Launch of the Apollo 8 mission (December 21, 1968)

On the morning of December 21, 1968, a 36-story-tall Saturn V rocket towered over Cape Kennedy, now known as Cape Canaveral. Thousands of onlookers gathered to view the historic event on the nearby beaches. Sitting atop the lumbering Saturn V was the Apollo 8 spacecraft, ready to carry the first humans around the moon.

At 7:50 a.m. EST, the Saturn V rocket finally erupted into action with 7.6 million pounds of thrust, now rocketing towards space. Three astronauts were along for the rough ride: Frank Borman, William Anders, and James Lovell. Anders recalled feeling like “a ladybug at the end of your car antenna.” They were on their way to making history.

Apollo 8 took 68 hours, almost three days, to travel to the moon. Over the following twenty hours, the crew aboard Apollo 8 orbited the moon 10 times and even made a Christmas Eve television broadcast. During that time, it was the most-watched broadcast ever to be on television, with an audience of 1 billion people.

The Apollo 8 spacecraft

On December 27, six days after leaving Earth, Apollo 8 returned and splashed down in the northern Pacific Ocean. The mission had been a huge success; it had laid the necessary groundwork for Apollo 11 to put the first man on the moon. Later that year, Time magazine named the accomplished crew “Men of the Year.”

First SpaceX booster landing (December 21, 2015)

During the evening of December 21, 2015, the entire space community eagerly awaited the potentially historic launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Set to launch from Cape Canaveral, the rocket was tasked with delivering 11 commercial satellites into orbit for ORBCOMM. However, what was unique about this mission was that SpaceX would attempt to land the Falcon 9 booster back on Earth after delivering the satellites.

The launch went exactly according to plan. The Falcon 9 launched, delivered the satellites into orbit, and then the booster made its way back down to Earth. That night, the rocket’s first stage made a soft touchdown, achieving the first rocket landing following an orbital launch in history.

CEO of SpaceX Elon Musk had this to say on the launch:

“I do think it’s a revolutionary moment. No one has ever brought an orbital class booster back intact. We achieved recovery of the rocket in a mission that also deployed 11 satellites. This is a fundamental step change compared to any other rocket that’s ever flown.”

Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin had achieved a similar feat just a month prior when it successfully landed its New Shepard booster after launch. The difference here was that it occurred during a suborbital launch, not nearly as impressive as what SpaceX had done with the Falcon 9.

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