Rewind: On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 Orbited the Moon

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Newsweek's December 30, 1968 cover featured astronauts Jim Lovell, William Anders and Frank Borman, who spent the night before Christmas orbiting the moon. Newsweek

Christmas is full of surprises, and not just of the gifting type; the holiday has also coincided with some highly newsworthy moments. On Christmas Day 1962, To Kill a Mockingbird was released; In 1990, the internet got its first test drive on Christmas; and on Christmas Day in 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR.

But perhaps one of the most memorable events of American Christmases past was the flight of Apollo 8.

Astronauts Jim Lovell, William Anders and Frank Borman spent the night before Christmas of 1968 orbiting the moon—the first humans to do so. It was a mission originally intended to test out the lunar module, but when delays with the module threatened to slow the Apollo program and former President John F. Kennedy's ambitious goal to land on the moon by the end of the decade, NASA abruptly changed the mission to a lunar voyage. Apollo 8 launched on December 21, 1968, circled the moon 10 times on Christmas Eve, and begun its return to Earth that Christmas Day, after Lovell radioed an iconic message to mission control: "Roger, please be informed there is a Santa Claus."

Apollo 8 is perhaps best remembered for the astronauts' special live Christmas Eve broadcast, in which the astronauts shared images of the earth and the moon, and read lines from the book of Genesis.

Newsweek's December 30, 1968 cover story went inside the mission, detailing the astronauts' journey from launch to orbit to return. Republished below, the story highlights the details of the spaceship and the crew, as well as the bravery and stamina of the astronauts on that famous Christmas 49 years ago.

A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY

And it came to pass in those days …

Coasting silently through the eternal black of space this week, the moon­-bound crew of Apollo 8 are on their way toward fulfilling one of mankind's most ancient aspirations and deepest myths. The drive to soar freely, to un­derstand the unknown, to set foot on another celestial body is as old as the legends of Icarus and Diana. Whatever the fate of astronauts Frank Borman, James A. Lovell Jr., and William A. Anders—and there remain some awesome navigational and control maneuvers be­fore they can safely return to earth again—they have caused men to look up once more, to remember their dreams—and their humanity.

That the flight of Apollo 8 occurs during the season of the birth of Jesus is a coincidence lost on very few people, believers or nonbelievers, throughout the world. Of course, the exigencies of celes­tial mechanics rather than sentiment dic­tated the optimum flight dates for Apollo 8's mission to the moon. But a parallel cannot be denied: through the Decem­ber nights three men guided by the stars are seeking man's destiny and hope.

Naturally enough, the Apollo 8 flight book puts the mission in more impassive scientific terms. The lunar orbital flight is supposed to be a trial run for the future Apollo missions that will land men on the moon and enable them to sample lunar geology for clues to the birth, evolution and eventual fate of the universe. And the crewmen themselves are not star­-drawn wise men but proficient techni­cians. Indeed, their fallible humanity was emphasized when an apparent flu bug bit them Sunday morning. Even the go decision was done matter-of-factly.

HOUSTON CONTROL: All right, you are go for TLl [Trans-Lunar Injection].
APOLLO 8: Roger.

That was all. No poetry, no mystery, no prophecy. But the moment marked a new era for man. It just so happens that in this modern myth, the epipha­nies tend to appear as numbers, formulas, computer printouts and equations.

The modern Christmas journey started Saturday at 7:51 a.m. EST, only six-­tenths of a second late, when the Saturn 5 rumbled up from Pad 39 on Cape Ken­nedy. Enormous jets of yellow-orange flame and clouds of rust-colored smoke erupted from the giant rocket's powerful first-stage engines. The combined thrust of the five engines was 7.5 million pounds; it took this much force to lift the 6.2 million-pound weight of rocket and spaceship and start the astronauts on their half-million mile trip.

Borman, Lovell and Anders had been awakened at 2:36 a.m. EST that morn­ing. After a medical examination, and a steak-and-eggs breakfast, the three men quickly donned their spacesuits. They eased themselves across the hatch sill of their ship atop the 36-story-high Saturn around 5 a.m.

Lift-off was smooth. The first and sec­ond stages carried the crew and their spaceship to an altitude of about 100 miles before burning out and dropping off. The third stage then was turned on and, in a brief 2½-minute burn, drove Apollo 8 into a temporary 113.8- to 118.4-mile orbit above the earth. Instead of falling away, the third stage—still carrying more than 80 tons of propellants—remained attached to the spaceship.

