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Christmas in space: The Legacy of Apollo 8

Tuesday - 12/24/2013, 9:19am  ET

earthrise.jpg
Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1968. That evening, the astronauts-Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders-held a live broadcast from lunar orbit, in which they showed pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft. Said Lovell, 'The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.' They ended the broadcast with the crew taking turns reading from the book of Genesis. (NASA)

WASHINGTON - Forty-five years ago NASA astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were away from home for the Christmas holiday.

In fact, they were away from the planet on a voyage of exploration to the Moon.

I think this is the modern day equivalent of the voyage to the New World embarked upon by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Both voyages sailed great and danger filled distances to unknown shores and because of their success, opened whole new realms for humanity to explore and inhabit.

Apollo 8 was a daring mission for NASA as Apollo 7 had successfully proven just two months earlier that the Apollo Command and Service Modules could perform successfully for 11-days in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

Apollo 7 was quite an accomplishment as it was more than a year and a half since Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire in their Apollo spacecraft during a plugs out launch pad rehearsal. The Apollo Command Module had extensive changes made to it following the fire and it essentially emerged as a whole new spacecraft which had to be tested.

NASA originally planned to send Apollo 8 into a high elliptical Earth orbit with a Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) but the LEM wasn't ready to fly so Apollo 9 got this mission and Apollo 8 got the first trip to the Moon.

Apollo 8 would be the first manned flight with the mighty Saturn V rocket with its 7.5 million pounds of thrust and the first to launch from the new NASA Cape Kennedy launch complex.

Borman and his crew had less time to train for this brand new mission but met the challenge and Apollo 8 launched on Dec. 21, 1968 and arrived in lunar orbit early on Christmas Eve. The crew completed 10 lunar orbits and headed for home on Dec. 25 and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 27.

Apollo 8's legacy was assured due to being the first manned mission to the Moon but it also gave humanity two iconic moments - - the reading from the Bible on Christmas Eve while in lunar orbit and the picture of Earth rising over the Moon.

On that night, I was observing the waxing crescent Moon with my new telescope while listening to the Apollo 8 mission on the radio -- I couldn't see the spacecraft but felt connected because I could somewhat see what the crew was seeing. It was a beautiful night in Southern California with Venus and Saturn visible and the Moon was in the constellation Aquarius, which I now find ironic because of the hit song of the day "Age of Aquarius" that reached #1 in the spring of 1969.

While listening to the mission the crew began to read from the Bible, specifically the Book of Genesis. Being Christmas Eve while looking at the Moon with my telescope and listening to the astronauts reading the verses simply overwhelmed my emotions. I felt connected to the crew of Apollo 8, the Universe, and yes, the miracle that is the Christmas story.

1968 was a tumultuous year for the U.S. The country was awash in anguish and anger over Viet Nam and civil rights. Just five years after JFK had been assassinated, 8 and 6 months respectively since Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been murdered, Apollo 8 gave us hope for a better future.

Apollo 8 showed us the positive and far reaching things we could do amid some of the worst times in our Nation's history. Apollo 8 also gave us what I think is the most iconic picture in history - - E arthrise over the Moon. An unmanned lunar orbiter took a black and white photo previously of Earthrise over the Moon but the Apollo 8 picture and movie was taken by humans in orbit around another world and showed our planet in color rising above the lunar horizon. This wasn't planned and came about by circumstance as detailed recently by NASA's new visualization of the event.

Humanity's efforts in space today continue to provide wonder, inspiration and hope in a violent and turbulent world just like Apollo 8 did 45 years ago on that very, very special Christmas Eve. May the legacy of Apollo 8 bring you a sense of peace and hope this holiday season.

Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season to all.

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