Apollo 8: Christmas at the Moon

Earthrise by NASA/Bill Anders

As the cold winds of December gently blow, and the holiday season impinges upon us, I am reminded of one of the greatest adventures ever taken by the human race. It was like Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Captain Kirk rolled into one fantastic journey that took humans from the Earth to the Moon. As if foretold by Jules Verne in his fabulous tale, it was a late decade miracle that in some ways saved the turbulent sixties, and led the way to a new era.

Apollo 8’s original mission was to test the Lunar Module in low Earth orbit. That mission got re-assigned to Apollo 9. Eight’s mission instead was re-routed to take the first men to the Moon before the Russians could possibly upstage their American competitors with a lunar circumnavigation flight of their own. By making the trip from the Earth to the Moon, the crew virtually assured the fulfillment of the promise made by the late John F. Kennedy, who challenged the country to go to the Moon by the end of the 1960s.

Apollo 8 was launched on December 21, 1968 and became the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth and reach its Moon, then orbit it and return safely to Earth. The three-astronaut crew was Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders. They became the first humans to travel beyond Earth orbit and see the Earth as a whole planet! They would be the first humans to directly see the far side of the Moon with their own eyes.

The Lunar Module was not used in this test flight to the Moon, but they did use the massive Saturn V rocket to power them on their journey. The mission was also famous for the iconic “Earthrise” image, which would give humankind a new perspective on their home planet. This image was the most famous and popular from the mission and was also the only image not scheduled for the mission.  It demonstrates the value of having a human being making observations compared with a robot.  Only a human could recognize the incredible beauty of such a sight and decide that it was worth photographing. Anders has said that despite all the training and preparation for an exploration of the moon, “We ended up discovering Earth.”

That Christmas Eve, on December 24, 1968, it was the most watched television broadcast at the time. The astronauts were told that they would have a large audience watching as they orbited the Moon ten times and that they should say something appropriate that evening. They chose to recite the first ten verses from the book of Genesis, for which NASA, later, was a lawsuit recipient by an atheist group.

Frank Bowman ended the reading with: “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.” The crew returned home on Dec. 27th when they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

Within months we were to land on the Moon and for this short period, Americans and perhaps for the first time, the world was as one. The crew of Apollo 8 and the missions to follow successfully met President Kennedy’s challenge of sending men to the Moon and returning them safely to the Earth. His words still echo in our ears.

“The exploration of space will go ahead whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space,” said Kennedy.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal, will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

I anxiously wait for our return to the Moon 50 years later. I would have looked at you in disbelief if you came back and told me then that we would not have had a presence on the Moon at this juncture of the 21st century. I wonder if I still will be around to see humankind’s return. I do hope so.