'Go': Once in orbit, Borman, Lovell and Anders began testing all of their ship's major systems: guidance and navi­gation equipment, electrical circuits, cab­in environment, and the spaceship pro­pulsion rocket attached aft. Simultane­ously, sensors throughout the crew cabin (the command module) and the equip­ment section (the service module) auto­matically took more than 700 measure­ments for telemetering back to the Hous­ton control center via the worldwide orbital tracking stations.

The three key men who made the "go" decision were mission director Wil­liam Schneider, director of flight opera­tions Christopher Kraft Jr., and flight di­rector Clifford E. Charlesworth. But in a sense, the decision made itself. Except for one minor glitch-a high oxygen-flow rate-there was nothing in the first two hours and 30 minutes of the flight to sug­gest that any other decision except Trans-Lunar Injection might be taken.

TLI began over the Pacific; Hawaiians in the streets saw the thrusting fire as it raised the speed of the spaceship from earth-orbital velocity of about I 7,500 mph to slightly more than 24,200 mph. The engine burned for about 330 sec­onds. Apollo 8 began to gain altitude, first in thousands of feet, and then hun­dreds of miles. The third stage fell away -though it continued to trail the space­ship ahead, belching fuel and bothering command pilot Borman.

Astronaut Michael Collins, serving as "Capcom" in Houston, called: "You're looking good, right down the centerline." Chris Kraft added: "You're really on your way now."

Within a short time after the burn was over, Houston put Apollo's altitude at 879 statute miles, but its velocity had already slowed to 22,375 miles an hour. The exchange of energy for distance is, of course, the essence of the equation designed to take Apollo 8 to the moon. Apollo was only on the threshold of its journey—though it had already broken the old altitude record of 850 statute miles set by Gemini 11—when it became the property of the new deep-space net­work with tracking stations in California, Spain and Australia.

As Apollo soared ever higher, Lovell peered outside and reported: "I can see Gibraltar at the same time I can see Florida. I can see the entire earth out of the center window, down to Argentina and Chile ... We see the earth now almost as a disk ... "

And at one point, spaceship com­mander Borman broke in: "Tell the peo­ple in Tierra del Fuego to put on rain­coats. Looks like a storm out there."

Timetable: The crew had planned to ease out of their bulky spacesuits and put on more comfortable coveralls. But they were too busy pulling away from the trailing booster, which unexplainably stayed too close. Later that day they made a vital mid-course correction. The 2.5-second burn speeded up Apollo 8 to arrive at the same point in space as the moon 2½ days later. The calculated arrival time: 5:01 a.m. EST Dec. 24.

Although the interior of the moon ship is little bigger than a walk-in closet, the astronauts did not expect much difficulty in going about their tasks. In the weightlessness of spaceflight, movement inside a spaceship is, in fact, too easy; to stay put, the three astronauts wear boot­ies with soles made of Velcro—a special cloth that sticks to matching strips of the material on the floor of the craft.

The astronauts planned to spend most of the flight in their couches facing the in­strument panel. Viewed from the main hatch, Borman occupies the left-hand touch, Lovell the center, and Anders the right. Lovell's couch can be folded out of the way, to clear a narrow aisle that leads into a shallow alcove, located immedi­ately behind the instrument panel. Viewed from the main hatch, Borman occupies the left-hand touch, Lovell the center, and Anders the right. Lovell's couch can be folded out of the way, lo clear a narrow aisle that leads into a shallow alcove, located immedi­ately behind the instrument panel. The guidance-navigation system is here with its sextant, telescope, inertial-guidance unit, computer and separate control stick. Though the crew will make star sightings on Canopus and Sirius, the real guidance and corrections came from ground com­puters. The alcove also includes the spaceship's galley and a twelve-day sup­ply of food.

The translunar crossing is a journey unlike any other man has taken. While Borman and Anders monitor the red, green and amber-lighted dials and dis­plays on the instrument panel before them, Lovell will float periodically into the navigation station to take fixes on stars. The crew may have to make as many as four corrections to their trans­lunar trajectory based on these fixes and on computer calculations; the 20,500-pound-thrust engine is available for large changes in course, while smaller control rockets are available for making slight corrections. Each man is on duty for seventeen hours daily, with seven hours off for sleeping. At least one man is awake at all times. Sleep, though neces­sary for the astronauts (sleeping pills have been stored in the Apollo 8 medi­cine chest), may prove to be somewhat difficult in their exalted surroundings.

