NASA's 10 Greatest Achievements


The Apollo 8 Mission, a Lunar Christmas Eve

This view of the rising Earth greeted the Apollo 8 astronauts on Dec. 24, 1968 as they came from behind the moon after the fourth nearside orbit. NASA

Before NASA could put a man on the moon, the agency needed to know that it had the technology to bring a crew out there in the first place. Any such trek would present a gigantic challenge. By 1968, a handful of people had gone up into space, but none of those early pioneers left low-Earth orbit in the process.

Yet adversity can be a great motivator. For reasons we'll discuss soon, NASA was facing political pressure to execute an American moon landing before the decade ended. Time was running out. So on Aug. 19, 1968, the administration announced that a manned, fly-by trip around the moon would be attempted that December [source: NASA].

Astronauts Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, and William Anders — who'd been preparing themselves for a very different kind of mission — were assigned to this endeavor. After an intense training period, the three men boarded a 363-foot (110.6-meter) Saturn V Rocket and were launched into space on Dec. 21, 1968. The Apollo 8 mission had formally begun [source: Woods and O'Brien].

Three days and one nasty vomiting incident later, the Apollo 8 crew reached their destination, entering lunar orbit on December 24. Millions of earthbound spectators vicariously made the journey with them; in a television first, the mission was broadcast live into households across the world. As photos taken from the Saturn V appeared onscreen, Borman, Lovell, and Anders set the mood for their Christmas Eve audience by quoting the Book of Genesis [source: Williams].

One of the snapshots they captured would prove especially significant. Inaccurately titled Earthrise, this iconic image shows our blue planet, half concealed in darkness, hovering above the lunar horizon. According to NASA's official website, the evocative picture has "been credited for inspiring the beginning of the environmental movement" [source: NASA].

The mission ended with the crew's safe return to their home planet on Dec. 27, 1968. Apollo 8 laid the groundwork for Neil Armstrong's "one small step" on the lunar surface. Everything we're now learning is getting us closer to a long-awaited sequel: Manned missions to Mars. And speaking of the red planet...