CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- On a December day 20 years ago three American astronauts, in an unprecedented test of the world's most powerful rocket, thundered into the heavens on 'a most fantastic voyage,' an adventure dreamt about by countless generations -- a flight around the moon.
Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders blazed through the morning sky Dec. 21, 1968, atop the towering Saturn 5 rocket and broke free of Earth's gravitational pull -- the first men to travel beyond the mother planet.
That first 550,000-mile trip to the moon and back by Apollo 8 ranks among man's greatest achievements, many say, even though the flight was later overshadowed by the Apollo 11 lunar landing on July 20, 1969.
'It was an amazing accomplishment on the part of an awful lot of Americans,' Borman said in a recent interview.
Seasoned veterans of the Gemini program, Borman and Lovell set a space endurance record in 1965, orbiting the planet for 14 days in Gemini 7. Anders was a spaceflight rookie.
'We're going to set about 5 billion years of precedent in the next two weeks,' Anders said before the flight.
Never before had humans traveled so far -- and so fast, 24,226 mph. Never before had astronauts flown atop the 36-story Saturn 5, the world's most powerful rocket and the brainchild of Wernher von Braun, the one-time German scientist and father of America's space program.
His three-stage, leviathan rocket, specially designed for lunar travel, harnessed nearly 10-million pounds of thrust. Only two Saturn 5 rockets had flown before, on the unmanned Apollo 4 and Apollo 6 test missions within Earth's orbit.
Apollo 8 was also the second manned mission for the gumdrop-shaped Apollo command module, dramatically redesigned after a launch pad fire killed astronauts Virgil 'Gus' Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee on Jan. 27, 1967.
Originally, the second manned Apollo mission was intended to go to another astronaut crew to test the command module and spider-shaped lunar lander in Earth orbit, but the lander could not be finished in time.
NASA made a bold decision and dispatched Apollo 8 to the moon and back with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. It was an unprecedented feat and in one round of communications with mission control in Houston, Borman called the flight 'a most fantasic voyage.'
The Saturn 5 first stage burned for two minutes, jolting the crew as they knifed through the sky. After it fell away, the second stage lit off, but the crew felt less of a punch.
'We had flown before in a Gemini, which was launched by a smaller rocket,' Borman, the commander of the mission, said in a recent interview. 'The Saturn by comparison was more ponderous, slower. The staging was more violent.
'But all in all it was a pretty smooth ride. We didn't have any of the oscillations that we'd experienced in Gemini, and eventhough we were the first humans on it I can tell you that it worked perfectly.'
After Apollo 8's second orbit around Earth, the astronauts fired the third-stage of their Saturn rocket for 5 minutes and 18 seconds to begin the almost three-day voyage to the moon.
'There were two things that really impressed me about the mission,' Borman, now an aviation consultant in New Mexico, recalled. 'The overriding view was looking back at the Earth from the moon on Chistmas Eve. That was an enormously moving triumph for all three of us.
'The other thing that I believe is (that the) combination of Saturn and Apollo worked perfectly the first time it was tried,' Borman said.
As they neared the moon, Lovell spoke of Earth to his commander.
'Frank, what I keep imagining is if I am some lonely traveler from another planet what would I think about the Earth at this altitude, whether I think it would be inhabited or not ... I was just curious if I would land on the blue or brown part of Earth.'
Shot back Anders: 'You better hope that we land on the blue part.'
Apollo 8's command module relied on a much smaller rocket to brake the ship and place it in lunar orbit. The rocket firing came over the back side of the moon, out of contact with mission control in Houston.
In his autobiography, 'Countdown,' Borman wrote, 'We were the first humans to see the world in its majestic totality, and intensely emotional experience for each of us.'
'We said nothing to each other, but I was sure our thoughts were identical -- of our families on that spinning globe,' he wrote. 'And maybe we shared another thought I had ... This must be what God sees.'
The astronauts settled down for 10 orbits of the gray moon, and on Christmas Eve 1968, they beamed home live spectacular television pictures and described the vista streaming by below them.
'I think the thing that impressed me the most (were) the lunar sunrises and sunsets,' Anders later said. 'These in particular bring out the stark nature of the terrain. The horizon here is very, very stark, the sky is pitch black and the Earth, or the moon rather, is quite light.'
Millions of people across the globe were moved as the astronauts took turns reading from the Book of Genesis.
'In the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness ... And God saw that it was good.'
Borman closed the moving recitation by saying:
'And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you -- all of you on the good Earth.'
About four hours later, the astronauts disappeared from view behind the moon for the final orbit and rocket burn to propel them home. Tension increased at mission control, but 37 minutes later Apollo 8 swung back into view -- right on time.
'Please be informed there is a Santa Claus,' Lovell reassured mission control as the crew settled in for the flight home and a NASA treat -- Christmas dinner with turkey and all the fixings.
'It was great. Without our knowledge, they included a Christmas dinner of some quite new (space) food,' Borman said. 'Lovell and I had two weeks of the old food on Gemini, so for us it was a real banquet. It was good stuff that was covered in gravy so it didn't float free. It was a real feast.'
The trip home was routine, and the mission itself was almost flawless, but in the first days of the flight Borman suffered a bout of space sickness.
'It was never really a problem. I believe what I had was the thing people experienced ... a nausea from floating around loose in the spacecraft,' Borman said. 'Lovell and I had flown on the Gemini for two weeks, but we were strapped in the spacecraft and neither one of us had any sensation of stomach discomfort.'
Later, a drowsy Lovell punched a few of the wrong keys on the spacecraft computer.
'We were all pretty tired, and Jim made a couple of incorrect entries into the keyboard that essentially erased some of the memory,' Borman said. 'But the people on ground were able to reset it and we didn't loose any thing of any consequence.'
The fiery re-entry of Apollo 8 on Dec. 27 was witnessed by the passengers and crew of Pan American World Airways flight 812 from Fiji to Honolulu as it streaked through the pre-dawn Pacific sky.
James Holliday, captain of the Pan Am Boeing 707, proclaimed it 'the most spectacular, sensational thing I've ever watched.'
The capsule hit with a tremendous force. Borman, Lovell and Anders dangled upside down until balloons atop the capsule inflated and righted it in the light of a flare dropped by recovery forces.
While frogmen wrestled with the spacecraft, the pilot of a Navy helicopter radioed the Apollo 8 crew and asked if the old tale was true - that Earth's moon was made of Limburger cheese.
'No,' Anders radioed back, 'it's made out of American cheese.'