When the Apollo 8 crew took off from Cape Kennedy on Saturday, the moon was in its new phase, that is, between earth and sun and therefore completely dark on the side facing earth. As the Apollo 8 ship coasted across the translu­nar ocean, the moon remained a dark object in the velvet black of space, a ghostly gray apparition lit by earthshine—sunlight reflected off the earth. Early in the flight, filling the whole of their cabin window, was the home planet earth, a glowing, brilliant blue-green ball wrapped in wispy white clouds over much of its surface. Over Alaska, a vast storm front moved eastward and south. Through the week, the earth will appear smaller and smaller to Borman, Lovell and Anders as their craft carries them farther from terrestrial shores. By the time the Apollo 8 crew reach the vicinity of the moon, the earth will appear in the lunar sky four times larger than the moon appears from earth. On Christmas Day, it will seem like nothing so much as a Christmas-tree ornament.

Moon Flu: They must keep their eye on mundane matters, too. Each man got flu shots lo guard against an uncomforta­ble and possibly crippling "epidemic" of Hong Kong flu aboard Apollo 8. But the shots may have failed. On Sunday Bor­man complained of nausea and took both sleeping and seasickness pills. Later An­ders reported he too felt unwell.

The food ranges from peaches and shrimp cocktail to turkey and fruit­cake ( a festive concession to the season). It is largely freeze-dried and because of complaints from the Apollo 7 crew, there are less sweets and fewer calories on the menu. The astronauts can make either hot or cold meals for themselves by plug­ging the plastic food bags into one of two spigots ("H'' or "C") on the galley wall. The astronaut then kneads the con­tainer for a few minutes, rehydrating the food, and then squeezes out a mouthful. Crumbly food, such as the Christmas fruitcake and turkey chunks, is coated with a gelatin-like layer to prevent crumbs from floating about the cabin.

There are other amenities: small wet-­wipe cleansing cloths and drying towels, toothbrushes and toothpaste, antibiotics, aspirin, the sleeping pills, painkillers, de­congestant tablets, and sea-sickness pills. Solid body wastes are collected in spe­cial bags; urine is dumped overboard through a special vent.

The burst of speed added to the space­ship high over the Pacific was sufficient to free it from earth orbit, but it was not intended to shake off the pull of earth's gravity field. According to the equations, as Apollo 8 soars farther from earth, grav­ity continually tugs at the 32-foot-long ship and slows it down in order to insure rendezvous with the moon. Sunday morn­ing, at T plus 24 hours after launching from earth, Apollo 8 was traveling at 3,700 mph; by T plus 48 hours—Monday morning—Apollo was to be 185,900 miles from earth and coasting at 2,390 mph. As the ship comes within 35,000 miles of the moon late on Dec. 23, the weak lunar gravitational field—only one-sixth the force exerted by the far larger earth­—begins to exert its influence on the Apollo 8 craft, raising its speed to 5,700 mph. The trajectory was precisely calculated by computers so that if the astronauts, for any reason, cannot fire their rocket en­gine, the passive ship will be drawn around the moon and swung back toward earth—a "free return" trajectory, courtesy of the combined effects of the moon's and the earth's gravity.

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The distant blue Earth is seen above the Moon's limb, in this handout picture taken by the Apollo 8 crew on December 24, 1968, courtesy of NASA. Reuters

At this point early Tuesday morning, the astronauts reach the next supercriti­cal "go or bust" juncture in their flight—LOI, or Lunar Orbit Insertion.

The LOI plan calls for the crew to ret­rofire the ship's 20,500-pound-thrust en­gine for 246 seconds at a point 80 miles from the moon. This braking maneuver is intended to allow the moon's gravita­tional field to hold Apollo 8 in an ellipti­cal orbit with a low point 80 miles above the lunar surface and a high point of 196 miles. Even if the engine burns insuffi­ciently, the Apollo crew can still get a free return.

To heighten the suspense, it so hap­pens that this critical maneuver will take place when the astronauts are behind the moon and thus blocked out of radio communication with earth. Not until their ship edges back into line of sight will the world know if they have slipped earth's influence and become fellow trav­elers of the moon. Moreover, the decision to go into lunar orbit will have to be made largely by the crew since they will be the only ones who know precisely what the situation is. Borman has said he will make this decision with great caution.

Crescent: Four hours later, a similar but shorter engine burn is scheduled to circularize the orbit at a constant 80 miles. At this time, the morning of Dec. 24, the moon will appear as a thin cres­cent to earth viewers. Seen from the Apollo, however, the far side of the moon—the half never before seen by man­—will be bathed in sunlight. On the near side, the sun will be lying low on the moon's eastern horizon and will throw razor-sharp shadows across the lunar plains where two other Apollo astronauts are to land next year. The shadows, ink black against the drab gray lunar soil, will show up small craters, depressions, large boulders and any other potential hazards to a moon landing craft.

