Activation of the fuel cells and the loading of cryogenics heralded the final count on the night of 19-20 December. The added tension of a manned launch began to show. Debus expressed the general mood on the afternoon of the 19th: "To go to the moon is symbolic of man's leaving earth, the opening of a vast new frontier. If we hadn't gained confidence in what we're doing, it would be an unendurable stress."67 According to Paul C. Donnelly of the Test Operations Office, the astronauts "do not make it more difficult. They make it easier, because people respond better; everyone does a little better than he did when they were unmanned."68 When night came, huge searchlights made Apollo 8 visible for miles. Poised on its pad, ready for man's first trip to the moon, it was a Christmas scene of rare beauty. Before dawn of the 21st, the sightseers already clogged the roads. The air was chilly, the dark sky filled with stars. Buses brought newsmen through the gates, and helicopters carried VIPs above the traffic. The distant Atlantic was the pale blue of predawn. With the morning light, Apollo 8 held everyone's gaze. People stopped their nervous prelaunch chatter, and stood in front of their cars. Radios announced "T - 30 minutes and counting." Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders had long before taken their cramped, temporarily supine positions. On ignition, a jet of steam shot from the pad below the Saturn. The crowd gasped. Then great flames spurted. Clouds of smoke billowed up on either side of the giant, completely hiding its base. From the midst of this fiery mass, Apollo 8 rose, slowly at first, as if unsure it could really lift free.
Suddenly the noise rolled across the three intervening miles, and vibrations struck the VIP and press bleachers. Flocks of ducks, herons, and small birds rose frantically from the marshes and filled the sky; and then came the most memorable noise of all, a triumphant cheer. A cloud blurred the view. Something fell out of the cloud, cartwheeling toward the blue ocean - the first stage had cut off. The giant second stage reappeared above the cloud, a bright star, diminishing second by second, until it faded from sight. People again turned their attention to their radios, listening attentively until the news came that Apollo 8 was in earth orbit.
Apollo 8 will be remembered for its demonstration of a great advance in space technology, for the incredible perfection that men and machines achieved throughout the mission, and for its television exploits. By television, people saw the earth from a distance of 313,800 kilometers. They saw the moon's surface from a distance of 96.5 kilometers and watched the earth rise over the lunar horizon. The astronauts described the dark Sea of Tranquility - an area designated as a landing site for a later Apollo mission. The television cameras measured the long shadows of the sunrise on the moon.
Then followed on Christmas Eve one of mankind's most memorable moments. "In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth." The voice was that of Anders, the words were from Genesis." And the Earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters and God said, 'Let there be light,' and God saw the light and that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness."
Lovell continued, "And God called the light day, and the darkness he called night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, 'Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters. And let it divide the waters from the waters.' And God made firmament, and divided the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And evening and morning were the second day."
Borman read on, "And God said, 'Let the waters under the Heavens be gathered together in one place. And the dry land appear.' And it was so. And God called the dry land Earth. And the gathering together of the waters he called seas. And God saw that it was good." Borman paused, and spoke more personally, "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."69
On Christmas Day in the morning, Borman reignited the Apollo engine to break free of lunar gravity. Mission Control Center soon announced that Apollo 8 was on course, on time, at the correct speed. It landed in the Pacific shortly before midnight on 27 December.
The men of Apollo 8 had many firsts to their credit: they were the first to navigate the space between earth and moon, the first to experience the gravity of a body other than earth, the first to show live television transmission of the full earth disk, the first to exceed speeds of 38,625 kilometers per hour, the first to view the moon close-up with the naked eye, and they had set a distance-from-earth record for manned flight of approximately 359,000 kilometers. Somewhere in the list, but with a high priority at KSC and throughout the world of NASA and its contractors, they were the first men to ride the Saturn V.70
During the outward flight and to a lesser extent on the return, Borman suffered some form of sickness that appeared to be related to sleeping pills and led to a feeling of nausea. As there had been a slight epidemic of influenza at Kennedy Space Center, there was some concern that the astronauts might be suffering from this illness, as had the Apollo 7 crew members. Fortunately this proved false, and the crew completed the mission in good physical shape.
The official objectives of the mission went beyond flying ten orbits around the moon and included navigating the command-service module, communicating with earth, making corrections in mid-course, determining food needs, and controlling temperatures inside the spacecraft. In addition, engineers had tested in detail the systems and procedures directly related to lunar landings and other operations in the vicinity of the moon.
NASA planned this mission, like all others, on a step-by-step "commit point" basis. This allowed Mission Control to decide whether to continue the mission, return the craft to earth, or change to an alternative mission before each major maneuver, depending upon the condition of the Apollo and its crew. Thus, Control could have returned the spacecraft to earth direct by way of an elongated, elliptical path in space, in effect still an earth orbit, instead of entering lunar orbit. The flight was a faultless demonstration of the command and service modules, particularly the restart capability of the main service module engine on which the return journey depended. Besides television, the crew carried cameras loaded with color film. These yielded dramatic pictures of the earth viewed from the vicinity of the moon and color photographs of the moon's surface.
The Apollo 8 mission also highlighted KSC's tremendous achievement in the managerial task of assembling the equipment, controlling the ground support facilities, and achieving a liftoff within 1/6 of a second of the time scheduled months before. In the technical debriefing of the Apollo 8 astronauts at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston on 2 January 1969, Borman, Lovell, and Anders had little to suggest for improvement of preflight procedures at KSC. Their only recommendation was for a later date for the emergency egress test at the pad.71 Other recommendations dealt with in-flight procedures of immediate concern to the experts at the Manned Spacecraft Center, not KSC. NASA granted awards to 12 key spaceport officials for their contribution to the Apollo 8 launch. Among those honored was George F. Page, Chief of the Spacecraft Operations Division. The recognition pleased the spacecraft team, several of whom spoke about Page as "one of the unsung heros, an outstanding intermediate management man. He applies the pressure that makes others perform."72
In briefing the Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight on 28 February, Debus said of the flight:
The impact of Apollo 8, in my opinion, is something that defies quantitative measurement. Following the launch of Apollo 8, the Kennedy Space Center received over 5,000 telegrams, phone calls, and letters from all over the world. This was by far the greatest volume of messages. . . . following a launch. A similar theme ran through all of these communications. For Americans, it was one of intense pride in their country and its achievements. From friends all over the world - and letters came from 28 countries - it was one of pride in the human race and a feeling of gratitude to America. These letters came from men, women, the elderly, the young, the black, the yellow, the Christian, the Jew, the Moslem, the Heads of State, the laborer, the engineer and the underprivileged. Apollo 8 had some specific significance for everyone. This reaction certainly must be evaluated in terms of world prestige, technological accomplishments, and power.73