Nova (1974–…): Season 45, Episode 17 - Apollo's Daring Mission - full transcript

Astronauts and engineers of Apollo 8 explain the inside story of the first mission to circumnavigate the moon.

Are you wondering how healthy the food you are eating is? Check it -
Apollo 8... A last-minute change

sets a mission
on a dangerous new course.

I said, "What?!

That's the craziest idea
I ever heard."

A lot of risk.

Untried technologies
put to the test.

Any one of them can be
a disaster

if it doesn't go perfectly well.

It's the height of the Cold War;

two superpowers race
to the moon.

They were beating us
at every turn.

I want to be part of winning.

A president's deadline looms.

Landing a man on the moon
before this decade is out...

There's just enormous pressure.

Then, tragedy strikes.

Hey! We've got a fire
in the cockpit!

"How are we ever
going to get there?"

A secret decision is made.

He said, "Close the door,"

so I realized
that something was big.

A half-century later,

the legacy of this audacious
journey affects us all.

The mission that got us
to the moon.

"Apollo's Daring Mission,"

right now, on "NOVA."

♪ ♪

I'm at the foot of the ladder.

It is perhaps the greatest
technological feat in history.

Okay, I'm going to step off
the LEM now.

Humans arriving
at another world.

That's one small step for man;

one giant leap for mankind.

Yet before the arriving
could happen,

first there was the leaving.


It's December 1968.

A space mission unlike any other

Apollo 8.

It was the most dangerous
mission of all.

It was the boldest move
that NASA ever made.

Three men... Frank
Borman, Jim Lovell,

and Bill Anders...

Are departing on a journey
no one has ever made before.

For the first time

in human history,
humans left earth.

All previous missions
have stayed in earth orbit.

But these three veteran
fighter pilots...

Lovell from the Navy,

Borman and Anders
from the Air Force...

Will take their spacecraft
to another world.

Apollo 8 will orbit the moon
ten times;

it will not land.

But this mission will make
the landing possible

by testing key technologies
needed to reach the moon:

a giant rocket,
a redesigned spacecraft,

a revolutionary new computer.

The rocket has never carried
humans before.

The spacecraft and computer have
flown only once,

on Apollo 7... a mere 180 miles
off earth's surface.

One, zero.

Apollo 8 will take
these untried technologies

on a half-million-mile
round trip

in the ultimate test.

We have cleared the tower.


We probably had
one chance in three

of making a successful flight,

had one chance in three

of not being able to do
our mission

but at least making it home

and one chance in three
of not making it back.

Apollo 8, Houston,
you are a go for staging, over.

It is a giant risk.

But originally Apollo 8 was
supposed to be a baby step...

Just another test flight
around the earth.

It took years of test flights.

And you really have to think,
of course,

of the Apollo flights
as a system.

It was the typical NASA

one-step-at-a-time approach.

But in the summer of 1968,

years of careful planning and
preparation are suddenly upended

by an alarming discovery.

We were training in California,

the three of us... Bill, myself,
and Frank... when suddenly

Frank got called back
to Houston.

Deke Slayton said, "Frank,

"I want you back here in Houston
right away.

I have to discuss something
with you."

Deke Slayton is in charge
of the astronauts.

And so I said, "Well, Deke,
let's discuss it now, I'm busy.

I can do it over the phone."

And he reminded me who was boss.

Things weren't gentle

and politically correct
in those days.

We weren't candy asses, okay?

And so I went back to Houston.

And he said "Close the door,"

so I realized
that something was big.

A CIA spy satellite has

an enormous Soviet rocket
on a launchpad.

It can mean only one thing.

The CIA had information

that the Soviets were planning
on sending a man around the moon

in the year of 1968.

A Soviet cosmonaut reaching
the moon

would be a stunning defeat
for America.

For years,
the U.S. and Soviet Union...

Both armed
with nuclear weapons...

Have been locked
in a deadly cold war.

There was a sense

that communism was
a profound threat

to democracy
and to the United States.

Starting in 1957 with Sputnik,

the Soviets open a new front:

Yuri Gagarin,
Valentina Tereshkova,

blow after blow after blow.

They were beating us
at every turn.

In April 1961, a new
president, John Kennedy,

writes a memo about space that
will have profound consequences.

