Ep. 478: Apollo 8 with Paul Hildebrandt

On Christmas Day, 1968 Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders became the first human being to see the far side of the Moon. Their mission, of course, was Apollo 8, the first time human beings had ever left Earth orbit and seen the far side of the Moon. Today we talk all about Apollo 8, with special guest Paul Hildebrandt, director of a new documentary about the mission.
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Show Notes

Paul’s “First to the Moon” Kickstarter
Apollo Program
Apollo 8 – first manned mission to the moon
Frank Borman – mission commander
Frank Borman
Bill Anders – flight engineer and photographer
Bill Anders
Jim Lovell – command module pilot
Jim Lovell


Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription

Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast Episode 478, Apollo 8.
Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me is Dr. Pamela Gay, the Director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the Director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela. How are you doing?
Pamela Gay: I’m doing well. How are you doing, Fraser?
Fraser Cain: Good, but we also have a special guest in an unusual first-time discussion with Paul Hendren to talk about his new documentary about Apollo 8. Paul, welcome to cast.
Paul Hildebrandt: Thanks Fraser. Happy to be here.
Fraser Cain: So, as I mentioned, we have not had a big guest like this. So, I’m going to apologize in advance that we don’t really know how the balance is going to be or how this is going to work. But, let us know. Give us some feedback if you want to have extra guests here in Astronomy Cast from time to time and we’ll see how this all works out. So, Paul, you are a guinea pig. Welcome to our experiment.
On Christmas Day 1968 Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders became the first human beings to see the far side of the moon. Their mission, of course, was Apollo 8; the first time humans had ever left Earth orbit and gone around the moon. Today, we talk about Apollo 8 with special guest Paul Hildebrandt, director of a new documentary about the mission. Paul how’s it going?
Paul Hildebrandt: I’m good. How are you guys doing today?
Fraser Cain: So far so good. All right. So, set the scene for us. Let’s talk about Apollo 8. For those who perhaps aren’t super up on their space lore, what was Apollo 8?
Paul Hildebrandt: Sure. So, I’ll give the brief description. Apollo 8 was the first time that humans ever left Earth.
Pamela Gay: Well, they left Earth before. So, comedic timing here. I’ve been listening to Alan Alda all morning on the radio. So, we left Earth plenty before then. But, we actually left the gravitational primary sphere of influence of the Earth. So, it wasn’t just leaving the planet. It was falling into a different gravity well, which is kind of awesome. Everyone wants to fall into a well occasionally.
Fraser Cain: But Paul, how did Apollo 8 sort of fit within the mission plan of all the Apollo missions?
Paul Hildebrandt: So, Apollo – as a program they had different goals along the way. They’d have to test the command module, test the Saturn 1B, the Saturn V, test the lunar module. And, Apollo a was originally going to happen much later but NASA and the CIA received intelligence that the Soviets were going to try to orbit a man around the moon. And, they said, “Well, wait a minute. We’ve got to do this now.”
So, they basically just scrapped the lunar module that was supposed to go on Apollo 8 and they said, “Hey Frank, what do you think about going around the moon instead of just going into orbit?” Because the Apollo 8 was originally just going to be an Earth orbital mission. And, they changed all that and decided to go around the moon instead. So, it was a big leap from what they had originally planned.
Pamela Gay: Now, one of the things that was very different about the Apollo missions compared to, for instance, what Elon Musk is doing right now is with Musk, each of the new Falcon 9s, each of the new Falcon Heavies presumably, is going to be an evolution on the prior one where they are constantly updating their technology, they’re constantly figuring out how to do things better. But, with the Apollo rockets, this was like, “We’ve got this. We’re testing it.” It wasn’t this constant evolution.
So, was there any reason not to commit and go?
Paul Hildebrandt: Well, they had to make some changes after the Apollo 1 fire. They had discovered that the command module was kind of shoddily put together by North American Aviation and the 100 percent oxygen atmosphere was unsafe. So, they had to make some changes to the command module itself and respectively, I think, probably the lunar module. I’m not an expert on that, but they probably had to make some upgrades there as well. But, they really did have the plans. They had the plans laid out as to what they were going to do.
