knew that this had happened.  This was a time of cliff-hanging suspense, a time to count the minutes and seconds that must pass before Apollo 8 emerged from the lunar back side and could send the desperately hoped-for signal of success.  Apollo 8 communicator astronaut Jerry Carr kept up a persistent call of “Apollo 8 ... Apollo 8 ... Apollo 8 ...”

After what seemed like an eternity, headsets and speakers crackled. Smooth and calm as always came the voice of Jim Lovell:

"Go ahead, Houston."

Those three words — coming at just the instant they should have — sent Mission Control into a bedlam of cheering, whistling, shouting and applause. Electronic signals flashed their message on the big viewing board. The Apollo 8 was in an orbit 60 by 168.5 miles above the moon.  Later, on the third loop around the moon, the craft’s main engine fired again and dropped Apollo 8 into the desired, nearly circular orbit of 60.7 by 59.7 miles.

A thrilled global audience was waiting for the real story from space.  It had nothing to do with numbers, velocity, or the technical details of the spacecraft, or its parameters of celestial balance around the moon. The interest of those on Earth lay in one predominant direction:

What did it look like?

"Essentially gray, no color," reported Lovell, the first man ever to hold the job of lunar tour guide. He described the surface as "like plaster of Paris or a sort of grayish beach sand."  In the first of two telecasts from lunar orbit, the astronauts relayed vivid pictures of a wild and wondrous landscape, pitted with massive craters.

"It looks like a vast, lonely, forbidding place, an expanse of nothing ... clouds of pumice stone," Borman said. Lovell saw the distant Earth as "a grand oasis in the big vastness of space."   Anders added, "You can see the moon has been bombarded through the eons with numerous meteorites.  Every square inch is pock-marked."

Anders said most of moon's backside was too rugged for a manned landing.  “It looks like a sandpile my kids have been playing in for a long time," he said.

Lovell spoke eloquently. "The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring, and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth."

That Christmas Eve was like none other in the long history of celebrating the occasion. While millions of families gathered in homes throughout the planet, the three men orbiting the moon continued taking sharp motion pictures and hundreds of clear color photographs to share with Earth.

Then Bill Anders spoke, not just to Mission Control, but to the entire world listening to his words from so far away. "For all the people on earth," he said, his emotions unmasked, “the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you.”  A brief pause, and then Anders stunned his audience as he began reading from the verses of the book of Genesis:

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"In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. ...”  Anders read the first four verses. Lovell read the next four. Borman read two more verses: "... God saw that it was good." Then he sent to the world a special Christmas message:

"And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good earth."

Apollo 8 raced around the cratered landscape below, and Frank Borman was again stunned.   Suddenly he could see his home planet "rising" above the lunar horizon.  "This is the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life," he said.

The commander reached for his camera. The "rising" Earth that Borman photographed would become a U.S. postage stamp, a keepsake for billions.

More from 'Moon Shot':

Excerpted from "Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landings," by Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton with Jay Barbree. Reprinted with permission. Published by Open Road Integrated Media, copyright 2011. "Moon Shot" is available from Apple iBookstore,,, Sony Reader Storeand OverDrive.

© 2013  Reprints

Timeline: NASA's glory days

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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