Christmas in Space with Apollo 8
"Please be informed, there is a Santa Claus"
On Christmas Eve 1968 Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders became the first people in history to see the far side of the Moon. Their mission, Apollo 8, was the furthest humans had ever travelled away from Earth.
All space missions up to that point had stayed in low Earth orbit. The aim of Apollo 8 was to orbit the Moon without landing, paving the way for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to eventually set foot on the surface.
An important part of Apollo 8 was capturing images of the lunar terrain. This would help NASA to find potential landing sites. However, one photograph would stand out from the rest. It shows the Earth rising above the lunar horizon against the blackness of space. When this view entered the window of the spacecraft, Anders exclaimed:
“Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!”
He took a black and white photo as his crewmates scrambled to find a colour film to capture the vivid blue of our home planet. The resulting shot became known as “Earthrise.” It was the first colour image looking back at Earth from lunar orbit. It remains one of the most iconic photos ever taken of our planet and is credited with helping to start the environmental movement. Borman recalls the experience of looking back at Earth as:
“…the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life, one that sent a torrent of nostalgia, of sheer homesickness, surging through me. It was the only thing in space that had any colour to it. Everything else was either black or white. But not the Earth.”
Later that day a quarter of all people alive at the time tuned in to watch the Apollo 8 crew’s Christmas Eve broadcast. The crew had weeks to prepare for this seminal moment, but NASA gave them little guidance on what they should say. The only instruction was to ‘do something appropriate’. In the weeks before the mission the crew agonised over what this should be, seeking help from friends who were experienced writers. In the end the suggestion came from the wife of newspaperman Joe Layton to ‘start at the beginning,’ meaning the book of Genesis from the Bible.
Boreman later explained that they thought this would fit this momentous occasion because the first ten verses of Genesis are the foundation of many of the world’s religions, not just Christianity. Each astronaut took turns to read a few verses and Borman closed the message with the words:
“Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”
In the early hours of Christmas morning Apollo 8 emerged from behind the Moon for the last time. While out of radio contact with Earth, the crew ignited an engine burn for precisely 3 minutes and 23 seconds to take them out of lunar orbit and on their way home. An error in timing could cause them to miss the Earth and veer off into space, with no chance of rescue. It was a tense moment for mission control, who waited with bated breath for confirmation that the crew had been successful. After several failed attempts to contact the spacecraft, finally Lovell responded:
“Houston, Apollo 8, over.”
“Hello, Apollo 8. Loud and clear,” answered mission control.
“Roger,” Lovell came back. “Please be informed there is a Santa Claus.”
Some conspiracy theorists claim that ‘Santa Claus’ was NASA’s codename for UFOs and Lovell was confirming the existence of an alien base of the far side of the Moon. However, in reality Lovell was confirming the burn had been successful, and the crew were on their way home.
As the spacecraft crossed the void between the Earth and the Moon, the crew settled down to an unconventional Christmas dinner. NASA had provided three foil pouches wrapped in green and red ribbons, labelled ‘Merry Christmas’. Each pouch contained real turkey, gravy and cranberry sauce. This was a welcome change to their usual freeze-dried meals. As a further Christmas treat, three miniature bottles of brandy had been stashed in the package. However, Frank Borman did not approve and ordered them to be put back unopened. More appropriate gifts had been included from each of their wives; pairs of cufflinks and a man-in-the-Moon tie pin from Susan Borman and Marilyn Lovell, and a gold ‘figure 8’ tie pin from Valerie Anders.
The crew splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on 27 December 1968. They had proved it was possible to travel to the Moon and return safely, a vital step in the Apollo programme.
About the author: Hannah Baker is the Collections Officer at the National Space Centre.