Pamela Gay: So, they have plans. They are working towards it and it was realized, “Holy expletive, this stuff is working.” Were there any external reasons, other than, “Well, we’re used to doing things slowly and methodically here,” were there any reasons to push it forward or not push it forward?
Paul Hildebrandt: In my interviews with the crew, I mean, there weren’t really any hidden reasons why they said that they did it slowly. It was just the way that NASA worked. They would just do it one step at a time because that was what was perceived as safe.
Fraser Cain: But it’s interesting, right, that they had that intelligence. And actually, the Russians, the Soviets, never actually got around to sending a human around the moon, right?
Paul Hildebrandt: That’s right.
Fraser Cain: I mean, they were building the N1 rocket, but they never got a chance to actually get that thing get any – it just failed on the launchpad.
Paul Hildebrandt: Yeah. Actually, on YouTube, if you go on there, I think there’s some really bad video of the glorious explosions that occurred every time they tried to launch the N1. It was just this humongous rocket.
Fraser Cain: Shades of today, where you’ve got – the N1 was the most rocket engines that had ever been assembled on any rocket at any one time and it turned out to be a disaster. And now it’s going to be eclipsed by the Falcon Heavy, which is the most rocket engines ever assembled on one rocket ever. And so, you know, let’s all hope that we don’t get shades of the N1.
All right, so you’ve got the Apollo 8 mission crew. So, did they have – what were the science goals apart from like, don’t die?
Pamela Gay: That’s always a goal.
Fraser Cain: Well, of course. Yeah, that’s the background goal that’s always going on, “Don’t die when you make this trip around the moon.” But what was the –
Pamela Gay: What were they hoping to learn with this mission?
Fraser Cain: Yet what were they hoping to learn from this mission?
Paul Hildebrandt: Yeah. I mean, it was very important that they basically needed to prove that they could get to the moon because nobody had ever done it before. And, what was going to happen when you left the Earth’s gravity? They could just fall back to Earth. At that point they were on their way to basically another planet, another body, and so it was their job to be the pathfinders, to go and photograph the lunar surface, to look closely at the landing sites that they had planned for Apollo 11 and beyond. They orbited the moon. They named mountains, craters. They brought back all kinds of photographs to NASA so that they could further plan the missions that would come.
Fraser Cain: What was the actual flight path that they took
Paul Hildebrandt: You launch from the Earth and you basically shoot out to the moon and they would essentially figure eight around the moon and come back, but they orbited several times. I can’t remember how many times they orbited but they did orbit several times and then they came back. And, it’s kind of funny because if you look at the Apollo 8 mission patch and the number eight itself. It’s basically their flight plan. You figure 8 around the Earth, you go out to the moon, come back in the same way, and that really was what their flight plan was. So, a lot of similarities there.
And, of course, on one of their last orbits is when they took the now famous Earthrise photo, which was the first time that we’d ever seen Earth like that. We’d never seen Earth from that distance, from that perspective. Like, here’s the moon and then there’s the Earth rising over the lunar surface.
Pamela Gay: And it’s more than that. They were the first people to ever get so far from the Earth that they could see the entirety of the Earth, horizon to horizon, with black on all sides. Prior to that in lower Earth orbit there’d always been some direction that you’d have to crane your neck. It’s no one, “Look straight and you see the whole Earth surrounded by space,” because you are just too up close to the Earth. And so, they literally, for the first time ever, saw Earth isolated. And, this was really where the concept of the overview effect finally started to become a thing.
Fraser Cain: Right, which sort of feeds into what we talked about just a couple of episodes ago.
Paul Hildebrandt: During Bill Anders’ interview that I did with him it was interesting because to us here on Earth, the Earthrise photo is the photo that became the most famous. But, he had mentioned that to him, the moment that really affected him the most was when they were flying out to the moon.
