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.