On December 21st, 1968, three men left earth and became the first humans to orbit the moon. Their entire journey was legendary, and even 45 years later watching Apollo 8 launch is almost heart-stopping.

Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders were the first men to leave our planet's orbit. They were the first to view the full earth, and the first to lay eyes on the far side of the moon. Their mission was the first manned flight of the immensely powerful Saturn V rocket, and a late-in-the-game mission change pushed the launch date from spring of 1969 to December 1968, robbing them of three months of training.

They still pulled it off, and during their three-day voyage to the moon, the astronauts snapped the most famous and recognizable photograph ever taken: Earthrise.

Relive Man's First Launch to the Moon, 45 Years Ago Today

On December 24th, while orbiting the moon, the Apollo 8 crew did a Christmas Eve TV broadcast, with readings from the Book of Genesis. It was the most-watched television event to date. After 20 hours and 10 orbits around the moon, Apollo 8 headed back to earth, and six days, 3 hours and 42 seconds after launch, the crew splashed down in the Pacific Ocean south of Hawaii. And back to life on earth.

There's something poignant about the first men to leave Earth's orbit launching on December 21st, the longest night of the year. It's as though they picked the day when the dark sky was the most expansive, the most receptive to travelers. 45 years on, it's still awe-inspiring.

H/T Jason Major for the video