Apollo 8

The first human visit to lunar orbit

With Apollo 8, humans broke free of Earth orbit for the first time. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders became the first humans in space to lose sight of their home world and gaze upon the lunar farside. Later, they witnessed Earth rising above the lunar surface, snapping the Earthrise photo that marked a profound shift in human perspective. The mission demonstrated astronauts could ride the Saturn V rocket to space, enter and depart from lunar orbit, and return safely to Earth, all crucial milestones toward the 1969 Moon landing.

Liftoff of Apollo 8
Liftoff of Apollo 8 Image: NASA

On the morning of 21 Dec 1968, Borman, Lovell and Anders blasted off from Kennedy Space Center.

"After the vehicle was released, the noise in the cockpit got very loud," Borman recalled later of the mighty Saturn V. "Effective crew communication was impossible. The last call that I heard was a faint 'tower clear' call by the LOM (Launch Operations Manager)."

Despite the noise, the crew reported a smooth flight, and just twelve minutes later, Apollo 8 was safely orbiting the Earth. During the second orbit, the rocket’s third stage ignited again, blasting humans out of Earth orbit and on to the Moon for the very first time.

Apollo 8 crew
Apollo 8 crew The crew of Apollo 8 stands in front of the Apollo Mission Simulator at Kennedy Space Center. From left: Jim Lovell, William Anders, Frank Borman.Image: NASA

On 24 December, the crew passed behind the Moon and fired the service module's engines for four minutes, injecting them into lunar orbit. Another burn at the end of the second orbit placed the spacecraft into a circular orbit, 113 kilometers above the surface. On the fourth orbit, as the crew rolled their spacecraft to take panoramic photographs of the surface — including potential landing sites — Anders noticed the Earth rising above the horizon.

"Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there!” Anders said. “Here's the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!"

Anders snapped a monochrome picture of the Earthrise, while Lovell scrambled for a color film magazine. Anders then took two more color shots, the first of which became one of the most famous images of all time.

Earthrise When Apollo 8 astronauts Bill Anders, Frank Borman, and Jim Lovell rounded the farside of the Moon, they became the first humans to witness an Earthrise above an alien surface. The iconic image was first published on 30 December 1968.Image: NASA / Seán Doran

After a total of 10 orbits and 20 hours around the Moon, the crew fired their service module engine for 3 minutes, putting Apollo 8 on course for home. Splashdown occurred on 27 December in the Pacific Ocean.

Apollo 8 Crew and Command Module Recovery
Apollo 8 Crew and Command Module Recovery The recovered Apollo 8 Crew and Command Module (CM)-103 Spacecraft onboard the USS Yorktown.Image: NASA

Apollo 8 Timeline

EventTime (UTC)Date
Terminal countdown started1:51:0020 Dec 1968
Crew ingress9:58:0021 Dec 1968
Liftoff12:51:0021 Dec 1968
First stage (S-IC) separation12:53:3421 Dec 1968
Second stage (S-II) separation12:59:4421 Dec 1968
Third stage (S-IVB) cutoff13:02:2521 Dec 1968
Earth orbit insertion13:02:3521 Dec 1968
Third stage (S-IVB) TLI burn ignition15:41:3721 Dec 1968
Third stage (S-IVB) TLI burn cutoff15:46:5521 Dec 1968
Translunar injection15:47:0521 Dec 1968
CSM separation from third stage (S-IVB)16:11:5921 Dec 1968
Equigravisphere20:29:0023 Dec 1968
Midcourse correction ignition1:50:5524 Dec 1968
Midcourse correction cutoff1:51:0724 Dec 1968
Final call from Houston as Apollo 8 goes behind the Moon9:48:5424 Dec 1968
Lunar orbit insertion ignition9:59:2024 Dec 1968
Lunar orbit insertion cutoff10:03:2724 Dec 1968
First call from Houston as Apollo 8 emerges from behind the Moon10:24:4424 Dec 1968
Lunar orbit circularization ignition14:26:0624 Dec 1968
Lunar orbit circularization cutoff14:26:1624 Dec 1968
4th television transmission started (crew reads from the Bible)2:34:0325 Dec 1968
Transearth injection ignition6:10:1625 Dec 1968
Transearth injection cutoff6:13:4025 Dec 1968
Midcourse correction ignition20:51:0025 Dec 1968
Midcourse correction cutoff20:51:1525 Dec 1968
CM/SM separation15:19:4827 Dec 1968
Entry interface15:37:1227 Dec 1968
Drogue parachute deployed15:45:4727 Dec 1968
Main parachute deployed15:46:3827 Dec 1968
Splashdown15:51:4227 Dec 1968
Crew aboard recovery helicopter17:14:0027 Dec 1968
Crew aboard recovery ship (USS Yorktown)17:20:0027 Dec 1968

Apollo 8 Cost

NASA estimated the following direct costs for Apollo 8. Full costs of the Apollo program can be found on the "How Much Did the Apollo Program Cost?" page.

original $inflation adjusted $
Command & Service Module$55 million$463 million
Saturn V Launch Vehicle$185 million$1.6 billion
Operations$70 million$589 million
Total$310 million$2.6 billion

Inflation adjusted to 2019 via NASA's New Start Index (NNSI). Source: "History of Manned Space Flight." February 1975. NASA Kennedy Space Center. Located in NASA HQ Historical Reference Collection, Washington, D.C. Record Number 18194. Box 1.


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Project Apollo

Starting with Apollo 7 in 1968 and culminating with Apollo 17 in 1972, NASA launched 33 astronauts on 11 Apollo missions. Twelve humans walked on the Moon.

The Crew of Apollo 8 After Recovery
The Crew of Apollo 8 After Recovery The crew of Apollo 8 steps out of their recovery helicopter onto the USS Yorktown after a successful mission around the Moon.Image: NASA