Two Generations of Flight and One Historic Mission

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission. To commemorate the historic event, the National Archives is having a special document exhibit in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, from November 29, 2018, through January 1, 2019. Today’s post comes from Michael Hancock in the National History Office.

Because most of the public’s fascination with the space program focuses on Apollo 11, which put a man on the Moon, it is easy to overlook the many “firsts” that Apollo 8 delivered. It was a risky mission—NASA’s initial plans were to test the lunar and command module components of the Apollo spacecraft before venturing out to the Moon.

Russia’s advances in space flight and a rumored mission to the Moon prompted NASA to move quickly to beat them to the punch. On December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 launched with crew members Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders. They became the first men to leave Earth’s orbit and circle the Moon in what would be the precursor to a lunar landing. They were also the first men to be launched into space on the massive Saturn V rocket and the first men to capture the iconic image of “Earthrise” on December 24, 1968.

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Apollo 8 Mission image of the Earth over the horizon of the moon, December 24, 1968, (National Archives Identifier 16670351)

But something else special tethered two significant events in human exploration and flight and the notions of “firsts.” The night before the launch, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh visited with the flight crew of Apollo 8.

Forty-one years earlier, “Lucky Lindy,” as he was known, was the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic. Lindbergh was a celebrity in his own right. His accomplishments were nothing short of remarkable, and nothing caught the imagination of aspiring young aviators worldwide quite like Lindbergh’s amazing flight across the great expanse of ocean.

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Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis after landing in Paris, 1927. (National Archives Identifier 7580923)

Lindbergh was an avid fan of the space program since its inception in the 1950s. While meeting with the Apollo crew, he shared some interesting details about his solo flight. Lindbergh reportedly told them how he used a piece of string to measure the distance on a globe from New York to Paris and how he had used that to calculate the amount of fuel required for his flight.

As amused as the Apollo crew must have been at Lindy’s primitive methods, we are reminded of how advanced our own technology compares to that of the Apollo missions—the computer system on board their craft had operating power comparable to home computers from the late 1970s like the Apple II and the Commodore PET!

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Charles Lindbergh (seated far right) signs commemorative documents with the Apollo 8 astronauts at a White House dinner hosted by President and Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, December 1968. (Photo by Robert Knudsen, LBJ Library, National Archives)

In another conversation, Lindbergh asked how much fuel the astronauts would need to complete their journey. When he was told that the rocket would consume 20 tons of fuel per second just to get them into space, Lindbergh smiled and said, “In the first second of your flight tomorrow, you’ll burn 10 times more fuel than I did all the way to Paris!”

One can only imagine those surreal moments of interaction between the old guard and the new. Lindbergh reportedly turned down an invitation to view the launch from the VIP site, opting to observe it from a more humble vantage point. Instead, the extraordinary pilot chose to witness the launch of Apollo 8 from a nearby sand dune.

Visit National Archives News for a full list of events, activities, and resources related to space and the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission.

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