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1968: First astronauts orbit Moon
The Apollo 8 spacecraft has taken its crew of three astronauts safely into orbit around the Moon, the first manned space mission to achieve the feat.

The climax of the mission began at 0959 GMT, when Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders were about 78 miles (125 km) from the Moon.

Right on schedule, the crew fired their rocket engine to send Apollo 8 into the first of 10 elliptical lunar orbits.

The engine burned for just over four minutes, and then suddenly the avid audience of television-watchers on Earth had the first-ever eyewitness account of the lunar surface from astronaut James Lovell.

"The moon is essentially grey," he said. "No colour. Looks like plaster of Paris. Sort of a greyish beach sand."

Lost contact

Shortly afterwards, the spacecraft passed out of contact with mission control in Houston, travelling into the dark side of the Moon - never seen directly by humans before, as it always faces away from the Earth.

There followed a tense 45 minutes in which radio communication was impossible - a drama which will be repeated on each circuit around the Moon.

Once back in contact, Apollo 8 then fired another engine, sending it into circular orbit 69 miles (110 km) above the Moon's surface.

About two and a half hours afterwards, the astronauts beamed back the first television pictures of what they were seeing.

As the pictures flooded in, the astronauts broadcast the first words of Genesis, describing the creation of the world.

They then signed out: "From the crew of Apollo 8, we pause with good night, good luck and merry Christmas and God bless all of you - all of you on the good earth."

Bad food

All three men appear to be in good spirits and health.

They have been able to sleep and eat according to schedule, although the food, in plastic packets divided into small "bites", apparently tastes as bad as it looks.

One of Captain Lovell's first comments today was, "Happiness is bacon squares for breakfast."

They were told by Houston control, "You can always bring them back if you have any left over."

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Earthrise photo taken by Apollo 8 astronauts
The Apollo 8 astronauts sent back this photo of the Earth rising (picture: Nasa)

Views of the Earth and Moon from the Apollo 8

In Context
The crew of Apollo 8 spent 20 hours in orbit around the Moon, before returning to Earth.

They splashed down in the Pacific on 27 December, landing just 5,000 yards (4,500 metres) from their target point. They were picked up by the aircraft carrier Yorktown.

They returned as national heroes. The next mission, Apollo 9, took off at the beginning of 1969, to test a Moon-landing module.

That same year, the crew of Apollo 11 became the first men to walk on the Moon.

James Lovell went on to command the ill-fated Apollo 13, which was crippled by an explosion on board in 1970. He and his crew returned to Earth safely.

Budget constraints brought the first phase of American lunar exploration to an end in 1972.

Then, in January 2004, US President George Bush announced American astronauts would return to the Moon by 2020 as the launching point for missions further into space.

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