On Christmas Eve,1968, three American astronauts became the first humans to orbit the moon. Robert Kurson tells their story.

For months, astronaut Frank Borman had been fixated on a particular moment in the flight plan: the instant when Apollo 8 would lose radio contact with Earth as it slipped behind the moon. This would not be the first time a space mission lost contact with Earth. In fact, every Earth orbital flight had long periods when the spacecraft was out of touch with all the ground stations due to Earth's curvature. Since the planet was not covered with ground stations, the crews on those missions spent most of their time in radio silence. But that was far different from losing contact with the home planet because another world got in the way, which was just about to happen with Apollo 8. Nasa had calculated, to the second, when it expected its communications with Apollo 8 to go dead. If the planners were correct, it meant the ship was on its proper trajectory and was where it should be.

If radio contact lasted too long, however, it likely meant Apollo 8 had been travelling too fast and had arrived at its rendezvous point with the moon before the moon had a chance to get there and block the transmissions. If the arrival was just a little early, the spacecraft might still be whipped around the moon by lunar gravity, but at a much higher orbit than desired. If the arrival was earlier than that, Apollo 8 might head off in a trajectory away from the moon that it couldn't reverse for lack of sufficient onboard propellant.

If, on the other hand, radio contact ended prematurely, it likely meant Apollo 8 had taken too long to reach its rendezvous point with the moon. If the lateness of arrival was slight, the spacecraft would zoom past the lunar surface at an altitude lower than Nasa had planned or deemed safe for the mission. If it arrived much later, Apollo 8 would smash into the moon.

So it was with great anticipation — and some dread — that the astronauts focused on the clock as the spacecraft flew backward, its cone-shaped nose and windows facing away from the direction of travel, into blackness. At the home of astronaut Bill and Valerie Anders, Valerie listened with friends, her living room dark except for the glow of a Christmas tree and a crackling fire. At her home, Frank's wife, Susan Borman, huddled in the breakfast nook and put her ear to the squawk box.

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With just one second to go before predicted loss of signal, Apollo 8 was still in contact with Houston.

Borman's stomach tightened.

Jim Lovell and Anders stared at the clock.

The view out the windows became even darker. The astronauts' headsets went silent.

Borman looked at the clock. "Jeez," he said.

Radio contact had been lost at precisely the second Nasa had calculated.

Borman could hardly believe it. Anders joked, "Chris [Kraft, at Mission Control] probably said, 'No matter what happens, turn it off.' "

Anders had seen how concerned — obsessed — Borman had been about this moment during training. It took a second for Borman to realise Anders was kidding. After that, Borman couldn't stop smiling. Another critical hurdle in the Apollo 8 mission had been cleared.

In Houston, controllers looked at each other with a sense of wonder and relief, shaking their heads and then shaking hands. Orbital mechanics — the way the universe ordered and moved itself — worked. And man had figured it out to the split second.

The relief at Mission Control was short-lived. In 10 minutes, Apollo 8 would fire its Service Propulsion System engine in order to slow itself enough to achieve lunar orbit. The SPS had to work perfectly. And everyone remembered how the engine had fallen short of optimal performance during its brief test firing on the way to the moon.

Ordinarily, controllers in Houston could rely on their consoles and readouts to provide reassurance that all was well with the spacecraft. But that wasn't possible with Apollo 8 behind the moon. No one on Earth would know how well the SPS engine had performed, or even if it had ignited, until Apollo 8 came around and reappeared on the near side of the moon. If all went well, that would happen in 36 minutes.

On board the spacecraft, Anders had a realisation: given the ship's orientation, he had become the first man ever to reach the moon, beating his crewmates by a few centimetres. And then it hit all of them.

They had reached the moon.

Since humans first walked on Earth, the moon had been their siren, lighting their way in darkness, remaining their companion in the night. It hung at an eternal distance, yet pulled on men and women as it pulled on the oceans, calling to a primal instinct — to journey beyond one's home and explore the unknown. But the moon had always been too far, always beyond reach.

Today, Borman, Lovell, and Anders had changed that. Today, on December 24, 1968, when humankind opened their eyes, three of their own had arrived.

Before firing the SPS engine, the crew had to run through their checklists and position the spacecraft so that the burn would put them into a proper orbit. Even now, they were just 400 miles or so above the lunar surface, yet they couldn't see anything in the blackness because the light of the sun and its reflected shine from Earth were blocked by the moon.

A few minutes later, the spacecraft emerged into sunlight, at just the moment Nasa planners had predicted. With less than two and a half minutes to go before SPS ignition, Lovell called out: "Hey, I got the moon! Right below us!"