He said, "Guys,

find me something
we can beat the Russians at."

Now it is time
to take longer strides.

I believe that this nation
should commit itself

to achieving the goal,
before this decade is out,

of landing a man on the moon

and returning him safely
to the earth.

NARRATOR: Kennedy has set a firm
deadline: the end of the 1960s.

It was a simple,
one-sentence statement...

The goal and the schedule.

Clear, succinct...
No fuzz on that goal.

I never joined NASA
to explore space.

Yeah, basically
I was a military person,

and it was clear to me

that we were in a serious
confrontation with the Soviets.

I want to be part of winning.

Military test pilots...
Now "astronauts"...

Begin flying in 1961.

By 1967, Americans have mastered
the basics of space flight

and all the techniques needed
to reach the moon.

Apollo, America's moon program,
is about to take its first step.

♪ ♪

Apollo 1 will be a test
of the new spacecraft,

the command module,
around the earth.

The crew is Gus Grissom,
America's second man in space;

Ed White, who took
America's first spacewalk;

and Roger Chaffee,

a Navy pilot who flew
airborne photography missions

during the Cuban missile crisis.

Three weeks before launch,

a dress rehearsal
on the ground...

A practice countdown.

It's January 27, 1967, a Friday.

Things are not going well.

Ah, who's transmitting?

This is the command pilot,
do you read me?

It was the end
of a very frustrating day.

You're pretty garbled here, Gus.

They were having communication
problems with the crew.

How we gonna get to the moon

if we can't talk between
three buildings?

They can't hear a thing
you're saying.

Jesus Christ.

When all of a sudden, you know,
I thought I heard "fire!"

Hey! We've got a fire
in the cockpit!

The fire quickly becomes
an inferno.

And, you know,
the rest is history.

With no chance of escape,
poisoned by toxic fumes,

three astronauts perish.

It was a pretty sad scene.

Most of the guys were sitting
on their consoles

with tears running down
their cheeks, you know,

just couldn't believe
what had happened.

♪ ♪

Everybody knew what
they were doing was dangerous,

but they didn't really think
of it

as being dangerous
on the ground.

And it was a huge shock that an
accident like this would happen

in kind of
an ordinary training scenario

without being in space.

♪ ♪

Over the next few months,

the charred spacecraft is
painstakingly disassembled,

each piece tagged, studied,
and photographed...

5,000 images in all.

♪ ♪

Sifting through these artifacts,

the Apollo Review Board
pieces together what went wrong.

We came out
with a scathing report

on the problems
not only of the test

in which the fire occurred,

but also in the development
of the spacecraft.

There was no ass-covering.

There was a lot of

soul searching
as to what had happened

and all of the things
that went with it.

Electrical wiring shows
shoddy workmanship.

Investigators believe
the fire began

with a spark from a wire
that had rubbed bare.

That spark quickly became
an inferno,

because the command module was
full of flammable material.

Everywhere you turned

there was stuff that would be
subject to a flash fire

if you got
the right ignition source.

On top of that,

the atmosphere inside could not
have been more dangerous.

Pure oxygen
at 16 pounds per square inch.

Something which we all should
have known,

that anything will burn

in pure oxygen
at 16 pounds per square inch.

And, finally, the hatch.

It's cumbersome to unlock,
and it opens inward.

Expanding gases
from the searing heat

meant tons of force held
the hatch closed.

The fire is a shock
to the system

that reverberates
throughout Apollo.

It caused NASA to stop
and reflect

on everything it was doing
and redo it.

But for the fire,

there wouldn't have been
the reexamination

of all kinds of things.

We redoubled our efforts.

We said, "You know,
those guys were our friends.

"And we're going to get
to the moon,

on time, in their honor."

But getting to the moon
on time won't be easy.

They've got to completely
redesign the command module,

perfect a lunar lander,

figure out how to navigate
to the moon and back,

and build a rocket larger
and more powerful

than any that has ever flown.

It will be known
as the Saturn V.

The key innovation
that enabled all of Apollo

was the Saturn V rocket.

Without that, you couldn't even
say we were going to the moon.

It will weigh
over six million pounds,

stand as tall
as a 36-story building,

and be able to lift 130 tons.

