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The First Voyage to the Moon, 1968
On October 4, 1957 the world awoke to headlines announcing that the Soviet Union had launched man’s first satellite into space. Sputnik 1 was the size of a beach ball and weighed 184 lbs. It remained in orbit around the earth for a little over two months. Although the satellite’s achievements may be diminutive by today’s standards, at the time, the event sent shock waves through the United States. Less than a month later, the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 with a dog named Laika aboard. Locked in a Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, the US had been out-maneuvered. The starting gun of the race for space had been fired.
The United States accelerated its space program, established the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) and passed legislation that revamped America’s public school curriculum to emphasize science and math programs that would provide the intellectual foundation for the training of future space scientists. NASA initiated the Mercury spaceflight program in 1958 with the goal of sending single-person spacecraft in orbit around the earth. On May 5, 1961 Allan B. Shepard Jr. became the first American to enter space during a 15-minute journey launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
On May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy called upon Congress to establish a space program that would land men on the moon by the end of the decade. NASA’s Gemini program was a first step in which two-man crews orbited the earth to research and test the various procedures necessary to send a space craft to the moon. The Apollo program followed with the objective of sending a three-man crew to the moon.
Apollo 8 would be the first mission to actually make the journey to the moon. Its objective was to reconnoiter potential landing sites on the lunar surface for future flights. The astronaughts would also test the critical theory that the spacecraft could use the moon’s gravitational pull as it passed its far side to place itself in orbit. It was a risky proposition that required the spacecraft's engine to be precisely ignited in order to place the vehicle into orbit. Too short of an engine burn could hurl the crew into deep space, too long of an ignition could crash the spacecraft into the lunar surface.
After a three-day journey, Apollo 8 approached the moon on December 24, 1968 with its crew of Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders. As the spacecraft slipped behind the moon, the crew prepared to ignite its engines and place themselves in orbit. The maneuver would have to be done – and done perfectly - while the crew was out of contact with earth. Anxious moments passed as ground control waited for a signal from the crew. Then, at the precise time predicted, Apollo 8 signaled that it had successfully achieved orbit of the moon. The crew orbited the moon for the next 20 hours before performing another critical burn of their rocket engine that took them out of orbit and on a trajectory for earth. Splashdown in the Pacific Ocean occurred on December 28.
"Welcome to the moon, Houston."
On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 sent two live TV broadcasts from the moon to earth. The video images from space captivated an audience of millions from around the globe. In the second broadcast, aired live at 9:30 Eastern Standard Time, the crew shared their experiences of the moon:
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