CAPE KENNEDY -- Apollo 8, thundering on a pillar of flame and smoke into history's greatest adventure, carried three astronauts into an aiming orbit today for man's first voyage around the moon.
"We seem to be going along well," announced Navigator James Lovell as he, Command Pilot Frank Borman and systems engineer William Anders soared into a brief layover in earth orbit before beginning the lonely, six-day journey around the moon and back.
The astronauts selected lo become the first men ever to see the dark side of the moon were "operating in strictly businesslike fashion," ground controllers reported, as they made final checks before blasting away from their 118-mile high orbit.
A "go-no go" decision on the historic breakaway was expected by midmorning.
If all goes well, Apollo 8 will drop into orbit 69 miles above the moon on Christmas eve and circle the eerie lunar landscape 10 times.
"Liftoff," cried Borman joyously as the engines of the 36-story Saturn 5, the biggest rocket men have ever ridden, spewed out an orange ball of flame exactly on schedule at 7:51 a.m. EST. They reached earth orbit 11 and one-half minutes later.
"All looks great," flight controllers told the astronauts.
The rocket rose majestically out of a massive cloud of smoke that spurted a quarter mile into the air at blastoff.
The spaceship soared across the blue sky, glinting whitely in the early morning sun and trailing a 600-foot spear of flame.
The first and second stages broke away on schedule and the third stage remained with the spaceship to blast it out of orbit. The assembly weighed a record 283,213 pounds as it circled earth.
"Staging was smooth," Borman reported, "and the ride now is even smoother." He and his companions appeared well on their way to becoming the first men ever to see the dark side of the moon.
Apollo 8 was headed toward a 119-mile high earth orbit. It was to circle the earth twice while the astronauts made final checks of its systems. Then, shortly after 10 a.m., Borman was to restart the rocket's third stage and blast away from orbit toward the moon.
Astronaut Michael Collins at Houston told Borman the moonship's course was on target.