America's moon rocket is
the brainchild

of German engineer
Wernher von Braun.

During World War II,

von Braun and his team develop
the V-2 rocket.

Built with slave labor,

V-2 rockets kill thousands in
London, Antwerp, and elsewhere.

After the war,
von Braun is brought to the U.S.

to build rockets for America.

The Saturn V will be
the biggest ever built...

If it can be built.

To get this enormous machine
off the ground

will require a new engine,

ten times more powerful
than any ever designed.

It will be called the F-1.

Sonny Morea is project manager
in June 1962,

when NASA test fires
its first F-1.

When we tried to fire it
for the first time...

it just blew apart.

As F-1 engines keep blowing up,

engineers finally identify
the problem:

combustion instability...
Uneven burning.

If you visualize
a candle burning in a room,

it flickers from side to side.

Well, that's a form
of instability.

What happens there is that
it sees more oxygen on one side,

and so it produces more heat,

and it pushes the flame
over to the side.

Well, that flips back and forth

maybe five or six times
in a second.

That same phenomenon
happens in an F-1 engine,

but they don't flip
at five times in a second.

They flip 2,000 times
in a second.

Like a massive,
out-of-control candle,

the fire inside the F-1 surges
back and forth

until it destroys the engine.

They have no idea how to fix it.

The F-1 engine is simply
too far ahead

of the state of the art,
and too enormous,

to apply any known theory.

The solution had to come
by trial and error.

You know, you find a way
or make one,

that's the way it was back then.

It was absolutely
the seat of our pants.

If they can't fix the
F-1, Apollo is finished.

If we couldn't solve the
combustion instability problem,

we would not have gone
to the moon.

It was too risky,

we would have killed
a bunch of astronauts

trying to make that work.

So the engineers turn to
von Braun's original V-2.

Why didn't combustion
instability destroy that engine?

In the V-2, liquid fuel
and liquid oxygen were injected

through a number
of separate nozzles.

In the F-1,
fuel and oxygen are injected

through a single
flat injector plate,

like a showerhead.

The engineers wonder,

did the multiple nozzles
of the V-2

somehow divide the burning
into separate zones?

If so, perhaps adding metal
ridges... baffles...

To the injector plate

would create a similar effect
in the F-1.

If we broke that into segments
with baffles,

hopefully they wouldn't talk
to each other,

similar to what the V-2 had.

After many experiments
with baffles...

eventually they get
the engine to run smoothly.

Lo and behold, we found out

that the baffles were able
to attenuate the oscillations.

But how can they be certain
the F-1 will work every time?

♪ ♪

They try deliberately causing
the problem

by setting off a small explosion

inside the engine
while it's running.

Can baffles stop instability
after it starts?

We drove it unstable
with a bomb.

We inserted a bomb right
into the center of the injector

and blew it just at the time
we ignited.

With the engine running,
the small bomb explodes;

the burning becomes unstable.

But in a fraction of a second,

the baffles quickly stop,
or dampen, the instability.

That would drive
the engine unstable,

and then it would dampen out
right away,

where before it wouldn't.

And every single time
those baffles dampened out

the oscillations.

♪ ♪

In November 1967...

Two years and one month
before Kennedy's deadline...

The Saturn V rocket has
its first unmanned test flight.

We got as close to it
as we could,

something like
two-and-a-half miles away.

Among the spectators is
astronaut Michael Collins.

When the engines ignited,

it didn't seem like a big deal.

And then the shockwave came.

And the shockwave got you
in the viscera,

got you in the brain,
got you shaking.

If you ever want to know
what power meant, that was it.

The five F-1 engines

and everything else work

But leaving Earth on a rocket
is just the start.

To reach the moon,

they'll have to cross
a quarter-million miles

of empty space

and hit a target that's
only about 2,000 miles across.

In space,
everything is moving around.

I mean, the earth is moving
around the sun,

the moon is rotating
around the earth.

There's all this movement,

so how do you hit the target?

To hit the moon,

NASA turns
to Charles Stark Draper,

better known as "Doc"...

Engineer, aviation
pioneer, MIT professor.

Stark Draper was the leader of
the Instrumentation Lab at MIT,

Institute of Technology.

