Christmas Eve & Apollo 8

Today, some of us are celebrating the eve of Christmas. Some of us are in the midst of Hanukkah. Others of us are recovering from Festivus. Lofty Ambitions celebrates today as the anniversary of the first manned orbit of the Moon.

First photo by humans of the whole Earth (NASA)

On December 21, 1968, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders were crammed into the Apollo 8 capsule atop a Saturn V rocket, the first to be used to launch human beings. The lunar module wasn’t ready so they carried with them its equivalent weight, a rare opportunity for NASA to add weight for the sake of itself. Apollo 8 blasted off into space that morning. Within 70 hours, Apollo 8 began the first of ten orbits around the Moon. Borman, Lovell, and Anders saw the whole of the Earth firsthand for the first time, then became the first humans to see the dark side of the Moon. During the mission, viewers back home watched the first live broadcast of the Moon’s surface as Apollo 8 circled. The crew returned to Earth on December 27, splashing down in the northern Pacific Ocean to be picked up by the U.S.S. Yorktown. The three astronauts became Time magazine’s Men of the Year.

First Earthrise photographed by humans (NASA)

The crew had trouble sleeping, perhaps because of the close quarters and radio noise. Borman suffered from what he thought was a stomach virus, what NASA doctors then thought was a reaction to a sleeping pill, and what was probably space-sickness, encountered for the first time on Apollo 8 because of the roomier capsule.

While maneuvering to stargaze, Lovell erased some memory in the computer. He corrected the problem and reestablished the proper alignment, something similar to a task he later had to perform during the troubled Apollo 13 mission. After that, the return home consisted of a couple of uneventful days, if being in a space capsule between the Earth and the Moon can be uneventful.

Earthrise, December 24, 1968 (NASA)

On December 24, during the ninth lunar orbit, the crew read aloud from Genesis. The video of that historic broadcast appears below.

The Apollo 8 capsule now resides at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, which is open every day except tomorrow and which features the exhibit “Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Lights” through January 8. William Anders, probably the least well-known of the Apollo 8 astronauts, founded the Heritage Flight Museum in Bellingham, Washington, and flew in air shows until 2008. In fact, we’ve probably seen him fly in a USAF Heritage Flight at an air show. The museum is closed today and New Year’s Eve but otherwise open Thursday through Saturday afternoons. As we remember Apollo 8 this week, Lofty Ambitions wonders whether a museum visit might need to become a new holiday tradition, one that reminds us of the vast universe surrounding us and of the various ways we look at (and have looked at) the world in which we all live.

2 thoughts on “Christmas Eve & Apollo 8

  1. What a great approach to the holidays–thanks for this. It makes me remember when my parents lived in the Virginia suburbs of D.C., and we’d often go to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum over the Christmas break–my dad loved to give us IMAX tickets, and we loved to go–that was back when there were only a few IMAX theatres in existence.

    1. Kristen we lived in the DC area for a while, and NASM was a holiday favorite of ours too! But we didn’t get there until we were adults. Maybe museum visits are part of the larger holiday tradition. Thanks for sharing your memory.

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