The astronauts hope to make ten rev­olutions of the moon, each lasting about two hours. As they make rings around the moon they will not only scout out the planned landing sites for future Apollo crews but also carry out naviga­tional experiments and take photographs of lunar features of prime scientific inter­est. The crew also hopes to take stereo pictures of the moon; these photographs will enable scientists to evaluate the landing terrain for future astronauts.

For earthbound viewers, who can only ride vicariously with the crew, Apollo 8 could bring the most spectacular TV show in history. The flight plan calls for six broadcasts: two en route to the moon at 3:06 p.m. EST on the afternoons of Dec. 22 and 23; two more telecasts from lunar orbit, the first at 7:26 a.m. EST on Dec. 24 and the second at 9:31 p.m. EST Christmas Eve; and two more dur­ing the return flight. NASA officials are hopeful that the crew will be able to show pictures of themselves and the cab­in of their spaceship, the view of earth from deep space, and, naturally, the moon's cratered surface.

Turning the cameras around a bit, a Denver observatory, together with NBC television, hopes to train a special cam­era on the moon and capture a picture of the Apollo orbiting around the moon as a Christmastime attraction for millions of viewers.

The Apollo crew faces its most critical test at T plus 89 hours on Christmas Day. The spaceship's engine must restart for TEI—Trans-Earth Injection—and the re­turn trip home. This moment will take place in radio silence and ground controllers won't know if success has been achieved until the ship rises over the moon's horizon.

It is this point that evokes the greatest public apprehension. Among the public, if not among the astronauts or NASA officials, there is, first of all, great con­cern about the engine's reliability. NASA stresses that the engine has been sub­jected to extensive ground tests and has been fired eight times in space during the Apollo 7 flight and several more times during two earlier unmanned Apollo missions. Moreover, by way of added reassurance, George M. Low, manager of the Apollo spacecraft office at the Houston center, took pains to stress that the engine has duplicate sets of valves, plumbing lines and electrical controls—everything, in fact, has a back­up except the combustion chamber, in which the hypergolic propellants are burned (they ignite upon contact with each other), and the exhaust nozzle.

But engine failure, to the minds of some critics, is not the real or only dan­ger. According to Sir Bernard Lovell, di­rector of England's Jodrell Bank Ob­servatory, the whole flight is full of unacceptable risk. The risk to life is too high, according to Lovell, because the announced goals for the mission can be achieved by other means. "We've reached the stage with automatic land­ings," asserts Sir Bernard, "when it's not necessary to risk human life to get infor­mation about the moon." Physicist Ralph E. Lapp has faulted the Apollo program for risking the lives of astronauts and squandering national treasure for the sake of national prestige. Lapp would wait until rescue systems for stranded astronauts are available—there is no back-up ship that could go to the aid of Apollo 8 if it gets stuck in lunar orbit. But, Lapp argues, since this would slow U.S. progress toward the moon and per­haps give the Russians a chance to land first, the need for a space lifeboat has been ignored.

In NASA's view, Apollo, with its many backup systems, is its own "life-boat." Presumably, its engine can be counted on to boost Apollo out of lunar orbit and back toward earth. The return leg of the historic space voyage should take about 57 hours, or around nine hours less than the moon-bound trajec­tory. The faster return is partly a function of the fact that this Apollo 8 space­ship does not carry the lunar landing module required for later missions; as a result, the propellants that would have been spent in maneuve.ing a heavier bulk to the moon can be used instead for a speedier flight home.

Re-entry into earth's atmosphere is the final hurdle. It is the reverse of "shoot­ing the moon'' and to accomplish it takes as much accuracy. Apollo 8 must pass through a narrow "re-entry corridor" high in the earth's atmosphere in order for the pull of gravity to bend its flight path downward at just the right angle. If the angle is too steep, the spacemen will plunge to earth subjected to crushing—­and possibly fatal—forces. If it is too shal­low, Apollo 8 will skip back into space. By the time it swings back to earth, the astronauts will have used up all of their electrical power—and breathing oxygen.

Assuming Apollo 8 survives all these obstacles—and scores of others, from cosmic radiation 200,000 miles out to proper parachute deployment at 10,000 feet on return—splashdown should take place in the Pacific on Friday, Dec. 27. The world, and the astronauts' families, will then hear the amazing account of a new kind of Christmas journey ...

… When they saw the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

Rewind: On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 Orbited the Moon | U.S.