Very technical guy

who has put together this
intricate bunch of equipment.

Starting in the 1930s,

Draper develops a new way
for pilots to always know

where they are... even at night,
in fog, or thick clouds.

On inertial and transfer power.

Inertial navigation.

It allows a pilot to navigate
from point A to point B

without knowing any information
other than where he started.

But on Earth,

points A and B are stationary
with respect to each other.

In space, they're on two
different celestial bodies,

Earth and moon,
and both are constantly moving.

To reach the moon,

Apollo will have to speed up,
slow down, change direction,

multiple times.

So Apollo needs the
most accurate navigation system


It will have several parts.

The first is the
inertial measurement unit.

Inside, gyroscopes measure
changes in direction;

changes in speed.

Starting at the launch
in Cape Canaveral, Florida,

by measuring every change
in speed and direction,

it keeps track
of the spacecraft's location.

But it's not perfect.

Gyroscopes and accelerometers
are mechanical devices.

Each day, a little bit of error
creeps in.

In long missions like Apollo 8,

the inertial measurement
unit isn't quite constant.

It does drift a little bit.

So the second part of the system

is a check on the inertial unit,

a way to correct
its daily error:

the Apollo space sextant.

After about a day,

you want to have somebody go
to the sextant

in the wall of the spacecraft,

sight on a couple of stars,

and then basically correct
the orientation.

With the space sextant,

the navigator can determine
the spacecraft's location

by measuring the angle

between a reference star
and the edge of the earth.

Knowing that angle,

he can use trigonometry to
calculate his position in space.


the inertial measurement unit
and space sextant...

Combined with ground tracking...

Will tell astronauts and
Mission Control where they are.

But knowing where they are
is only half the battle.

They'll have to maneuver
into and out of lunar orbit.

And MIT thinks that's
too hard for a human pilot...

It can all be done
by a computer.

It needs just two buttons.

One button will say,
"Go to moon,"

and one button will say,
"Take me home."

The astronauts
respectfully disagree.

"No, no, no, no, no!

"I'm up there,

"it's my rear end
that's on the line,

I need to be in control
of the spacecraft."

The very first thing one
of the astronauts said to me,

"As soon as we get up there,

we're shutting the sucker off!"

But maneuvering
the Apollo spacecraft

involves firing
16 different thrusters

plus the main engine.

So you better have 17 fingers
and be awfully, awfully agile.

After a long battle,
NASA decides

the astronauts will control
a computer,

and it will maneuver
the spacecraft,

a system called
"digital fly-by-wire."

Fly-by-wire is where

the pilot is really controlling
a model inside the computer,

and then the computer does
whatever it needs to do

to make the spacecraft fly
like that model.

The inertial measurement unit,
the space sextant,

and ground tracking pinpoint
where the spacecraft is.

The computer knows
where they want to go.

So it figures out
how to burn the thrusters,

plus the main engine,
to get there.

Human life will be entrusted
to decisions made by a machine.

A person's life was at stake,

in this case the astronaut,
so it had to work.

Margaret Hamilton develops

that will control
the Apollo computer.

they don't do anything

until they have
some instructions.

That is the software side
of things.

Hamilton and her team will have
to create software

that enables this computer
to prioritize different tasks,

without freezing.

We, the developers,

had to assign unique priorities
to every job.

And if there's an emergency,

we wanted to interrupt everybody

and say,
"Look, I'm coming in here

"for something that's
an emergency,

everybody else gets downgraded."

♪ ♪

And there's still
one more requirement

for this new computer:

it must be tiny.

The way that the size
of the computer got determined

was not by what it had to do.

Out of the blue, they said
"Okay, here's a cubic foot,

fill it with computer."

"Computer" in the 1950s

meant something that was
basically the size

of a building.

It seems completely impossible.

But lead designer Eldon Hall
thinks a new breakthrough

in electronics might
just be what they need.

Eldon Hall said,

"The only way we're going to get
small enough, low-power enough,

and reliable enough

is to switch
to integrated circuits."

Integrated circuits shrink
hundreds of transistors

and other components
down into one tiny chip.

But can such a computer
be built?

Not only small,
but able to prioritize tasks,

easy to use, and 100% reliable?

