The Apollo 8 mission was a smashing success for NASA. Letters and newspapers described it as “The event that saved 1968.” But what did it really take for the Apollo 8 team to stay motivated? The answer will push you through your business goals in the new year.

It was a moment that astronaut Frank Borman would later say, “was really something.” For the bravery required in the moment of the Apollo 8 capsule’s re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, at a speed of 24,530 miles per hour, a re-entry speed at that time had never before flown by human beings. That bravery required staying motivated. “Boy, my eyes opened wide on that one,” Borman said.

The Anticipation of Success for the Apollo 8 mission

On December 27, 1968, astronauts Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders sat captive inside their capsule as it sped toward Earth. In Houston, the team inside NASA’s flight control center nervously waited. Just like three days prior when the three men were the first to orbit the back side of the moon. At that time the Apollo capsule lost contact with mission control. But this time — for three full minutes during the force of re-entry.

Like many events of the Apollo 8 mission, risks filled the capsule’s re-entry. If the Apollo capsule approached the Earth at too shallow of an angle, it would bounce off of Earth’s atmosphere and the men would be lost to space. If the capsule entered the atmosphere at too deep of an angle, the capsule would be hit too hard by the heat of re-entry, and break up above the Earth.

It appeared the Apollo 8 team had entered at just the right angle, and were now descending rapidly to Earth. Nevertheless, the ground control team had to wait during the communication blackout. The capsule reached over 5000 degrees Fahrenheit. Were all of their preparations enough to protect its integrity and the crew inside?

When the capsule re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, Pam Am pilot Jake Marcum spotted it while captaining a flight from Honolulu to Sydney. “We have Apollo 8 in sight,” a dispatcher sent to NASA, “He’s making a red ball of fire….”

And then, after a very long 3 minutes, came relief.

“Go ahead, Apollo 8. Read you broken and loud,” said Houston control.

“Roger; this is a real fireball. It’s looking good,” Borman replied. “We’re in real good shape, Houston.”


The Apollo 8 Capsule and the Myth of the Overnight Success

And thus ended six days in space, and a very successful mission of many firsts. Apollo 8 was the first flight to leave the Earth’s orbit. It also was the first flight to be captured by the gravity of the moon, orbit the moon, and come back into Earth’s atmosphere.

Additionally, the Christmas Eve broadcast from the Apollo capsule on December 24, 1968, left Americans with a feeling a great hope. 1968 saw high losses of life in the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy, and a bitter presidential election in America. But on Christmas Eve Borman, Lovell, and Anders broadcast live coverage of their moon orbit, and closed with the lines, “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.” It was a message that, overnight, boosted Americans’ motivation as they entered the new year.

The success of the Apollo 8 mission was immense. In addition to the American networks CBS and NBC broadcasting Apollo 8 coverage, the BBC broadcast it to 54 countries in 15 different languages. Over 10,000 people greeted the astronauts at Hickam Air Base in Hawaii the day after the astronauts returned to Earth. The next day, 3,000 people greeted them at Ellington Air Force Base in Texas as the men made their mainland homecoming.

The men left Earth on December 21, and returned on Dec 27 as worldwide sensations. But the blazing success of the Apollo 8 mission hides much of the truth of the story: the struggles, challenges, and hard work it took for thousands of NASA employees to make it possible.


The Apollo Program and Reality of an Overnight Success

As you look into this new year, how can you stay motivated to achieve the end goals you’ve set for your business? It’s important to remember that smashing successes like the Apollo 8 mission did not happen overnight. Take a look into the reality of how NASA achieved Apollo 8’s success. Use these lessons to stay motivated as you work toward your end goal.

1. Be Flexible

The reality of the Apollo 8 mission was that it wasn’t in the original plan. Following Apollo 7’s orbit of the Earth, the next planned step was to test the lunar module in an Earth orbit. But the lunar module wasn’t ready yet.

George Lowe, a manager at NASA, proposed adding a mission to circumnavigate the moon, because he was motivated to beat the Russians to it, and to understand the flight to the moon and back.

The response from NASA administrator Thomas Paine praised their flexibility: he congratulated his team on their courage to be bold. NASA went ahead with the Apollo 8 mission to circumnavigate the moon.

“We learned we could pivot a very large program, and adapt quickly to a new and risky challenge,” said Harv Hartman, a former Human Resources Director at NASA and currently a Historian for Experience to Lead. “That’s not a small feat. We were at that point — NASA was all of 400,000 people… a huge program. So you’ve got to pivot that to something that you hadn’t planned to do.”

