Apollo 8 Remembered


When Time placed Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders on its cover as Men of the Year, it soon followed that the crew and the mission itself saved 1968 on that astonishing Christmas Eve 54 years ago.

The mission itself had been a bold decision, leapfrogging several plodding test flights and launching Apollo around the Moon for 10 orbits. NASA hadn’t made a secret of the mission; it was well covered. But the sheer audacity of it caught the world by surprise. It did me.

I rolled into my Dad’s den just after 9:30 p.m. on that Tuesday night. The craters of the Moon were scrolling by on a grainy TV image and someone—it was Jim Lovell—was reading the book of Genesis. I asked my Dad, “What’s this?”

I don’t think any of us were prepared for the impact of both the flight and the drama of the scripture reading. I’ve always thought that despite the high achievement of the later landing missions, Apollo 8 stands alone as a major landmark in space flight history. Man had departed Earth and traveled to another heavenly body.

The crew had a sense of the historical importance of what they were about to do and they and NASA struggled with how to memorialize it in words from orbit. The idea to read Genesis came from Christine Laitin, wife of Joseph Laitin of the Bureau of Budget, who was brought in to help. The text was committed to the final flight plan version a month before the launch. On the tape, Anders reads first, then Lovell and finally Borman.

The reading occurred on Apollo 8’s next to the last orbit before departing for Earth. The video here reproduces portions of the live video feed broadcast to Earth and viewed by millions in what became the most watched broadcast in history to that date. As Christmas Eve gave way to Christmas Day, Jim Lovell uttered his famous quip: “Houston, Apollo 8. Please be informed there is a Santa Claus.”

He was expressing relief that the spacecraft’s Aerojet General Service Propulsion Engine had fired on schedule and placed Apollo 8 into trans Earth injection—they were homeward bound. There had been real worry about that engine because it was one of Apollo’s most critical single-point failures. If it didn’t fire, there was no alternate means of leaving lunar orbit. Ironically, in all the Apollo flights, the SPS engine never failed except once—on Lovell’s aborted Apollo 13 mission. And even then, it wasn’t the engine itself but a failed oxygen tank that crumped the mission.

It may have been hasty to say Apollo 8 saved 1968, but in retrospect, I think the claim stands. It was a uniformly horrible year. The Tet offensive blazed in Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, cities were rioting and burning and North Korea seized the U.S.S. Pueblo. Apollo 8 was an unmistakable bright shining moment in the gloom. Just 208 days later, Neil Armstrong put bootprints on the Sea of Tranquility.

The mission that paved the way is worth remembering here.


  1. Yes 1968 was memorable in mixed ways, but this moment replayed for us here was so thrilling that it raised the hair on the back of my then nearly 20 year old neck. The perspective of Apollo 8 taking that required first “giant leap” enabling Apollo 11 Neil Armstrong’s first “one small step” is so accurate that it assures, as you say, Apollo 8’s unique “major landmark in space flight history”. Thanks Paul for the reminder.

  2. Great story, thank you. That was one of those days where you remember where you were. I was on Christmas break, home from college. We sat in my parent’s den and wondered at the sight of the moon close up and hearing those words being read. It gave all Americans a sorely needed lift after a tough year. It also reaffirmed the commitment that JFK’s promise to land a man on the moon by 1970 was actually going to happen. Merry Christmas, Paul. I hope you are doing well after another tough year for your home state.

  3. A good remembrance, Paul — well done. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

    I do remember that Christmas Eve although I was but a grade school boy. I also remember the assassinations, the social upheaval and how the war so divided the country.

    It’s hard to imagine a more profound setting for the recitation of the biblical story of creation — the three explorers looking out at what must have seemed like a shockingly small blue, brown and white ball suspended in the infinite blackness of space. To their eyes, the sphere seen outside of the command module windows was the representation of the totality of humankind’s existence.

    It would do us all well to reflect on what those astronauts no doubt must have contemplated — that in spite of our accomplishments as the dominant species here on our good planet, we are but mere specks in the enormity of the cosmos. And how did it all come to be and is there a purpose to our existence?

    Of course, these are but two of the great questions which religious faith attempts to answer. I for one take comfort in knowing there is a loving God who only wants for all of us to love in return.

    A Merry Christmas to all and peace and good will in the coming year!

  4. Indeed. Watching the TV feed from orbit around the Moon is much stronger in my memory than watching the lunar landing. I too had the sense that Apollo 8 tested and proved the major issues of the future missions, and even of out-and-return interplanetary flights which are only now becoming more than feasibility exercises.

    Great article, Paul.

  5. “The mission itself had been a bold decision.” Indeed, especially considering the decision-making process that led to the disastrous plugs-out test of Apollo 1 not two years earlier.

    And yes, 1968 sucked, and despite Apollo 11’s success, 1969 wasn’t much better for a young American of draft age.

  6. As an 8 year old avid follower of the space program – I could tell you hands down how you got to the moon. Big rocket, leave first stage behind, leave second stage behind, into orbit – use the third stage to head for the moon. CM turns round and pulls out LM. Into orbit at the moon, LM goes down, Bit of LM comes back, everyone gets into CM. Come home, dump service module and fiery reentry in capsule and splash. Helicopter and Aircraft Carrier.

    But that Xmas – that Xmas I suddenly realized that all the books I had read and committed to memory were about how we HOPED to do it. The scales fell from my childish eyes when I realized that actually – this was the first attempt. We hadn’t actually done it – this was real exploring. This was Eric the Red, Christopher Columbus, Roald Amundsen to the South Pole stuff. Wow!

    And while my 8 year old brain might not have the vocabulary to express how big those guys had them – they clearly had huge ones in spades. One engine on the dark side of the moon HAD to work – or they were not coming home……..

    As a kid 9 and 10 seemed almost routine and as a result – I didn’t really expect 11 not to work. Though I now understand how much more still had to be done before 11 could even be attempted – 8 was truly groundbreaking (as it were).

  7. Jim Lovell and Frank Borman deservedly received/receives a lot of mention in their careers…and much less attention given to Bill Anders… and that is regretful. I met Bill Anders at a memorial service for a fellow QB and was instantly impressed with his “ordinary good fellow” personality that day. It was only later, after I’d run across a bio of him that I realized I had once stood next to a really REALLY Great Man!
    I’m glad I was ignorant that day …because I’d have been overwhelmed if I’d known then what I know now about him. Besides being the actual photographer of “EarthRise”…(quite an insightful moment that must have been!)… Maj. Gen. Anders is also a businessman, nuclear engineer, and one of those really fine pilots we all like to know.
    I loved his comment about his moon-rendezvous …when he stated his opinion that the most important part of exploring the moon was that….”we discovered the Earth”.
    Thank you General!