As the summer of 1968 arrives,

barely 18 months remain
until the Kennedy deadline.

Then, the CIA brings
the shocking news

that the Soviets are poised
to send a man around the moon.

Rather than lose to the Soviets,

Apollo spacecraft manager
George Low

proposes a radical change
of mission.

Instead of orbiting the earth...
The original plan...

Send Apollo 8 a half-million
miles to the moon and back.

I said, "What?

That's the craziest idea
I ever heard."

Chris Kraft,
director of Mission Control,

orders engineer Jerry Bostick
to study the possibility.

This is a Friday,

Friday afternoon,
as a matter of fact.

He said, "You've got until
Monday morning to figure out

if we can do it or not."

The command module...
Redesigned after the fire...

Still hasn't flown;

the guidance computer hasn't
been tested in space.

And the Saturn V,

which did so well on
its first unmanned test flight,

had major problems
on its second.

Still, the engineers conclude

this new mission
might just work.

We recognized that,

"Yes, this is not going to be
a piece of cake,

but we can pull it off."

The improved command module...

Now with better wiring,
a new easy-to-open hatch,

and no more pure oxygen
on the ground...

Will be tested
around the earth first,

on Apollo 7.

If that works,
Apollo 8 will go to the moon.

And all of a sudden

Jim and Bill and I began
frantically training

for the lunar mission.

NASA usually went step by step.

In this case they jumped
three or four steps.

Well, I thought
that was a grand idea.

This was exploration;

this was a mini Lewis and Clark

In October 1968,

the redesigned command module is
tested around the earth

and performs perfectly.

Apollo 8 will proceed.

But first, a final review,

where engineers report
to management and astronauts.

"Can you give this
a clean bill of health,

"that we have a safe mission
ahead of us,

because of your hardware?"

Well, we had gone through

all this
combustion instability stuff,

with many unknowns...

and I couldn't say, you know?

Frank Borman put his arm
around me, and he said "Sonny,"

he says, "we know you guys have
done everything humanly possible

"to make this a safe flight.

"We're ready to fly.

Don't worry about it."

Now, Apollo 8 will go.

It's December 21, 1968.

The morning of the launch,
I thought to myself,

"We're going to the moon.

This is going to go
to the moon."

They've prepared
as much as possible.

Still, this launch
is an act of faith.

♪ ♪

Whether it turns out to be
a desperate gamble

that should never have been made

or a stroke of genius,

Apollo 8 is a leap
into the unknown.

First on the Saturn V.

First to leave the earth,
first to go into lunar orbit.

A lot of risk.

Was I nervous?

Yes, I was nervous!

That's a big step,
that's a big step.

Ten, nine... Eight
seconds to go.

We have ignition sequence start.

Fuel starts pumping,
15 tons each second.

The F-1 engines come alive.

- 51 a.m.
- Eastern Standard Time.

It was so loud, we couldn't hear
ourselves think;

couldn't even see
the instrument panel,

it was vibrating so much.

It was one hell of a rocket.

You have seven and
a half million pounds of thrust

pushing you;

all of a sudden it stops,

and you're flung forward
in your seat belts

and then back as the
second stage took over.

11-and-a-half minutes
after leaving the ground,

Apollo 8 is moving
17,000 miles an hour,

circling the earth.

Then, an unprecedented
and momentous event.

The third stage engine will

and send Apollo 8
out of Earth orbit

toward the moon.

It's a maneuver NASA calls,
trans-lunar injection.

"Trans-lunar injection"?

It sounds like some sort
of a medical device.

Astronaut Michael Collins
is CapCom

the one person
in Mission Control

who speaks directly
to the astronauts.

I mean, I love NASA,

but they have an ability
to transform, sometime,

the ethereal into the mundane.

In this moment,

Michael Collins has the honor
of announcing a turning point

in human history.

I said to them,
"Apollo 8, you're go for TLI."

Apollo 8, you are go for TLI,

And Borman said,
"Roger, Houston."

Roger, understand,
we're go for TLI."

That was it.

I just really wish I had
that moment to live over again,

because I would have said
to them,

"Apollo 8, you can now slip
the surly bonds of Earth

"and dance the sky, Apollo 8!

Dance the sky, you go!"

is what I would have said
to them,

instead of,
"You're cleared for TLI."

