DeFlip Side #87: A Circumlunar Christmas

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Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and I welcome you one and all to the annual Christmas edition of DeFlip Side.

And low, a new star ascended into the heavens, and the wise men saw it and there was much rejoicing, and from that day forward mankind would be forever changed. And the light was seen from Cape Canaveral, and the wise men were rocket scientists, and the wandering star was called Apollo 8.

What? What did you think I was talking about? This Christmas marks the 40th Anniversary of the groundbreaking Apollo 8 mission, the first manned trip to the moon and back. With the giant leap of Apollo 11, and the drama of Apollo 13, we don’t often hear about Apollo 8 these days. But for most Americans—indeed most of the world in 1968, seeing live, close-up images of the moon on their televisions for the first time, Apollo 8 was proof of the breathtaking potential of manned spaceflight.

It was also the ultimate come-from-behind maneuver that finally gave America its first definitive milestone in the space race against the Soviets. Ironically, however, it probably wouldn’t have worked out that way if not for a fortuitous setback in NASA’s Apollo program, and the crushing pressure of Soviet success.

As in most arenas of space achievement, the Russians were kicking our butts when it came to the moon. The threat of their continued dominance could be summed up in one word: Zond. No it wasn’t a Superman villain. Soviet scientists had already sent automated ships to the moon — Luna 1, Luna 2, and Luna 3 — as early as 1959, racking up a string of firsts: The first Lunar fly-by, the first impact on the Lunar surface and the first photos of the dark side of the moon. Now along came the Zond program. In late September 1968, the unmanned Zond 5 made the first successful trip around the moon and back. Then Zond 6 did it again in November. The Soviets were on the fast track of sending Cosmonauts.

Once American intelligence got wind of this, there were justifiable worries that we’d be trumped yet again. So NASA decided to gamble, using the first manned Saturn V flight to achieve lunar orbit.

This was not without its dangers, the chief one being the Saturn V rocket itself. The first test flight went off without a hitch; but on its second unmanned test for the Apollo 6 mission, the rocket was beset with failures, including vibrations that nearly shook it apart. NASA administrators initially wanted to run further tests; even with a delayed timetable, they were still confident that they could get men to the moon before the decade was out.

But the Soviets forced that option off the table, and thrust unexpected glory on Apollo 8. Apollo 8’s initial mission was much less ambitious, designed merely to test the command and lunar modules in Earth orbit. But here’s where that fortuitous setback I mentioned comes in: the lunar module was way behind schedule, and not ready for testing. Yet the command module had already proved its worth during the Apollo 7 mission. So it was time to take a chance. But not for slated Apollo 8 Commander Jim McDivitt, who was unwilling to scrap the specialized training his crew had undergone thus far. He passed on the mission and it went to the backup crew: Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders.

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On December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 took flight. The ride up on the Saturn had been a little shaky, but it was nothing the astronauts couldn’t correct and soon Borman, Lovell and Anders were on their way to circumlunar infamy.

The trip to the moon would take three days, and once the heading was fixed, there was nothing for anyone to do but wait, and ponder the possible scenarios for when they arrived. Everything might go according to plan, but there was always the possibility of a total rocket failure. Even that wouldn’t have been so bad, since the capsule was locked into a safe return trajectory, meaning that as long as the crew did nothing, physical forces alone would loop the capsule around the moon and return it to Earth in history’s most impressive figure eight. The most worrisome possibility was rocket misfire, which could trap the crew in lunar orbit, or send them crashing to the moon’s surface.

The moment of truth came as the capsule approached the moon on Christmas Eve. The controlled rocket burn would have to take place on the lunar dark side, when the crew was out of radio contact. But Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell was confident:

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There was nothing for mission control to do but sit and wait…

Until they heard from Commander Lovell that the ship had made it and the burn was complete. Apollo 8 had achieved a successful orbit around the moon. After the initial celebration died down, the crew stayed in orbit for 20 hours, circling the moon a total of ten times. During scheduled television broadcasts the astronauts described their experiences to a half billion rapt viewers around the world. What the moon looked like:
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Lunar sunrises and sunsets:
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And the sheer wonder of it all:
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Then Astronaut Bill Anders took the opportunity to recall another wonder, one that was seasonally appropriate:

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During the sunrise over another world, each astronaut took turns commemorating that historic Christmas Eve by reading from the Book of Genesis. It was an unplanned surprise from the crew, with Commander Borman summing things up:

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America—the world—couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present. It was not just a defining moment for NASA and the United States, but for humanity. Even the Soviets called it an outstanding achievement.

But for all that, there was still one more outstanding thing to accomplish: getting home. The trip back would require yet another controlled burn on the dark side of the moon. During its last orbit on Christmas Day, Apollo 8 swung behind the moon for the final, crucial maneuver. Upon reestablishing radio contact, here’s how pilot Jim Lovell triumphantly responded to hails:

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As if there was any doubt… Needless to say, the burn was a success and the crew made it back to Earth without incident. They even splashed down within site of Christmas Island. Looking back now, the events seem almost preordained.

The Soviets never regained their footing in the race for the moon, and America entered into its golden era of space flight, one that we haven’t surpassed in the forty years since. So it’s only fitting that I take my cue from Commander Frank Borman this Christmas and close by saying “good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and god bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

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