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Apollo 8: Mankind’s Most Epic Journey

In December, 1968, NASA launched the first manned mission to the moon. No one, not even the astronauts on board, were certain that they’d return safely. Their journey, the “most hazardous and dangerous ever embarked upon”, took them to ... ... Read Transcript

- [Narrator] In 1968,both the United States

and the Russians wereengaged in the space race,

and the Soviets had a big edge.

The US needed its best soldiers

and scientists for this battle.

In Frank Borman they had both.

He was an Air Force fighter pilot

who had a Master's inaeronautical engineering,

in short, the perfect candidate

for America's astronaut program.

- I'll be honest withyou, I wasn't interested

in walking on the moonor picking up rocks.

I didn't join because I'man explorer or adventurer.

In my view, it was a seriousoperation akin to combat,

and I was there for that reason.

- [Narrator] By 1968, NASAhad fallen behind schedule,

and all flights were grounded

after a fatal firekilled three astronauts.

Meanwhile, the Sovietshad plans to send men

around the moon by the end of the year.

America had to act and act fast.

And so in the course of one afternoon,

NASA outlined the basicparameters of Apollo 8.

Frank Borman was named commander.

Astronauts Jim Lovell and BillAnders rounded out the crew.

The date was set, liftoffon December 21st, 1968,

giving everyone only a few weeks

to train for NASA's riskiest mission.

- Everybody was determined to win,

and they were all motivated.

As a matter of fact, I thinkit was the greatest team

this country's everproduced since World War II.

- [Narrator] Apollo 8 was scheduled

to reach the moon on December 24th.

If they failed, Christmas would be ruined.

So on December 20th

at around T-minus 12 hours until liftoff,

Frank Borman knelt downby his bedside to pray.

- Well, I prayed, ofcourse, the Lord's Prayer,

as I've done every night of my life

as long as I can remember.

But I also prayed that basically,

that the crew would do a good job,

because I didn't wanta, I didn't want our,

we hadn't had a lot of time to train,

and I didn't wantanybody to make a mistake

that would endanger the mission.

- [Narrator] After a sleepless night,

Frank and his fellow astronauts boarded

the massive Saturn V rocket.

And with three brave men36 stories in the air,

the world was watching the final countdown

to a mission that few believed

would even get off the ground.

- We were going through a checklist,

listening to the ground.

- [Man On Radio] 15, 14.

- You're totally focused on your job.

- [Man On Radio] 13, 12.

- And it was, it was just business.

- [Man On Radio] 11, 10, 9.

- Look, I'd like to say that we did

some heroic job, and we saved them.

Actually, everything worked well.

- [Narrator] At 7:51 am.

- [Man On Radio] We haveignition sequence start.

The engines are on.

- [Narrator] For thefirst time in history.

- [Man On Radio] Four, three.

- [Narrator] Man was headed to the moon.

- [Man On Radio] One,zero, we have commit.

We have, we have liftoff

at 7:51 am Eastern Standard time.

- I don't think our Gs got upmore than about 5 1/2 or six.

All in all, the Saturn wasa, was a wonderful ride.

- [Narrator] Within a fewminutes after liftoff,

the Apollo 8 crew had gone higher

than anyone had ever gone before.

- And you know, fromstanding on the ground,

11 minutes later you're in orbit.

- [Man On Radio] This one is smoother.

- [Narrator] By the 55-hourmarker of the flight,

Apollo 8 started to be reeledin by the moon's gravity.

The crew was now falling upwardstowards the lunar surface

and the most harrowingpart of their mission.

- You entered the lunar orbitwhen you were behind the moon,

so there was nocommunication with the Earth.

- [Narrator] Before loss of signal,

NASA passed on a messagefrom Frank's wife,

who wanted him to know thecustard's in the oven at 350.

- Susan and I had alwayskidded about that, you know?

You gotta do the custard,and I'll do the flying.

And she wanted to reassure me

that everything washome, at home was okay.

- [Narrator] As Susanwaited by the squawk box,

the crew was 240,000 miles away.