The words may be mundane,

but the meaning is profound.

It was the first time
that any human beings

entered the gravitational field
of another planetary body

besides the one
that we evolved on.

Two-and-a-half days pass.

Even now,

the astronauts still can't see
their destination.

Our blunt slide was
towards the moon.

So we never saw the moon as
we actually got right up to it.

But they don't need to see
the moon just yet.

To go into lunar orbit,

they have to fire their engine
and slow down,

to be captured
by the moon's gravity.

Everything about it
must be perfect.

If not, they could miss
the moon or crash into it.

And all this done
by the computer.

The computer has to figure

how to turn the spacecraft

so the rocket is pointing
in the right direction.

It then has to figure
exactly when it has to be lit.

It has to be precisely

it all needs to be timed
within tenths of a second.

But the computer only does this

when the astronaut tells it to.

So, in 1968... with no mouse,
touch screen, or keyboard...

How will an astronaut talk
to the computer?

MIT's answer is the
display keyboard, or DSKY.

It has a numeric keypad,
and a very simple,

what you would think of now
as an LED display.

The real genius of the DSKY

is the way it uses language.

To see the Apollo guidance and
navigation system in operation,

we've talked
with Mr. Ramon Alonso.

Engineer Ramon Alonso
was raised in Argentina.

Trying to create this language,

he remembers
how he learned English.

When you go in school,
somebody said, you know,

the parts of speech,
part of sentences,

there's things called verbs,
there's things called nouns.

"What is a verb?"

"Well, that's the action
that does something."

"And what is a noun?"

"It's a thing."

So, all right,
that seemed to suit.

I remember driving to work
one time

and saying,
"Oh, yeah, that might work."

"Fire Rocket,"

"Fire" would be 22,

and "Rocket" would be 35,
or something like that.

And "Display Time,"

"Display" might be 16,
and "Time" would be 45.

The DSKY was designed
for idiots like me.

I mean, we had verbs and nouns,

so that it made more sense
to us.

Very crude it was,
but it certainly did the job.

Now, almost three days
after launch,

the Apollo guidance computer
and its DSKY interface

are about to execute their first
life-and-death maneuver.

We were coming up
to what is known as LOI,

lunar orbit insertion.

The computer must fire the
engine at just the right moment,

in just the right direction,

for a precise number of seconds,

to drop Apollo 8
into the perfect orbit.

If you burn too much,

you could go
in too a low in orbit,

that could intersect the moon.

Or you could fly off
into an orbit

that won't come back around.

There's a tremendous amount
of danger

with getting these orbital burns

The LOI burn happens

when Apollo 8 is
behind the moon.

Radio signals will be blocked,
all communication cut off.

The break in communications
is sharp.

The trajectory engineers
could tell you,

based on the geometry
and all the velocities,

exactly when that was going
to happen.

This was a very
important parameter,

because it would tell you when
you lost your communications

if you were on trajectory
or not.

Everyone counts down the minutes
to loss of signal... LOS.

There was nothing to say.

You're just sitting there,
and it's quiet as a mouse.

- Apollo 8, Houston.
- One minute to LOS.

All systems go.
Safe journey, guys.

Thanks a lot, troops.

See you on the other side.

At the exact second we were
supposed to lose communications,

we lost it.

And I said something like,

We must be right on...
right on time."

I said, "Yeah, Frank,
it checked," I said,

"but, you know,
they're our friends down there.

"they're going to pull the plug
on that antenna

no matter how far off we are."

They probably turned off
the damn radio.

For the next 35 minutes,

there's nothing Mission Control
can do;

Apollo 8 is behind the moon
and unreachable.

It was almost a relief.

First of all,
we'd been sitting there

for three or four hours
with no bathroom break.

So, the first thing you do
is you hit the door.

Up in space,
a different kind of break.

We saw nothing...

We were upside down
and backwards

in perfect darkness.

Until we rotated
the spacecraft around.

Suddenly we looked down,

and there below us was
the lunar surface.

♪ ♪

You know, we were like
three schoolkids

looking into
a candy store window.

For the first time ever,

human eyes are seeing
the far side of the moon.

On Earth,
Mission Control won't know

if the burn to go
into lunar orbit worked or not

until radio contact resumes.

