December 21, 1968
Apollo 8, the second human spaceflight mission of the Apollo program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was launched from the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 7:51 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. The members of this mission’s crew were U.S. Air Force (USAF) Colonel Frank Borman, U.S. Navy Captain James A. Lovell, and USAF Major William A. Anders. They became the first humans to leave Earth’s gravity and orbit the Moon.
“The three astronauts of Apollo 8 soared through the black emptiness of space tonight on their way to man’s first rendezvous with the moon,” noted the New York Times in recounting the spacecraft’s progress on the day of the launch. “Flying higher and faster than man has ever traveled, looking back on receding earth as a greenish-blue sphere, the astronauts were assured by controllers on the ground that they were on a true course for their planned orbit of the moon on Christmas Eve.”
Apollo 8 did indeed reach the vicinity of the Moon by December 24, and the crew orbited that natural satellite a total of 10 times over the course of 20 hours. As the astronauts rounded the Moon at one point, Lovell characterized the Earth – as seen from that unique faraway vantage point – as a “grand oasis in the big vastness of space.”
The astronauts began their journey back to Earth on Christmas Day, with Apollo 8 safely splashing down in the Pacific Ocean two days later. “This flight is one of the great pioneering efforts of mankind,” declared Dr. Thomas O. Paine, NASA’s acting administrator, during a post-splashdown news conference. “We feel very humble that we were given the opportunity to perform this historic feat.”
The achievements of Apollo 8 led to Borman, Lovell, and Anders being named Time magazine’s “Men of the Year” for 1968. The success of Apollo 8 also set the stage for Apollo 11, a spaceflight that took place the following year and resulted in astronaut Neil Armstrong becoming the first person to walk on the Moon.
For more information on Apollo 8, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_8.