Christmas at the Moon

23 Dec

Christmas 1968 was a special one.

Do you remember?

1968 started as a troubling year. The strife included an unpopular war in Vietnam. The world also witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.

But Apollo 8’s six day journey to the Moon and back might have saved the year.

The mission’s ability to bring people together was a remarkable, lasting trait. And at a time of year when we’re liable to get a little bit caught up in the madness of the holiday season, it’s worthwhile to look back and to remember the wonder of Christmas at the Moon – and how this flight still touches us all today.

Apollo 8 launched on December 21, 1968 with a three man crew: Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders.

Both Borman and Lovell had flown into space before during the Gemini program; Anders was on his first flight into space.

For all three men though, and indeed for all of humanity, ‘firsts’ was the keyword of the mission.

This was the first launch from the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida – adjacent to Cape Canaveral.

Apollo 8 was the first manned mission to leave Earth orbit.

It was the first manned mission to the Moon.

The crew was the first to orbit the Moon and see its far side directly, with their own eyes.

And perhaps most majestic of all, Borman, Lovell, and Anders were the first three human beings to see Earth in its entirety, all at once.

This is by the simple fact that they had gone further away from home than anyone ever had before.

Not bad for a Christmas vacation.

For Apollo 8, besides the risk of launch and just getting underway towards the Moon, the crew faced the added mystery surrounding if their engine would fire precisely enough for them to enter lunar orbit correctly. If the engine failed to provide enough thrust as they approached the Moon, they risked being flung out into the solar system and forever lost. Too much thrust would result in an equally fatal impact on the lunar surface.

On December 23, 1968 at about 6 p.m. EST after a picture-perfect four-minute burn of the Service Module’s main engine, Apollo 8 and her crew were in orbit around the Moon.

And there they would stay for the next 20 hours, completing ten orbits around our nearest celestial neighbour.

While in orbit of the Moon, the crew conducted a live television broadcast back to Earth on Christmas Eve. It was during this broadcast that the crew famously read a passage from the Book of Genesis.

And even as a non-religious man myself, I appreciate the historical significance of reciting that particular passage in that particular place.

Apollo 8’s Christmas Eve broadcast from orbit of the Moon was also, at the time, the most watched television broadcast ever.

For NASA, while the Lunar Lander itself wasn’t ready to fly when Apollo 8 blasted off, this mission was an important one to test the Command and Service Modules to ensure they were capable of carrying crews to and from lunar orbit safely.

The crew of Apollo 8 was also kept very busy while in orbit of the Moon taking pictures. They were required to survey potential landing sites for future missions – in particular the Sea of Tranquility where Apollo 11 would land some seven months later and humanity would leave its first boot prints on another world.

In all Borman, Lovell, and Anders took more than 700 pictures of the Moon’s surface, and an additional 150 frames of Earth.

To be able to come back home, the crew would once again depend on the engine to fire perfectly.

And it did.

So after a couple days cruising back towards our blue marble, on December 27, 1968 just before 11 a.m. EST, the crew of Apollo 8 splashed down in the south Pacific.

For NASA the mission was a success because the crew came back safe, the spacecraft had performed well, they had gathered invaluable information about the Moon and potential landing sites, and last but not least: they were one small step closer to putting someone on the Moon.

For humanity though, Apollo 8 may have left a more lasting impression.

During this mission, we saw two things for the first time through human eyes: that we are all in this together, and that we are all a part of something much bigger.

The first image of our entire world

The first image of our entire world

The first photo of the entire Earth – an image that we perhaps take for granted today – demonstrated clearly that there is but one planet Earth.

No borders are visible from space.

No religions.

No races.

Just Earth – and all of us.

The other lasting image is one famously called ‘Earthrise’ – an image that the Apollo 8 crew captured as they came around from behind the far side of the Moon on Christmas eve.

"Earthrise" taken by Apollo 8 astronauts on December 24, 1968 while orbiting the Moon

“Earthrise” taken by Apollo 8 astronauts on December 24, 1968 while orbiting the Moon

As they peered out their windows, our pale blue dot was visible beyond the horizon of the Moon.

This offered a new perspective for humanity: our Earth as part of a larger system.

Our Earth as a piece in a much larger puzzle.

And as I think about this, I think I might understand why these two images resonated so deeply – and continue to resonate deeply today. They offer each of us a sense of connectedness.

In the individual sense, it is comforting to know and realize that our experiences, challenges, hope, and dreams are not unique. Because, as evidenced by that picture of Earth, we’re not alone.

In the larger sense, it is uplifting to be able to see our planet in the sky of another world. It’s encouraging to be able to realize we are connected to what’s happening around us.

It’s amazing how all this came from just two photographs, taken 45 years ago, during a mission that many people today couldn’t tell you anything about.

So during this Christmas season take a moment to remember what really matters in your life. Tell those important to you how you feel.

We don’t have to go to the Moon to do that – and hopefully this Christmas can be special too.

Merry Christmas!

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *