The famous 'Earthrise' photo from Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon. The crew entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1968. That evening, the astronauts held a live broadcast, showing pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft. ( Credit: NASA)

Dec. 21 marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 8 – the first Saturn 5 to carry astronauts. The Saturn 5 was Werner von Braun’s mega-rocket for carrying out President John F. Kennedy’s promise for a moon landing. The astronauts circumnavigated the moon at Christmas in what was a remarkable achievement seen around the world.

Camera #39 live at ignition   Camera #39 post launch view
Camera #39 live at ignition (courtesy of the author)

Ever so briefly, the millions of people watching the launch that December morning had a unique view never seen before on television — the five huge F-1 first stage engines starting up. The images had the numbers 37 and 39 carved into them looking up from both sides of the flame trench. They became a feature of every subsequent Apollo launch.

The cameras have their own story as to how they came about to help ensure a safe launch. The F-1 engines were huge – each nearly 20 feet high with nozzles 12 feet in diameter. Each burned 5,000 pounds of fuel and liquid oxygen per second – emitting a plasma of 6,000 degrees with a force of almost 1000 pounds per square inch. Getting them started and up to full thrust required a complicated system that required nearly nine seconds during which much could go wrong.

So, for the first manned launch of Saturn 5, carrying Frank Borman, James Lovell, and Bill Anders in their historic orbit around the moon, von Braun and his team who designed the engines wanted to watch the startup from below. In theory, there was 8.9 seconds to abort the launch if something went wrong with the engines. The project was handed through a chain of command that landed on the desk of a young engineer on General Electric’s Apollo Systems team responsible for launch systems at Kennedy Space Center Complex 39.

Camera #39 post launch
Camera #39 post launch (courtesy of the author)

The challenge of placing cameras under the F-1 engines was a team effort. It included special help from Corning Glass to produce a port that would survive conditions worse than being on the sun. A thick cylinder of steel bolted into the Pad A concrete reinforcement was also built to hold the cameras. The project was accomplished successfully in a few weeks with only one problem: the ports had to be replaced for every launch. The black ceramic on the adjacent flame deflector vaporized and coated the surface – after they had done their job of providing a view like no other.

This all occurred a half-century ago during difficult times; but the event raised the spirits of the nation and the world.

Anthony M. Rutkowski was the lead engineer for this project at General Electric’s Apollo Systems division and was part of the Apollo 8 and subsequent Saturn 5 launch teams. The Apollo 8 portals have adorned his desks for the past 50 years.