During Christmastime in 1968, one of the most significant events in human history occurred. The flight of Apollo 8 marked the first time humans departed Earth orbit and traveled to the dark side of the moon. The Christmas Eve lunar orbit of Apollo 8 also marked one of most profoundly unifying moments for our nation. The journey to space was on everyone’s mind Christmas morning. And the fulfillment of man’s most ancient dream was illuminated by man’s most ancient text, while the entire world watched in wonder.
With the eventual landing of Apollo 11 on the surface of the moon, the achievement of Apollo 8 was nudged into the background. School textbooks teach about Apollo 11, but not Apollo 8. Yet the lunar landing of Apollo 11 merely capped off the journey of Apollo 8. As the world watched on live television, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders departed Earth orbit for space and orbited the moon for the first time.
Perhaps only the circumnavigation of Magellan in 1522 can compare to Apollo 8, and Magellan himself died halfway around the globe. It had a fraction of the significance and risk of Apollo 8. Centuries of experience animated any 16th century sea voyage. When Frank Borman and his crew ignited a single engine burn to leave Earth orbit, they were in a fragile capsule only 12 feet in diameter crossing the cold dangerous expanse of space. Simply, Apollo 8 may be the most significant event in the history of human exploration.
Not only were Borman and his crew the first to depart Earth orbit, they still hold the record for the highest altitude flight. Because of the type of lunar orbit Apollo 8 deployed, they ventured further from Earth than any subsequent manned craft. They were also the first humans to gaze on the totality of the entire Earth. Just imagine their awe.
The awe of the beautiful and distant Earth was captured in Apollo 8’s famous photo of Earthrise over the lunar horizon. In contrast, the surface of the moon below appeared terrifying, bleak, and lifeless to the astronauts – an Earth before creation.