‘Twas the night before Christmas and from outer space, came a broadcast from the crew of Apollo 8:
This holiday season we remember Apollo 8 and the three brave men that set out into deep space to explore a new world, only to discover our own. This Christmastime mission was full of firsts including broadcasting the first live TV coverage of the lunar surface, taking the first images of Earth from deep space (by astronauts), launching the first manned mission from NASA’s new Moonport, setting a new speed record at the time of 24,200 mph, and was the first human voyage to the Moon. NASA was in the history making business and Apollo 8 did not disappoint.
A much-needed mission
The Apollo 8 mission was the second flight in the Apollo program but was the first crewed flight to blast off into space atop the mighty Saturn V rocket. The crew of Apollo 8 consisted of 3 astronauts; commander Frank Borman, command module pilot James Lovell, and lunar module pilot William Anders (although no lunar module was actually on board since no lunar landing was planned).
Before Neil Armstrong could take the first giant leap for all mankind, the crew of Apollo 8 was taking their own giant leap, becoming the first humans to enter deep space and travel to the Moon. It was the end of 1968, a year that for the most part, had been a bad one for America. Sen. Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, the nation was at war in Vietnam, and the race was on to the Moon with the Cold War. America needed some good news and Apollo 8 delivered.
Prior to landing on the Moon, NASA needed to test out the operations systems and flight trajectories that would get crews there. Thus, the main objectives of the Apollo 8 mission were to test these systems and trajectories, which would pave the way for future Apollo missions, which ultimately, would land Americans on the Moon. However, the original plan included a lunar module on board Apollo 8. Due to delays with the lunar module on the ground, NASA decided to go ahead with the mission but sent the crew up without the module, to meet the challenge set forth by Kennedy of landing on the Moon by the decade’s end.
Apollo 8 launched on the morning of Dec. 21, 1968. On Christmas Eve, the command module entered lunar orbit. That evening, the crew held a live broadcast from space as they orbited the Moon, sharing images of the Earth and Moon for the whole world to see. Nearly 234,000 miles away, the world watched and listened as the crew of Apollo 8 took turns reading from the book of Genesis, a selection they chose for its universal message.
In 2008 at the 40th anniversary celebrations, Borman recalled, “We were told that on Christmas Eve we would have the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice.” Amidst all the turmoil of 1968, the world finally had a message of peace and of hope.
Earthrise, an iconic image of discovery
Perhaps one of the biggest highlights of the mission was the spectacular shot captured by Anders, which would later come to be known as “Earthrise“, one of the most iconic NASA images to date. The image was snapped during the fourth lunar orbit when Anders looked out at the Moon’s horizon, and saw a spectacular sight, the Earth rising up above the Moon.
Anders has said that while the mission set out to explore the Moon, the crew ended up discovering the very planet they departed: Earth.
Lovell echoed Anders’ sentiment aboard Apollo 8 during a live television broadcast, saying, “The vast loneliness up here of the Moon is awe inspiring, and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth,” he stated. “The Earth from here is a grand oasis in the big vastness of space.”
The image was so captivating, that the U.S. Postal Service used it on the Apollo 8 commemorative stamp, which was issued on May 5, 1969 in honor of the first crewed flight to the Moon.
“Earthrise” remains a timeless tribute to our planet, and helps to remind us just how precious a place it is.
Santa Claus in space?
After 10 orbits around the Moon, it was time for Apollo 8 to return to Earth. It was Christmas morning when mission control anxiously awaited word from Apollo 8 that they were leaving lunar orbit. They got confirmation when Lovell radioed to the team on the ground, “Please be informed there is a Santa Claus.”
The mission ended on the morning of Dec. 27 when the crew splashed down in the Pacific, with a total mission duration of 146 hours, 59 minutes, and 49 seconds.
No one walked on the Moon, but this mission proved that the impossible could indeed become quite possible. America sent a crew to the Moon, and they returned home safely. It wouldn’t be much longer until humans were walking on the Moon…thanks to the brave crew of Apollo 8, that forged the way to deep space and a world beyond our own.
Then acting NASA administrator, Dr. Thomas Paine hailed the mission as “a true pioneering effort” and shared his aspirations for the future of the space program, saying, “We’re looking forward to the days we will be manning space stations, conducting lunar explorations and blazing trails out to the planets.” Just look how far we have come!
This holiday season, remember the mission that ventured out into the great unknown, to pave the way for a lunar landing and future deep space missions.