50th ANNIVERSARY OF APOLLO 8’S CHRISTMAS TV BROADCAST

December 24, 2018

This month marks the 50th anniversary of humankind’s first journey to the Moon. Apollo 8 was launched 21 December 1968 by a 363-foot-high, three-stage Saturn V rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I was a college student then, travelling back home from Ann Arbor, Michigan and missed seeing the launch live on television.

The Mission

Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders became the first human beings to leave Earth’s orbit as they sped towards the Moon. “You are go for TLI,” came the decidedly non-dramatic yet historic call from Mission Control in Houston by capsule communicator (CAPCOM) astronaut Mike Collins. The CAPCOM is the astronaut on the ground who communicates with the crew in space. ‘TLI’, trans-lunar injection in NASA jargon, is the rocket firing to send Apollo from Earth’sorbit towards the Moon. Overall, this trip to the Moon took three days.

The Apollo 8 Command & Service Module (CSM) went into lunar orbit on 24 December 1968. I watched the TV coverage at home. As Apollo 8 flew around the Moon, radio contact was lost on the far side, so there was no way to know whether the burning of the engine to slow the spacecraft down into a successful lunar orbit had worked or not. There was nail-biting apprehension because if the engines did not fire correctly, the spacecraft could have crashed into the Moon or been sent into a fatal trajectory into space that would have prevented its return to Earth.

At exactly the right moment, radio signals were received again as Apollo 8 came around the Moon, indicating that the spacecraft was in the correct orbit. There was applause from the floor of Mission Control in Houston. The three men radioed descriptions of the lunar surface, with its craters, valleys and mountains. They also took dozens of photographs.

As they completed their third orbit around the Moon, the men noticed Earth starting to appear just above the lunar surface. Realizing they were seeing ‘Earthrise’ for the first time, Borman and Anders took black-and-white and colour pictures, respectively.

The colour picture taken by Anders of ‘Earthrise’ is perhaps the most influential photograph taken during this Apollo 8 flight. It showed Earth as a small blue globe in the infinity of the dark cosmos, without political borders and with a fragile, thin layer of air.

The Christmas Eve Broadcast

There had been several short television broadcasts from Apollo 8, but the most anticipated was one planned for Christmas Eve. No one knew what the astronauts would say, but their broadcast location from lunar orbit brought them an audience of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

The broadcast began with them showing ghostly pictures of the Moon below from their spacecraft windows. Borman introduced each of the three crew members, and they each described their impressions of the landmarks and terrain below. Then, as they approached lunar darkness,Bill Anders began their special Christmas message to Earth:

Bill Anders

“We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.”

‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

‘And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

‘And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.’

Jim Lovell 

 ‘And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

‘And God said, let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it

divide the waters from the waters.

‘And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the

firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

‘And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were

the second day.’

Frank Borman 

‘And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one

place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.‘And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters

called the Seas: and God saw that it was good.’

“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry

Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

Remembering the Broadcast 50 Years On

The crew had chosen to read the first ten verses of the Book of Genesis. It was perfect. Because the reading was from the Bible, there was a religious connotation to the broadcast relating to the Christmas season. However, there was no denominational mentioned, and most religions have a creation tradition. Moreover, the description of the creation of the ‘heavens and Earth’ jibed with the scenes of the barren Moon and black sky shown on the television screens.

Along with many people at the time, I had tears in my eyes as Frank Borman ended with his salutation of, “good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.” The Christmas reading from the Moon provoked a strong emotional reaction, overwhelmingly positive. It was, to that time, the most-watched television event in history.

The year 1968 had been an annus horribilis, a terrible year. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, tragically died too young in an air crash. There had been race riots. The Vietnam War was raging with increasing casualties. Amongst all of this turmoil, the highly successful Apollo 8 flight, with its ‘Earthrise’ photo and its Christmas broadcast, was a rare bright spot for the United States and the world overall. So much so that when Time magazine selected its 1968 ‘Man of the Year’, Borman, Lovell and Anders were selected to share the honour.

About the Author

As a 19-year-old college journalist, author David Chudwin covered the launch of Apollo 11 from Florida in July 1969. Chudwin was the only journalist with official NASA press credentials representing the college press and had extraordinary access to the astronauts, rocket scientists, launch pads, rockets, and control centers.

David Chudwin MD decided to go into medicine instead of journalism, but his Apollo 11 experiences led to a lifelong interest in space exploration. Chudwin has written about Apollo 11 in a variety of media outlets and has spoken about Apollo 11 at schools and at space meetings, including Spacefest. Chudwin is well-known in the space community, and his upcoming book, I Was a Teenage Space Reporter: From Apollo 11 to Our Future in Space, will be published by LID in Spring 2019. 

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