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The incredible feats of NASA’s space exploration program in the sixties reached an important landmark with Apollo 8. This mission, which blasted off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on 21 December 1968, was the first crewed spacecraft to leave low Earth orbit. But it is perhaps best known for being the first human spaceflight to reach and orbit the Moon.

Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders piloted Apollo 8, which was the second crewed spaceflight after Apollo 7 in October the same year. After successfully becoming the first crewed flight to break free of the earth’s gravitational pull, Apollo 8 orbited the Moon 10 times over the course of 20 hours. The crew also became the first humans to witness and photograph the earth rising behind the moon from space. ‘Earthrise’, the photograph of this phenomenon, taken by William Anders, was described by celebrated photographer Galen Rowell as ‘the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.’1

Shell played its own part in this successful Apollo mission, providing a critical catalyst for the Apollo 8 spacecraft’s hydrazine propellant, which helped improve the controllability of the rocket motors. Shell had started working with NASA on the catalyst in the early 1960s, culminating in what was know as Shell 405 Catalyst in 1964, which was manufactured at Shell’s Emeryville, laboratory in California.2

A paper later published in the Journal of The American Institute of Aeronautic and Astronautics, by scientists from NASA highlighted the important role of Shell’s catalyst, saying: “The development of the iridium-based Shell 405 catalyst for spontaneous decomposition of hydrazine was one of the key enabling technologies for today's spacecraft and launch vehicles.”3 After decades of helping aviators conquer the skies, Shell was now helping pioneers go even further.

Apollo 8 proved to be a vital step toward Apollo 11, the spaceflight that first landed humans on the Moon on 20 July 1969.


R. van Egmond and A. Westra, Shell and aviation. The story of more than a century of collaboration. Shell International B.V., 2019, p. 78-79.
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