So we're sitting there waiting
for them to come out

and have acquisition of signal,

to see whether or not

we all needed to jump
into action.

Because if it went badly,

we really didn't have much time
to do something.

Poppy Northcutt is part
of a support team

that will have to quickly
compute emergency maneuvers

to bring Apollo 8 home
if the burn failed.

It was dead silent,

except for hearing
the CapCom calling out,

"Apollo 8, this is Houston,
Apollo 8, this is Houston."

Apollo 8, Houston, over.

Apollo 8, Apollo 8,
this is Houston.

Apollo 8, Houston, over.

Houston, this is Apollo 8.

Burn complete.

Roger, good to hear your voice.

The burn worked.

Behind the moon, the computer
oriented the spacecraft

and fired the engine
at just the right moment

for just the right time.

60 by 170 miles

is the elliptical orbit
they want to end up in.

And they end up with, like,
60.5 and 169.9 miles.

I mean, it's incredibly close,
super-accurate burn.

Over the next 20 hours,

Apollo 8 will circle
the moon ten times.

It's Christmas Eve.

Before leaving the moon,

they'll show millions on Earth
the view out the window

with a live television broadcast
that almost never happened.

I was against it.

I didn't even want to take
a television camera.

I was stupid.

the people at NASA overruled me,

because the American people
and the people on the earth

had every right to see
what we were seeing.

But what should they say
while showing the view?

I was told, "While you're
in orbit around the moon

"on Christmas Eve,

"you'll have
the largest audience

that's ever listened
to a human voice."

I said, "Gee,
what do you want us to do?"

The response was,
"Do something appropriate."

I'll never forget that.

Can you imagine that happening

We thought,
"Can we change the words

to 'The Night Before Christmas'?

"You know, make it
more contemporary?

How about something
in the way of 'Jingle Bells'?"

Nothing that we could come up
with seemed appropriate.

We ask each other, we ask
our wives, we ask friends.

In the end,
it's Christine Laitin,

Washington insider
and wife of writer Joe Laitin,

who has the answer.

And she said, "Well, why don't
you start at the beginning?"

And he said, "What do you mean?"

She said, "Genesis."

For all the people
back on Earth,

the crew of Apollo 8 has
a message

that we would like to send
to you.

"In the beginning, God created
the heaven and the earth.

And the earth..."

I don't think anybody knew

they were going to do that.

"And God divided the light
from the darkness.

"And God called the light day,

and the darkness
He called night."

One of the most memorable things
in my life, I guess.

It was very powerful.

"'...and let the dry land
appear, '

and it was so."

The hair stood up
on the back of my neck.

The first impression I had
was, "How appropriate."

What could be better than having
the first human beings,

Americans, circling the moon
on Christmas Eve,

and they read the story
of creation from Genesis?

I mean,
it brought tears to my eyes.

"God saw that it was good."

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.


It just drained me.

For millions on Earth,

the Christmas Eve
television broadcast

is the defining moment
of Apollo 8.

♪ ♪

But for the engineers,
and especially the astronauts,

there's a critical maneuver
just ahead

that overshadows
everything else:

coming home.

"Trans-Earth Injection"

is the engine burn that will
send Apollo 8 out of lunar orbit

and back toward Earth.

We're captured by the moon.

That means that unless
that engine works

to get us out of here,

we can be here for a lot longer.

Is that engine going to work

There's only one engine...
No backup.

It has baked in sunlight
250 degrees above zero,

frozen in darkness, 250 below.

If the nozzle on the engine
somehow overheated, or cracked,

or something, there's nothing
you can do about that.

You lose the crew.

Again, the burn will be
controlled by the computer

and take place behind the moon.

Apollo 8, this is Houston.

Three minutes to LOS, over.

Again, they lose radio contact.

No one on the ground will know
if it worked

until they acquire signal.

Just watching that clock
and wondering

what happened when they were
on the back side of the moon.

What happened?

Apollo 8, Apollo
8, this is Houston.

Apollo 8, Houston, over.

Houston, Apollo 8.

Please be informed
there is a Santa Claus.

You're the best ones to know.

Again, the engine worked.

For the next
two-and-a-half days,

Apollo 8 will coast
toward Earth.