Anders pushed for a closer look, but all he could see were streaks of oil rolling down his window. Then it hit him. Those streaks weren't oil. They were lunar mountains.

"Look at that!" Anders said. "See it? Fantastic!"

It was the first time human beings had laid eyes on the far side of the moon.

Borman's commander instincts kicked in.

"All right, all right, come on. You're going to look at that for a long time." He needed to keep the mission focused. They had a rocket to fire soon, one that had to work.

"Twenty hours — is that it?" Anders asked, sounding as though he could look forever. Inside, he could only say to himself, "That's the moon."

Lovell prepared for the firing of the SPS engine, looking for an indicator from the display panel that signalled all was ready. Five seconds before ignition, he got it — the number 99 began flashing, the computer asking for the go-ahead to proceed.

Lovell pushed the button.

The astronauts felt a vibration, then the weight of their bodies pressed against their restraints as the spacecraft began to decelerate. The engine had lit, that much was certain. Now it had to burn against the direction of travel for just over four minutes to slow the ship's speed from around 5100 miles per hour [8208 mm/h] to less than 3700 miles per hour, which would allow the moon's gravity to capture the spacecraft for orbit. Inside the cabin, the men could hear the external thrusters firing as the computer worked to keep the craft straight.

Borman checked the instruments, which indicated the engine looked good. But no one on board seemed reassured.

"Jesus, four minutes?" Borman asked two minutes into the burn.

"Longest four minutes I ever spent," Lovell said.

The burn seemed never to end; the rocket just kept firing, the crew hyper-aware of the fact that if it lasted even a little longer than necessary, it could smash the spacecraft and its crew into the moon.

"Forty seconds left in the burn," Lovell called. Anders picked up the countdown.

"Five ... four ... three ... two ... one ..." The computer was ready to shut down the engine. Borman beat the machine to it.

"Shutdown," he announced, pushing the button. The spacecraft — and the men — settled back into weightlessness.

Knowing their engine had made good, the astronauts were free to take a look out their windows. Below, they got their first clear view of the lunar surface.

On board were, from left, pilots Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, and commander Frank Borman.
On board were, from left, pilots Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, and commander Frank Borman.

At the sight, each man forgot his flight plan, even Borman. They leaned forward, pressing their faces against the spacecraft glass. To Lovell, the three of them looked like kids staring through a candy store window.

"It looks like a big ... looks like a big beach down there," Anders said.

Despite his training in lunar geology, the far side of the moon startled Anders. Long, oblique shadows showed the terrain to be much rougher than he expected, and with many more mountains, an impressive sight. He thought to himself that Stanley Kubrick hadn't got it right in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which he showed the moon's surfaces to be sharp, angular, and scratchy. In real life, they looked sandblasted.

The size and number of craters was staggering. There were countless numbers of them, some as small as the eye could discern, others as wide as European countries. For years, scientists had argued about the cause of these impressions — volcanic activity or meteorite impacts? Most experts had come to the conclusion that craters were caused by meteorites. Anders scanned the surface of the far side but found no lava flows or other evidence of volcanic activity. He felt pleased to add his first-hand opinion to the debate: The craters had been made by meteorites, four billion years' worth, an endless bombardment from the solar system.

To Lovell, the surface looked like a concrete sidewalk that had been attacked by a man wielding a pickaxe, each wound rippling sand and particles around the impact point, so many craters they could never be counted. There was a harshness to the terrain, and no colour, just greys and whites that went on forever. It wasn't beautiful, exactly, but to Lovell, the scene was awe-inspiring in its vastness and the story it told — a tale as old and as new as Earth and the sun — and, for that alone, it was beautiful to his eyes.

To Borman, spacecraft, rockets, and computers were the products of science, the logical advance of mankind. The lunar far side, however, seemed a dreamscape, straight out of science fiction. Nothing was lit like that on Earth, or even in one's imagination. Nothing was ever that alone. And yet he saw splendour in all of it, in the epochs of violence gone perfectly still.

The men could have watched the moon for hours, but there was work to do. Borman would fly the ship, making certain the windows stayed in position for Lovell and Anders to perform their tasks. Lovell would take navigation sightings, confirm lunar landmarks, and assess potential landing sites on the near side for future missions. Anders would pull heavy photography duty while monitoring the spacecraft and its systems. Apollo 8 had 10 revolutions to get all its work done, 20 hours in total.

In Houston, the controllers were back at their desks but they still didn't know that Apollo 8's SPS engine had performed well, or even whether it had fired at all. All they knew was that if it had failed to light, the spacecraft would appear just two minutes from now. For once, controllers rooted for their consoles to remain frozen. If any jumped to life now, it would mean Apollo 8 had come out too soon.