And now, when Apollo 8 was flying out to the moon, they weren’t going headfirst. The spacecraft was actually backwards. So, the command module was facing towards the Earth. Because when they launch, they spin around to simulate the docking with the lunar module and then thrust back towards the moon.
And so, they could actually see the Earth getting smaller and smaller and smaller in the window. And then it wasn’t until much later, when they were orbiting the moon, that they saw the lunar surface appear. So, it was his view of the Earth getting smaller against this – he described it as this black velvet of space. It really affected him. And he started to think, “Man, you know, everybody I have ever known or will ever know or have ever known is right there.” Jim Lovell famously describes it as, “Everybody can be behind my thumb as I hold it up.”
Fraser Cain: Well, one of the things that I find so fascinating when you first kind of learn about that Earthrise picture is that you can only see that event when you’re orbiting the moon. Because, the moon is tidally locked to the Earth. So later on, when the Apollo astronauts were standing on the surface of the moon, the Earth would appear in the sky to them permanently. Right? And so, it’s only when you have that orbital perspective that you can actually see that Earth rise up and be able to do that.
And, again, that idea that you can just cover the entire Earth with one thumb that you can obscure all of humanity with that one thumb.
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Hi, this is Doctor Pamela Gay from Astronomy Cast and I’d like to invite you to join me in Amsterdam on February 19 and 20th as I work to get better at doing one of the most important things I do in my profession. And, this is getting better at testing and exploring my software so that I know what it’s actually doing, how it’s actually failing, and I can make sure that when things go sideways I can fix it rapidly and effectively. Because my unit testing and my explorer testing is doing the things it needs to do.
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Fraser Cain: So, who played which roles on the Apollo 8 mission? What were their jobs.
Paul Hildebrandt: Yes, so first is Frank Borman who was the commander. And Frank had previously been on Gemini with Jim Lovell. Gemini 7, I think. But, don’t quote me on that.
Fraser Cain: You just quoted you on that.
Paul Hildebrandt: The next was Bill Anders. Bill was originally supposed to be the lunar module pilot, but of course they didn’t have the lunar module, which he was disappointed about. So, he was essentially given the job as flight engineer and photographer.
Pamela Gay: And we are so grateful for his photos. These are absolutely amazing. Various people have been working to restore them. You can get them and print them if you reach out to the right people at NASA. No, I don’t know who the right people are. I have seen museum quality displays of these photos and it’s one of these things that reminds you that film has higher resolution than any of our digital detectors. They are amazing.
Paul Hildebrandt: Of course, and they did use state-of-the-art Hasselblad cameras on these Apollo missions that were designed specifically for this. So, it wasn’t your average off-the-shelf camera that they were taking to the moon.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, really nice cameras. Jim Lovell ended up being obviously one of the most experienced astronauts in the entire NASA program. He was on many of the missions. Tell me a little bit more about the crew.
Paul Hildebrandt: Yeah so Jim Lovell, our last member of the crew. He was the command module pilot, so he was basically navigator. And he ran the computer, and he really was in charge of where the ship was going, frankly. He had to do a lot of the steering. He was on the controls quite a bit as commander. But, Jim ran the Apollo guidance computer and there’s a funny story about that as they come back as well.
Pamela Gay: So, tell us the story. You can’t just leave us hanging like that.
Paul Hildebrandt: On the way back, the crew describes Jim as just he’s just punching numbers into the computer like crazy. He’s really confident. He’s, “Click, click, click, click, click, click, click.” He’s putting all the numbers in and then he accidentally hits basically the reset button and the spacecraft then thinks it’s back on the launchpad.
So, the spacecraft reorientates itself as it would be if it was on launchpad, and Frank Warren is sleeping at the time. So, all of a sudden, the spacecraft starts jerking around because it doesn’t know what’s going on. And he wakes up, and there’s basically this huge struggle to put the numbers back into the computer and reprogram it so they can get back to Earth. So that’s the – that’s one of the dramatic moments of the mission. But luckily, they figured it out and got back. Not nearly as dramatic as Apollo 13.
Pamela Gay: But, this gives you a sense of how much technology has changed since then. They were essentially using an analog system that the reset button took it back, I believe, to the beginning of the magnetic tape. And, they had this set of commands that was in there that went in order and if you reset it you reset it, and then you had to find where you were supposed to be.
They also partially navigated by looking at the stars. They were carrying all sorts of hand navigation devices like you would have expected to see if you’re watching black sails navigate pirates. They used to stuff like that to navigate the Apollo because this was in a day before we had computers that could do things. And instead, they had folks down in Houston doing, “Okay, burn on my mark,” and they’re pressing the buttons. So, someone sneezes at the wrong moment and your engine thrust is starting a second late.
Paul Hildebrandt: Yeah. I mean they were – Bill Anders thought they had one chance in three of returning to the Earth. They weren’t quite sure that they were going to make it and they were all very afraid that the command – that the service module main engine wasn’t going to light and if it didn’t, they’d still be orbiting the moon today. Because again, when you’re around the Earth it’s easy enough to get back down. But when you’re orbiting the moon, you’re kind of stuck there unless you can produce enough thrust to get back.
Pamela Gay: And there’s also all of the orbital mechanics involved in this. S so you have your situation where you have the Earth, you have the moon. And when they first launch, if you don’t fire your engines once you get to low Earth orbit you’re just going to have a ballistic trajectory.
You have to fire once you’re up there to put yourself into an actual orbit going around the planet. Then you have to fire again to get yourself out of that orbit around the Earth and into that figure 8 that puts you in front of the moon as the moon’s orbiting around the Earth so that the moon’s gravitational well can then grab you.
But, that’s not enough. You have to additionally fire your engines to get yourself going circularly around the moon. And then, once you’re in that circular movement around the moon, you now need to fire your engines again so that you’re headed out to be in front of the Earth.
This is why it’s the figure 8. It’s so that you can constantly be putting yourself in front of the thing you’re hoping to get to because in front is a better place to be than behind. And, when you put yourself in front, you then have to fire your engines again to get yourself either into orbit or to ballistically come down where you mean to come down.
And so, there’s all of these different engine firings that have to be timed precisely or you don’t end up in the right orbit and instead of being in orbit, you’re a missile.
Fraser Cain: One of the things I think is also very interesting and kind of unnerving is Borman got sick on the mission. Do they talk at all about that, Paul?
Paul Hildebrandt: They did. Yeah, so the story is that morning they wake up, and they have their breakfast of steak and eggs. And this has been described before in previous interviews more graphically than they told it to me, but basically it was coming out of both ends. And he got quite sick, and they couldn’t figure out why. But, they didn’t tell NASA because they knew that NASA was going to say, “You guys need to come back.”
And what they described to me was, coming from a military career and being test pilots, it was almost worse to fail than to die. And, they would rather die than fail.
Pamela Gay: And this was back in the peak of, “Failure is not an option,” as the NASA slogan. And thankfully with Curiosity that started to become more of a, “Dare mighty things.” But when, “Failure is not an option,” is what you’re told, it’s do or die. There is no try.
Fraser Cain: But, they were all soldiers, right? They were all military test pilots. The whole Apollo program. All of them back then were all top gun aces, right? And so, they all came from this military background.
And I think that’s exactly right, that what Paul is saying is that for them, you are more concerned about the mission. You’re more concerned about your wingmen, in this case, who were in the capsule with you. And that was the way their brains worked and so it’s interesting that they didn’t tell NASA that they were literally in the middle of a shower of Frank Borman’s vomit for the mission and they tried to clean up as best they could, but it was all pervasive. I mean, what an ordeal to go through but I mean for them. in the end it didn’t kill them, so they made it.