There, alone and upside down,

the astronauts became the first men

to ever lay eyes on the barren landscape

of the far side of the moon.

The time, a few minutes before 5:00 am

on December 24th, Christmas Eve.

- [Frank] We looked down,and the lunar surface

was just different shadesof gray and black and white.

- [Narrator] Shortlyafter spotting the moon,

the crew executed a burn to make sure

they weren't going too fastor too slow for lunar orbit.

A half-hour later, Mission Control

regained contact with the ship.

For hours upon hours, the astronauts

photographed the arid terrain to scout out

potential landing sitesfor future missions.

On the fourth pass around the moon,

across the arc of the lunar horizon,

Bill Anders spotted somethingthat changed the world.

- And we looked up, andthere in the background was

the only object in the entireuniverse that had any color.

And here we are, a long way from home,

and this beautiful blue marble

is floating back there 240,000 miles away.

You have to remember, thiswas the Christmas season.

I can't, again, speak forhow Jim and Bill felt,

but I was nostalgic; I missed my family.

- [Narrator] At that moment,Anders captured a photo

that has since been called Earthrise.

Time magazine later said,"in a war-torn year,

"it captured the beauty andfragility of our home planet."

Back at home, familieswere gathered around

to celebrate Christmas Eveand watch Apollo's progress.

It's estimated that abillion people were tuned in

to Apollo 8's Christmas Eve broadcast.

And to the largestaudience in human history,

the astronauts had amessage for all mankind.

- When we were told thatwe'd have the largest,

I went, Jim and Bill and I tried to focus

on what was appropriate.

I know we came up withall kinds of things.

Some of 'em kind of sillyabout Christmas and so on.

And it was very difficult.

So I asked a friend of mine,

and he couldn't come up with anything.

So he had a friend that he trusted.

He spent one whole night

and had nothing butcrumpled-up note paper,

couldn't figure out anything either.

And it was about 3:30 or 4 o'clock,

his wife came walking down the stairs

and said, "Joe, what inthe world are you doing?"

He then explained what.

And she said, "well, why don't you

"just start at the beginning?"

And he said, "what do youmean?" She said, "Genesis."

As soon as it was suggested to us,

all three of us said, "whydidn't we think of that?"

- [Narrator] The crew readfrom the book of Genesis,

10 verses straight fromthe creation story.

- [Frank] I think we weretrying to convey the fact

that it wasn't just all happenstance,

that there was a power behind the world

and behind our, behindlife, that gave it meaning.

It was a very rewarding feeling for me

that here we were in acountry that felt that way.

Now can you imagine that happening today?

Or can you imagine if thathad been a Russian up there,

and we'd heard about Leninand Stalin and communism.

All they told us was todo something appropriate.

- [Narrator] Christmas dayarrived a few hours later,

and with it time to come home.

As the astronauts reflectedon the holiday at the moon,

Anders deadpanned he hoped he wouldn't be

spending New Year's there as well.

The concern was real.

If the engines failed to fire,

the crew would be stuckin lunar orbit forever.

Meanwhile, Susan Borman beganwriting her husband's eulogy.

And as she sat at her kitchen table,

the Apollo 8 crew was in radio silence.

- [Houston] Apollo 8, Houston.


- [Narrator] Finally, at12:25 am, Christmas morning,

Jim Lovell's voice crackledthrough the speakers.

- We got the confirmation that we were,

we were on a perfect trajectory.

That was one of great satisfaction.

- [Narrator] And at long last,

Apollo 8 crew was on its way home,

The final quartermillion miles to conclude

history's longest holiday trip.

And before long, to thegarbled tune of O Holy Night,

the sleepy crew wasgetting ready for re-entry.

Back at home in the Borman household,

presents would have to wait.

Susan refused to open anything

until she could do so with her husband.

Instead, she took her boys to church.

There, the reverend prayed for the benefit

of one member of the congregation

that the God of timeand space watch over her

and protect the astronauts of our country.