The controllers watched a clock that was counting down to the time the spacecraft would reappear if the burn had not taken place. It seemed antithetical at Nasa to hope for nothing to happen when a countdown reached zero. But that was exactly the prayer in the church-quiet room.

When Apollo 8 failed to appear, waves of relief washed over Mission Control.

Marilyn Lovell watches the launch of Apollo 8 with her children, Susan, Jeffrey and Barbara.
Marilyn Lovell watches the launch of Apollo 8 with her children, Susan, Jeffrey and Barbara.

Now Houston had to jiu-jitsu its mindset. In 10 minutes, Apollo 8 had to appear, right on time, or it likely meant disaster. A new countdown began, one that could be heard not just at Mission Control but also on the squawk boxes inside the homes of the three astronauts. While Marilyn Lovell remained surrounded by family and friends and her priest, Susan Borman sat alone in her kitchen, lips pursed, trying to divine good or bad in the radio silence. Valerie Anders, teetering on the edge of sleep (it was not quite 4.30am), believed the crew would appear right on time, a confidence that her nervous friends, who'd gathered to support her this predawn morning, must have appreciated.

As the countdown to predicted signal reacquisition reached one minute, Mission Control fell silent. CapCom Jerry Carr began to call to the spacecraft, broadcasting into a silent vacuum.

"Apollo 8, Houston. Over. Apollo 8, Houston. Over. Apollo 8, Houston. Over."

Finally, a voice came through the headsets at Mission Control.

"Go ahead, Houston, Apollo 8." It was Lovell. "Burn complete," he told his colleagues on Earth.

Mission Control exploded in cheers and applause. Apollo 8 had come around to the near side of the moon. The contact had occurred within one second of Nasa's estimate.

Cheers also erupted in the astronauts' homes. Marilyn Lovell felt proud of her husband — his voice had been the first one broadcast from the moon. To Valerie Anders, Lovell's simple statement — "burn complete" — sounded like an ebullient "we're still here". Susan Borman was happy that her sons were happy, but she felt no sense of relief. She'd seen this movie a thousand times in her head, and it always ended the same way.

Apollo 8 continued flying, more and more nose-first, over the near side of the moon. Inside, Anders kept his still and movie cameras firing, trying to record as much of the lunar surface as possible, all according to the photographic plan provided by Houston. Aiming and focusing weren't easy. The centre window had been fogged by sealant fumes. Framing panoramas from the small rendezvous window was like trying to look out over the Grand Canyon through a welder's helmet. And, when Anders did lock on to something good, he might have to interrupt the moment to change lenses or swap out film magazines. Still, as the moon moved under the spacecraft, Anders began to capture spectacular shots, hundreds of close-up answers to questions that had endured for millennia.

Lighting conditions stayed good for another few minutes before Apollo 8 flew into darkness. (Generally, the crew would have about an hour of good lighting for photography during each two-hour orbit.) Forty minutes later, the ship slipped around to the lunar far side, where it again lost contact with Earth.

Apollo 8 had made its first full revolution; when they next came around, they would be making their first television broadcast from the moon. It would be an early morning telecast in the United States, but millions would be watching and listening, there and all over the world. At home, the astronauts' wives gathered their children in front of their TV sets. None of the women had been able to sleep.

At around 7.30am on December 24, test patterns flickered on TV screens and a greyish blob wobbled into the picture. When the camera steadied, the blob settled into a perfect sphere, with faint, almost invisible circles etched on to its surface — or maybe they were just lines, or the viewer's imagination. But when Anders pointed the camera out a window with better visibility, even the youngest viewers knew what had come into their homes.

This was the moon.

"Say, Bill," Lovell said, playing emcee for the broadcast, "how would you describe the colour of the moon from here?"

Much of the world might have expected a poetic description. But as Anders looked down, the lunar surface reminded him of the seawall at La Jolla Shores in San Diego, where he and Valerie used to roast marshmallows and play volleyball when they were younger. So that's how he described it.

"The colour of the moon looks a very whitish-grey, like dirty beach sand with lots of footprints in it."

Twelve minutes into the broadcast, Apollo 8 signed off and television screens went dark. Even with the cameras off, the astronauts couldn't stop describing the moon.

"The view at this altitude, Houston, is tremendous," Lovell said. "There is no trouble picking out features that we learned on the map."

Moments later, Lovell arrived at a place he'd long been waiting to reach.

"I can see the old second initial point here very well — Mount Marilyn."

"Roger," Carr confirmed.

On Earth, Lovell had promised his wife he would name a mountain for her. Now, from the moon, he'd delivered.

Edited extract from Rocket Men, by Robert Kurson, (Scribe Publishing, $40), published on July 2.