Paul Hildebrandt: Frank later attributed it to a sleeping pill He took because I guess they had trouble sleeping in space. And, he had never gotten space sick before. He been up for two weeks on Gemini 7 with Jim Lovell and never gotten space sick. But of course, there’s a lot more room to move around in Apollo than there was in Gemini. There was no room to move in Gemini. So, they were doing somersaults in the spacecraft that they couldn’t do in Gemini.
So, he got sick, and they basically gave NASA a notification of it through a sort of covert means. There was a separate taping system on Apollo that sent back a different feed, a nonpublic feed, back to the ground. And, they sort of hinted at the fact that Frank was sick on this tape after it had happened. And by that point he was fine. And they told them to continue on because they didn’t want to make it public. They didn’t want to worry their families or anybody else back on Earth that Frank Borman was throwing up in the capsule on the way to the moon.
Fraser Cain: What were some of the other really kind of tricky parts of the mission that had to go exactly right, or everybody was going to die?
Paul Hildebrandt: Yeah. Well, as I said earlier, the burn back around the moon was what they were most concerned with, and the reentry itself was a pretty powerful moment.
Fraser Cain: And I guess both of those had never been tried before. No one had ever tried to do an entry burn to go into orbit around the moon, and nobody had ever tried to do a reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere coming from a trans-lunar orbit, right?
Paul Hildebrandt: Right. I mean, they were going – at the time, this was the speed record. I don’t remember how fast they were going, but it was really fast. And they were just coming straight in from the moon to the Earth. And down they went, and everything – luckily it worked out okay. It was really amazing and it’s really a testament to the technical skill of everybody involved in the Apollo program that things went as well as they did.
You know, when you look at it, basically we had two accidents: Apollo 1 and Apollo 13 and even Apollo 13. That they were able to fix that and bring them back is just amazing
Pamela Gay: This is one of those situations where they literally couldn’t test whether or not the parachutes are going to work as needed because they didn’t know if they’d be able to dump enough velocity off coming through the atmosphere. And that this is the same problem that we have often trying to figure out if parachutes will work on Mars. We just don’t have the actual circumstances.
With a lot of spacecraft, you can figure out, as they’re coming through they’re going to hit terminal velocity. You can figure out what the G forces are going to be ahead of time, and you know what the stresses on the body are going to be. With this spacecraft they can calculate the G forces, but we were still coming to understand our upper atmosphere. And so, they weren’t 100 percent sure what velocity they’d be at on the other side of the atmosphere, I think. Please correct me. You know a lot more about this and I do.
And so, there is the, “And we shall over engineer these parachutes.” What were the stresses on the body that these folks that had to go from the fastest ever to not as fast? What were the stresses they went through?
Paul Hildebrandt: Well, Bill Anders – basically I know what they described to me. And what he said was that the – and all of them said this. So, I’ll start with the launch. The launch of the rocket they described – they said it was an old man’s booster the Saturn V was an old man’s booster. Because it really wasn’t that bad, but it did shake so violently that at points they thought that it was just going to fly apart on the way up.
This was the first time that anybody had ever rode the Saturn V. All of the previous Apollo test missions with people on them happened on the Saturn 1B, which is kind of like a half-size version of the Saturn V.
Fraser Cain: Still a monster, but yeah.
Pamela Gay: And by old man’s rocket what you mean is it accelerated at a lower rate.
Fraser Cain: Right. It was gentle.
Pamela Gay: So, the number of multiples of the force of gravity that folks felt was much less. But it’s that launching of a 747, you need further runway to get up to the speed you need to get. And wow, that entire thing shakes while you’re trying to take off.
Fraser Cain: It’s interesting, right? You learned from some of the astronauts like these. The Soyuz, it sounds like this rocket just jumps off the pad. It’s quite terrifying because its only job is to carry a couple of human beings up to space and so it doesn’t need that big long 747 runway. So, Paul, continue your story. You were saying that the launch was okay.