Thousands upon thousands of miles away,

Apollo 8 picked up speed.

Soon they were racing back home

10 times faster than abullet fired from a rifle.

On the morning of December 27th,

the crew was given the go for re-entry.

- In the first place, you had to relieve

an enormous thermalload on the spacecraft.

- [Narrator] That meantjetting the surface module.

Now all that was left ofthe titanic Saturn V rocket

was a 10-foot cone.

- You come into theatmosphere at a very shallow,

but a definite down angle.

- [Narrator] This angle had to be precise.

Too shallow and the crewwould skip off the Earth.

Too steep and they'd be incinerated.

Like many other parts of this mission,

this had never been done before.

- As a matter of fact, I don't think

it had really had a successfulor a complete test of that

even unmanned, but again,it worked perfectly.

- [Narrator] While the Earth's atmosphere

would slow the ship down,there was a trade-off.

It would generate heat.

Just outside the spacecraft,

a few feet from the astronauts' faces,

temperatures rose to 5,000 degrees,

half that of the surface of the sun.

With the added heat came added pressure,

in this case six timesthe weight of gravity.

- When you take those kindof Gs, your eyes flatten out,

so you get tunnel vision,looking like this.

It's hard to breathe.

You feel like you have anelephant sitting on your chest.

But when you pull six Gs for six minutes,

it becomes a little more interesting.

(laughs) So at the end of the six minutes,

I think we were all huffing and puffing.

- [Narrator] At this point,

the entire ship was like a manned comet.

One Pan-Am pilot saw the craft

and estimated its fierytale to be 100 miles long.

At 40,000 feet, theastronauts were hurtling

into the Pacific at 680 miles an hour.

And NASA could only hope

the crew was on the right trajectory.

Finally the parachutedeployed, then another.

And the ship softlyglided down to the ocean.

At exactly 4:51 am local on December 27th,

right on its scheduled time and location,

the ship splashed down into the ocean.

147 hours after blastoff, theApollo 8 crew was back home.

- I'd like to tell youthat I flew it perfectly,

because I am, I was the world's,

I may still be the world's best pilot,

but nevertheless, it wasall on the autopilot.

- [Narrator] Aboard the USS Yorktown,

the three astronautsreceived a hero's welcome.

- It felt wonderful.

We'd done the job; we were back on Earth.

I was gonna see my family in a few hours.

I mean, it's the high pointof the, of your life, really.

- [Narrator] The Apollo 8 journey

proved man could make it to the moon.

And minutes after arrivinghome, Frank Borman,

who joined NASA to helpAmerica fight the Cold War,

was getting congratulated

by the president of the United States.

- Thank God.

- I was extremely proud of the fact

that we had done our job,

and the mission was successful,

and we beat the Russians.

- [Narrator] For their part,

the Russians never reached the moon.

And after their defeat in the space race,

they stopped trying.

The Soviets said they hoped Apollo 8

would open the door to more cooperation

between them and the United States.

That dream came true, and even today

Russian cosmonauts andAmericans work side-by-side.

- I think we can attributeit to winning the Cold War.

I think that was the, an important factor,

winning the Cold War.

- [Narrator] The reading ofGenesis would go down in lore.

The Pope himself later remarked,

"in that moment, the world had peace."

- I think that had moreimpact than anything else.

- [Narrator] The following July--

- [Neil] That's one small step for man--

- [Narrator] Neil Armstrong took mankind's

first steps on the lunar surface.

- [Neil] One giant leap for mankind.

- [Narrator] He did so inthe Sea of Tranquility,

an area Bill Anders photographed

as a potential landing site on Apollo 8.

With his Cold War complete,

Frank Borman went on to bethe CEO of Eastern Airlines

before retiring to a ranch in Montana.

Still, the Apollo 8 missionis fresh on his mind.

- It was a wonderful demonstration

of what this country can do

when it finally pullstogether in one direction.

And from the crew of Apollo 8,

we close with good night, good luck,

a merry Christmas, andGod bless all of you,

all of you on the good Earth.


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