Science and Exploration

Review: Apollo 8 – “First To The Moon”

By Keith Cowing
June 6, 2019
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Review: Apollo 8 – “First To The Moon”
Apollo 8 Crew Observes Earthrise
First To The Moon

A new documentary on Apollo 8, “First To The Moon”, by filmmaker Paul Hildebrandt has been released. I am not going to mince words: this is the finest space documentary I have ever seen. Full stop.
As we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of first human landing on the Moon, everything Apollo is new again. While most of the attention is focused on the Apollo 11 mission one documentary focuses its gaze back in time to the first human mission to visit the Moon: Apollo 8.

The Apollo program moved ahead at a swift, yet methodical pace with many of its earliest tasks accomplished within the Gemini program. After the pause resulting from the loss of the Apollo 1 crew in early 1967 and some hardware redesigns, the first flight of a crewed mission on Apollo 7 occurred in October 1968.

With a growing threat of a possible Soviet circumlunar mission compounded by hardware delays, a decision was made to send the next mission, Apollo 8, to the Moon. This was only the second crewed flight of an Apollo and the first to fly on the immense Saturn V rocket which itself had only flown twice before.

Barely 22 years after the end of World War II NASA had gone from zero human space fight capability to the ability to hurl humans toward the Moon in less than 7 years. We used to do things like this without blinking. Today it is much harder to do.

The crews that flew on these missions had cut their teeth in the waning days of World War II or in the Korean War. They were all fighter and/or test pilots. As such risky missions were not unfamiliar to them. But they were people just like the rest of us. They were empowered by skills and friendships. And like the rest of us they were awed and humbled by the immensity of the universe.

“First to the Moon” makes skilfull use of carefully arranged archival footage and audio that brings you through the lives of Borman, Lovell, and Anders from childhood to lunar orbit. The original imagery of the Moon simply speaks for itself and is as vivid today as it was when we first saw it half a century ago. Perhaps more so.

The grainy video from inside the spacecraft is masterfully interspersed with modern simulations of what the Apollo 8 spacecraft looked like as the crew beheld these wonders for the first time – while we looked over their shoulder in real time.

I have heard the Apollo 8 crew retell many of these stories over the years. But somehow this film seems to have managed to capture each of these men at just the right point in their long lives – in just the right mood – as they looked back at this mission. Their recollections, while focused after innumerable retellings, are still clear, fresh, and peppered with the awe that you’d expect explorers to have experienced.

We’re losing the Apollo generation now. Soon they will only live in our memories while the enormity of their accomplishments shall live on as a new generation returns to the Moon to pick up where these trailblazers left off.

This film should be required viewing for any explorer – space or terrestrial. It embodies the full expanse of what it is like to have done something utterly improbable for the first time and to then spend an entire lifetime passing on that experience.

“First to the Moon” is available on iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Video, Vimeo, Google Movies, and on Blu-Ray/DVD on Amazon. More links here:

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.