8 Things I Learned From Apollo 8

By Robert Kurson

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey Of Apollo 8 And The Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey To The Moon is a New York Times bestselling novel released last year by Robert Kurson.

It tells the story of the three astronauts (Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, Bill Anders) who made the first daring and courageous journey to the Moon and the challenges they faced along the way. It reads like a thriller.

My alter ego, Michael Batnick [insert Spiderman pointing at self GIF], recommended this one to me and once I started it I couldn’t put it down. I’m a huge science buff so this was right up my alley. I read most of this one on a flight and had to stop multiple times to share some of the passages to Mrs. Ramp. Even she was blown away by some of the information in this book and she’s not even remotely a science buff; more of a Real Housewives of [insert city] buff.

Before this turns into a BuzzFeed piece I want to share some of the fun facts that I picked up in this book.

  1. Jim Lovell, who was one of the crew members of Apollo 8, was portrayed by Tom Hanks in the Hollywood blockbuster Apollo 13. Jim was also a co-author of the book. I re-watched Apollo 13 (currently on Netflix) last night and I must say I have a much better appreciation for that movie now after reading this book.

  2. Apollo 8 had 5,600,000 parts and 1,500,000 systems, subsystems and assemblies. Even if all of the parts and systems functioned with 99.9 percent reliability, the team expected 5,600 defects.

  3. The Saturn V rocket produced a combined 7.6 million pounds of thrust, or 160 million horsepower - enough to power the entire United Kingdom at peak usage time. Holy shit.

  4. While safely above the Earth’s atmosphere and heading towards the moon, “the spacecraft had flown with one of its sides exposed to the Sun and the other side facing away. But that arrangement couldn’t last much longer without damaging the ship by broiling one side and freezing the other. To solve the problem, NASA had developed a procedure called passive thermal control, in which the commander slowly rotated the ship on its long axis, making one full revolution every hour as the craft journeyed though space. In that way, temperatures would become evenly distributed as the spacecraft turned on its invisible rotisserie spit. The maneuver had earned the nickname “barbecue mode” at NASA". Tom Hanks initiates barbecue mode in Apollo 13.

  5. There is a point that is approximately five-sixths of the total distance from the Earth to the Moon that is called equigravisphere. At this point there is an equal pull of gravity between the Earth and the Moon. Once the astronauts passed this point, it was the first time man had become captured by the pull of another celestial body.

  6. Upon re-entry, the astronauts in Apollo 8 were traveling nearly 25,000 miles per hour. The amount of g-forces that the astronauts experienced made the 150 pound astronauts weigh nearly 1,050 pounds.

  7. There was so much friction between the Earth’s atmosphere and the spaceship upon re-entry that the temperature at the surface of the spacecraft rose to half that of the surface of the Sun.

  8. The Apollo 8 mission allowed only four months of preparation rather than the usual year and a half. The rush was to beat the Soviet Union in the Space Race and fulfill JFK’s commitment for the United States to land a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. It was a constant back and forth competition between the Soviets and the United States to see who would be the first men around the Moon. Spoiler alert: We won. USA! USA! USA!

I know the title said eight things, but I’m gonna throw in a bonus:

At 69 hours into the flight, Apollo 8 would pass just in front of the Moon, missing its surface by only 69 miles. That altitude had been chosen for a reason. On future landing missions, it would be close enough so that the lunar module shuttling astronauts to the lunar surface and back wouldn’t require a massive amount of propellant, but far enough away to make it unlikely that the spacecraft waiting in orbit above would crash into the Moon.


If you have a couple of days to kill you could watch this series of forty-two videos that covers the entire mission.