Navigator Jim Lovell updates
their position

with space sextant and DSKY.

So far, it's been flawless.

But MIT software engineer
Margaret Hamilton

has a nagging worry.

How to prevent errors.

What if the astronaut types

something wrong into the DSKY?

♪ ♪

My daughter Lauren would come in

and would play astronaut.

And so she'd start
pressing keys.

And I remember one time,
all of a sudden...

big crash, everything stopped.

So I'm thinking,
"What did she press?

She had selected P01
during flight.

"P01" tells the computer that
it's back on the launchpad,

waiting to start the mission.

If an astronaut enters that
into the DSKY during flight,

the computer will forget
where they are in space.

This could happen
on a real mission.

We have to stop the astronaut

from being able to select P01
during flight.

And NASA said,

"You know, these are the most
highly trained test pilots

"in the world.

They're never going to make
a mistake."

♪ ♪

But, of course, they do.

A day-and-a-half away
from Earth,

Jim Lovell is using
the space sextant and DSKY

to update their position.

Suddenly, Lovell said, "Uh-oh!"

Lovell is doing a star sighting,

and he's entering,
"Star number one."

And by mistake he enters,
"Program number one."

I got into a program
that essentially told me

I was back on the launch site
waiting to take off.

Borman wakes up.

"What's going on here?"

The computer starts trying

to reposition
the Command Module,

thinking they're back
at Cape Canaveral.

The thing started turning
and this,

and Anders didn't know
what was going on.

Oh, he was mad that he could...

I don't know, he's,
"Lovell, you lost it.

You lost it!"

I said,
"Well, don't worry about it."

Using the space sextant,

Lovell orients the navigation
system again,

putting it back on track.

Just one of those things,

you know, you can never trust
an Annapolis graduate

very far.

A day and a half later,

Apollo 8 reenters
the earth's atmosphere

at nearly
seven miles per second.

Ten minutes after that,
on December 27, 1968,

they splash down
into the Pacific Ocean.

The Saturn V rocket,
the redesigned command module,

the guidance computer
all have worked perfectly.

♪ ♪

We accomplished
just about everything

that you need to do
to land on the moon

except the landing itself.

This is the moment
that the Space Race ends.

Once we do Apollo 8,

the Soviets are out
of the running.

Seven months later,

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin
are walking on the moon,

thanks in large part
to Apollo 8.

Apollo 11 walked on the moon.

Apollo 8 was about leaving.

If you consider the leaving
and the arriving...

Both of them necessary steps...

I think the two flights
were about equal

in their historical

The legacy of this
overlooked mission is profound.

Of all the Apollo technologies,

perhaps the one that touches
more of us in our everyday lives

than any other is
its pioneering computer.

This was a major moment

in the role of computers
in the world,

and computers being able
to let us do things

that we can't do any other way.

With its DSKY
and guidance computer,

Apollo paved the way
for keyboards, mice,

touch screens,

computer-controlled airliners,
factories, smart phones,

and more.

Now we have digital computers
in everything;

this was the first digital
computer in almost anything.

Now we stake our lives
on software.

This was the first time people
staked their lives on software.

♪ ♪

Yet it's an old,
analog technology

that gives us the most profound
legacy of Apollo 8.

Assigned to photograph
future landing sites

on the moon, Bill
Anders is stunned

by something else that's
completely unexpected.

When the earth came up
in earthrise,

I didn't even have
a light meter.

You know, I just started
clicking away

and changing the f-stops,

and fortunately
one of the pictures came out.

That picture is probably
the picture of the century.

We thought we were going there
to study the moon.


We went to the moon,
we learned a lot about the moon,

but most of all we learned about
a new way to look at the earth.

The sense of isolation

and closeness of our humanity;

I wish more people would focus
on it.

Having that unifying experience,
I think,

was a very profound and moving
moment for people on Earth

to realize, "We're all
on this one spaceship together,

we'd better
start taking care of it."

Before, all this...

Seeing our home planet
as it really is

and everything else;

the rocket, the computer,
leaving Earth...

Had only been dreamed of.

In December 1968,

it became forever real
on Apollo 8.

This was the mission
that all that happened.

♪ ♪

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♪ ♪