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This Day in History: Apollo 8's Christmas at the moon

On this day in 1968, Apollo 8 splashes down in the ocean. The crew had spent Christmas Eve orbiting the moon! The three men famously saw the first “Earthrise” as they came out from behind the lunar surface that day.

What a way to celebrate Christmas?! They snapped the attached photo, forever memorializing their experience.

In the end, the Apollo 8 crew would orbit the moon not just once, but ten times. The scariest part of the trip occurred during the last orbit, as the crew prepared to leave the moon and return to Earth. NASA could not communicate with its men when they were behind the moon. Thus, the crew would need to perform an engine burn, unassisted, enabling the spaceship to leave its lunar orbit and head back to Earth.

Would it work?

Many at NASA spent the early morning hours of Christmas anxiously awaiting the answer to this very question. What a relief when Apollo 8 emerged and the Command Module Pilot made a joking announcement as he looked down on Earth: “Please be informed there is a Santa Claus.”

James Lovell was the pilot who spoke this famous phrase on Apollo 8. But he is also remembered for another phrase spoken aboard Apollo 13: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” That flight, of course, nearly ended in tragedy when an oxygen tank exploded.

Perhaps Lovell had fonder memories of a Christmas Eve transmission that the Apollo 8 crew made to a live audience on Earth?

“We were told that on Christmas Eve we would have the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice,” Commander Frank Borman later described. “And the only instructions that we got from NASA was to do something appropriate.”

The crew decided that the first ten verses of Genesis fit the bill. As Lovell would say, it “is the foundation of many of the world’s religions, not just the Christian religion.”

After reading the Bible verses, the crew bade farewell with a simple “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth.”

The crew would splash down three days later, but the best of the Apollo missions was yet to come. Apollo 11, of course, famously landed on the moon mere months after this Christmas on the moon. It was the fulfillment of President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to the nation:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth,” Kennedy had told Congress in May 1961.

Against all odds, we’d done it.

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