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December 24, 1968: The First Men to Orbit the Moon

Posted December 24, 2006 6:00 AM by Steve Melito

Today is the 38th anniversary of Apollo 8's entrance into lunar orbit, a milestone preceded by extraterrestrial television broadcasts that reached over one billion people. On December 24, 1968, NASA astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to orbit the moon. After a successful launch and trans-lunar injection, the crew of Apollo 8 passed through the Van Allen radiation belts and entered the mission's cruise phase. Approximately 31 hours into the flight, the astronauts provided television viewers with a tour of their spacecraft and attempted to show images of Earth. Unfortunately, the lenses for Apollo 8's black-and-white camera lacked suitable filters, causing the blue and white planet to appear as a bright blob. To close Apollo 8's first television broadcast, Jim Lovell wished his mother a happy birthday before the spacecraft and its high-gain antenna passed out of view of receiving stations back on Earth.

The crew of Apollo 8 provided viewers with a second television broadcast at 55 hours into the flight. Although the camera filters they had crafted were better-suited for a still camera, the astronauts managed to use a telephoto lens to capture discernible images of Earth. Soon after the 23-minute transmission ended, Apollo 8 entered the lunar sphere of influence and began preparations for Lunar Orbit Insertion-1 (LOI-1). At nearly 69 hours into the flight, the spacecraft went behind the moon and out of radio contact with mission control. For four long minutes, the service propulsion system (SPS) engine burned, finally placing the crew of Apollo 8 in a 193.3 mi (311.1 km) by 69.5 mi (111.9 km) orbit around the moon. If the burn had lasted too long, the spacecraft could have crashed upon the surface of the moon. If the burn had ended too soon, Apollo 8 could have entered a highly elliptical orbit, or been flung off into space.

After emerging on the sunlight side of the moon, the astronauts began their scheduled reconnaissance activities, photographing the lunar surface and identifying potential sites for future landings. Ultimately, the crew would take over 700 photographs of the moon and over 150 pictures of the Earth. As Apollo 8 rounded the moon for the ninth time, each astronaut took turns reading from the Book of Genesis and wishing the world a Merry Christmas. The moon, Mission Commander Frank Borman observed, is "a vast, lonely, forbidding type of existence or expanse of nothing".

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#1

Re: December 24, 1968: The First Men to Orbit the Moon

12/25/2006 9:37 AM

I am quite impressed with this well written and interesting article.....thanks....

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#2

Re: December 24, 1968: The First Men to Orbit the Moon

12/26/2006 8:01 PM

Something to think about... the computers used to perform this event were the IBM 1610 (I think) and alot more. Each of these would have their own room (with raised floor for interconnect between I/O). The concept of having your own computer was unthinkable. The microcomputer didn't exist. If you could find the $$ to afford your computer, you would then rent out time on the machine to do their number crunching.

Just because you can communicate with me says that the world has come a long ways since Apollo. Each computer connected to the internet has probably 100 times the capability of what we had then.

Oh back in the good old days

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Re: December 24, 1968: The First Men to Orbit the Moon

12/31/2006 3:52 PM

I have two interesting recollections from this time, the trail of material that the rocket that launched this mission was very visible in the sky from England I thought when I first saw it it was a supernova.

also I was very surprised to pick up a long lasting transmission on about 135.95MHz which I was able to record on a reel to reel tape.

This was a mystery for some time until later I realised it was data from Apollo 8 relayed by the newly launched geostationary ATS5 satellite, I still have the tape but no reel to reel tape recorder to play it on although I have a CMP computer that I think would decode it

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Re: December 24, 1968: The First Men to Orbit the Moon

01/02/2007 4:24 AM

It is said that the average washing machine of today contains more computing power than the equipment on board the Apollo vehicles....

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Re: December 24, 1968: The First Men to Orbit the Moon

12/05/2007 1:29 PM

Actually we started with IBM 7094's, a whole floor in building 6 at North American Aviation's Downey, California Missle Division was dedicated to them. It sometimes took days to get the solutions to orbital mechanics. Key punch errors were common and Binary programming was tedious to say the least.

Sometime in the summer of 1966 we got a brand new IBM 360. Not only was it faster, we could program using Fortran. Orbital problems, fuel burns, aerodynamics, and strange structural oscillation problems were rapidly solved when we could keep the machine running. We kept a core of IBM engineers and technicians on staff just to keep the 360 alive. It seems that everyone was pushing technology to it's limits and IBM was no exception.

The old 7094's cost N.A.A. over $700 per hour to run. A fortune in 1963 dollars. The 1610's you mentioned were desk type machines (it occupied the entire desk)programmed with COBAL and were used to track drawing releases, E.O's (Engineering Orders)and schedules. They remained in service up to the end of the program.

BTW the drawing release schedule for the entire Apollo Command Module, Service Module and Adapter was 10,681 drawings. Some drawings had so many E.O.'s attached to them we were forced to send them back for incorporation into a new drawing with new number. Once, during a particularly long 12 hour shift, my buddy pulled a drawing to start working on and started laughing. Attached were 44 E.O.'s and the last one was a "Stop Work Order".

It wasn't too long after that the "front office" changed the P&P (Policy and Procedures) to read "a drawing shall have no more than ten Engineering Orders assigned".

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