By being flexible with their original plan, they created a huge success in the Apollo 8 mission that helped motivate them to their end goal: putting a man on the moon before 1970.


2. Be Prepared for Hard Work

When NASA decided to go forward with the Apollo 8 mission, there was not a lot of time to execute it. From decision to launch was only 4 months long.

“This thing became a very quick-developing mission,” Hartman said. “What I remember from being there at that time was the almost feverish activity. It was day and night of planning for this thing. The people building the trajectories. The people running the simulators. The people building the mission profiles. They were running on fumes, because they were working really, really hard to get that done.”

Thousands of NASA employees pulled together in a short period of time to get the Apollo 8 capsule into flight. Considering this, what timeline is required to achieve your end goal, and what amount of work? Make your expectations real for the work level that is required.


3. Embrace Unexpected Success

Apollo 8 achieved the planned goal of orbiting the moon. Still some successes of the Apollo 8 mission were unscripted and surprising. For example, no one knew that the Christmas Eve broadcast on December 24, 1968, would be so well-received.

Additionally, the iconic photograph taken by Anders, “Earthrise,” when the three men emerged from the far side of the moon and saw Earth for the first time as a blue sphere hanging in the darkness of space, was possibly a lucky grab.

“The first time they came around from the back side of the moon… as they came around saw that first earthrise, it kind of surprised all three of them, and they all raced to grab a camera.” Hartman said. But, “only Bill Anders had the good sense to grab one of the camera with color film in it.”

“Borman and Lowell both grabbed cameras that were black and white, which is pretty [and] still impressive. But, Bill Anders gets the credit for the color film picture that everybody loved. And it’s probably because he just happened to grab the one that had color film in it.”

The Christmas Eve broadcast was a moving success. The world watched with great interest as the Apollo 8 mission made it’s final splash-down in the Pacific ocean. This attention helped to seal it’s success. When NASA released photographs from the mission, the world widely acclaimed the iconic picture of the earthrise captured by Anders. NASA was riding high in that moment. The public cheer for their programs drove their motivation towards their end goal. Watch for those unexpected success, and use them to stay motivated.


4. Unexpected Failures Might Happen – But You Can Overcome Them

The Apollo program did have a colossal failure. On January 27, 1967, in a mission that would later be named Apollo 1, astronauts Roger Chaffee, Virgil Grissom, and Ed White II lost their lives when a fire erupted inside their capsule during preflight testing.

The deaths of the astronauts and the conclusions of the incident’s investigation were hard blows for NASA. The investigation revealed safety oversights in the Apollo capsule’s design and a lack of safety protocol in NASA’s administration. As a result, future launches were delayed, and the cost of the Apollo program rose by an estimated $472 million.

But the Senate Report from the Apollo 1 tragedy contains a telling line, “The impact of the Apollo [1] accident has been to reduce the probability of such a landing [on the moon], not eliminate it.” Despite the setback, NASA took charge of the redesign of the capsule, eliminating the troubling features that let to the fire and considered other factors for the safety of the astronauts. They also set up a safety organization that ran parallel to it’s programs, to hold them accountable.

The Apollo 1 fire could have eliminated the Apollo missions. Instead, NASA learned from the tragedy, overcame it, and pressed forward toward its end goal.


Stay Motivated in the New Year

Apollo 8, for all it’s success, was only a step in the process of NASA’s end goal to land a man on the moon before 1970. Though the three Apollo 8 astronauts were hailed champions by the world, the world still looked ahead to the Apollo mission’s future achievements. The astronauts themselves were hopeful that NASA would land a man on the moon in June of 1969 (they did it in July).

The reality of an overnight success is that there rarely is an overnight success. The behind-the-scenes look at the Apollo 8 story connects that breathtaking moment of seeing the Earthrise from the moon to the reality of what it took to get there. This is when flexibility, hard work, and sometimes unexpected successes or failures might fill that reality. This new year, keep your focus on your clearly-defined goals, but be flexible in achieving them. Be ready for the hard work, and if a setback or challenge occurs, know that your goal is still achievable.

And perhaps a brilliant, unexpected success along the way will motivate your team.  Keep watch for when one happens, and use it to provide motivation. Take inspiration from the story of Apollo 8, and stay motivated all year.


We continue to honor and celebrate the dedication and sacrifices of the men and women of Apollo, as NASA marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Program from Oct 2018 through Dec 2022.

Interested in experiencing more of NASA’s Apollo story firsthand? Register today for an Apollo Leadership Experience to encounter their stories of setbacks and successes firsthand, and receive leadership inspiration that will help you to create a culture of innovation.