Paul Hildebrandt: Yeah, the launch was okay. Staging was violent. So, what they told me was when the third stage separates, they would instinctively put their hands up because they would get thrown forward into the control panel. And their harnesses would hold them back, but they would put their hands up because they thought they were going to hit the control panel. Because when it stages, it throws them forward and then throws them back. And, Bill Anders actually hit his watch on his helmet and there’s an indent on his helmet now to where his watch that he was wearing on his wrist hit his helmet.
And now the other two guys were more used to this, but this was Bill Anders’ first spaceflight. Borman and Lovell had been up on Gemini. Lovell had been up twice; the second time with Buzz Aldrin. So, they were more used to the launch experience and the staging experience, but Anders was not. And this happens, third stage, second stage, and then they’re off to the moon.
On the way back down, it becomes extremely hot and they can see fire outside of the windows. And probably the best part – what’s funny about these guys is they don’t describe the reentry or the launch as dramatically as you would think. For us, such an event is so amazing and so dramatic, but to these guys, it’s just another day at the office.
Fraser Cain: One of the safer test vehicles they’ve ever flown
Pamela Gay: And to clarify, it wasn’t fire as in chemicals burning, exothermic process that they were seeing. What they were seeing was the frictional heating as the kinetic energy of their spacecraft, that motion energy of their spacecraft, got dumped into the atmosphere around their spacecraft and the air heated up so much that it gave off light.
Fraser Cain: So, we’re sort of nearing the end of our time, Paul. Let’s talk a bit about the documentary here. So, your documentary on Apollo 8, you had a chance to actually interview all three of the astronauts and you recorded a pile of footage. How much time did you spend talking with them?
Paul Hildebrandt: Yes. So, I spent two days with Frank Borman, and one day with Jim Lovell, and one day with Bill Anders. Frank – basically we split his interview into two days. Sort of a half day each day we came back and reflected a little bit more. So, we have a lot of footage.
We have – basically I asked them everything from when they were born to their entire military career, what they felt was necessary about serving their country, and why they joined NASA. Why they wanted to join NASA. So, we’re going to really present their entire biography.
And it’s really an amazing story from Frank Borman telling how he went to Berlin when it was separated. And, he saw just the harsh conditions that the Soviet Union had put on that country really motivated him to win the Cold War. And these guys, in their own words, these guys were cold warriors of their own and their war was in space. And it was their job to win that war.
After that, we’re talking about their NASA career through Gemini. And then, the mission itself. A full accounting of the mission from launch to landing and the effects of the mission afterwards.
Apollo 8 was not just the first mission to the moon and it was not just another flight in the Apollo program. The effect of the Earthrise photo and the effect of all of the pictures that came back from the Apollo program where we could see the Earth had, if you look at the evidence, massive effect on environmental legislation in the following years. The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970. The various versions of the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, DDT was banned.
So, a lot of things happened after Apollo 8 because we now had this cosmic perspective, the perspective of seeing the Earth from a distance that we had never seen before. And, I think it made people think a lot differently about that.
Fraser Cain: So now, as you mentioned, you are gathering this footage together. You are going to be making a documentary about it and you’ve got a Kickstarter right now to help you get the movie made. When does the Kickstarter end?
Paul Hildebrandt: Yes. So, we have a Kickstarter. We’re trying to raise $100,000.00 for the post production of the film. So, this is music, animation, archival film. And the Kickstarter ends on February 15.
Fraser Cain: Excellent. And so, where can people go to participate?
Paul Hildebrandt: So, they can go to our website, which is firstmoonmovie.com or they can go to Kick Starter and search for First to the Moon and we’ll come up there.
Fraser Cain: Fantastic. Well Paul, thank you so much for joining us today on this episode of Astronomy Cast, talking about Apollo 8. And good luck with making the movie. I mean, I can’t wait to see the interviews that you’ve done with these guys. I’m sure it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Paul Hildebrandt: Thanks a lot, Fraser. Thanks Pamela
Pamela Gay: Thanks.
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Duration: 34 minutes

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