TEN

A Christmas Moon

Apollo 8’s astronauts were filled with wonder as they looked out their windows. A bright sphere eased into their view and they cheered. Their home planet was moving before them. From 200,000 miles in space they were seeing the whole globe, dominant with blue seas and white clouds and brown continents. There was Europe with its bountiful lands and mountains, and below, Africa with its deserts and its jungle greens and at its southern tip, Lake Victoria. Earth was a perfect sphere, a heavenly blue marble.

“Toasting the ship,” Apollo 8 was turning slowly to keep the sun’s heat distributed evenly around its outside surface, and the slow roll slid the astronauts’ home silently out of their view. They turned from the windows. Tomorrow would be Christmas Eve. That Frank Borman, James Lovell, and Bill Anders were between Earth and the moon seemed impossible. They had gambled their lives by riding the Saturn V onto their now lunar flight path. The mighty machine had flown only twice before. The first flight successfully, the second with some problems. But Borman, Lovell, and Anders’s ride was perfection.

They also had the largest television audience in history, more than a half billion people taking in sights from space they had never before seen. And when Earth came into their view again, commander Frank Borman played tour guide. “What you’re seeing is the Western Hemisphere,” the former airline pilot said as if he were pointing out the Grand Canyon. “In the center, just lower to the center, is South America, all the way down to Cape Horn. I can see Baja California and the southwestern part of the United States.”

Jay Barbree reports Apollo 8’s launch from Cape Canaveral before flying to Houston’s Mission Control to cover the Christmas mission to moon orbit. (Barbree Collection).

Apollo 8 had live television, but it was still television in black-and-white, so astronaut James Lovell joined his commander. “For colors, the waters are all sorts of royal blue. Clouds are bright white. The land areas are generally brownish to light brown in texture.”

Mission Control broke in. “You don’t see anybody waving, do you?”

They laughed, and the transmission ended. It was time for the astronauts to get back to work as they crossed an invisible line between Earth and the moon. The line is called the equigravisphere, meaning equal gravity between two celestial bodies. Until this point Apollo 8 had been “coasting uphill” against Earth’s gravitational pull. Now, less than forty thousand miles from the lunar surface, the moon’s gravitational pull was greater.

That meant for the first time since leaving Earth, Apollo 8 was heading downhill, gaining speed, and tomorrow the astronauts would have the choice of sweeping around the moon and heading back home on their present circumlunar flight path or firing the spacecraft’s main service engine and slipping into an orbit around the lunar surface.

The world would be watching and celebrating the farthest and most daring spaceflight in history. Yet some were asking, “Why are we going to the moon during Christmas? Why couldn’t they have flown the mission after the holidays?”

The astronauts flying Apollo 8 knew the answer.

Zond.

NASA had its super-booster, the seven-million-pound-thrust Saturn V. Russia had its even bigger N–1 rocket.

The difference?

Saturn V had been doing well under Wernher von Braun. My colleague Martin Caidin had learned the N–1 had stalled. Test delays had the N–1 sitting on the ground.

The Russians regrouped, and in the summer of 1968, CIA satellite photographs made NASA aware of the Zond program.

It was a time when the country was in a malaise. America had had it with the Vietnam War. Lyndon Johnson had refused to run for reelection. Richard Nixon was on his way to the White House to end the lingering conflict, and if all went as planned, the Russians could send a single cosmonaut on a circumlunar journey by year’s end. The fact that cosmonauts could not land on the moon would not stop the Russians from claiming they had reached the moon first.

But NASA managers saw a chance to fulfill the promise of John F. Kennedy instead of again eating the Russians’ dust. NASA boss Jim Webb told President Johnson it was time to gamble, to consider putting astronauts on the next Saturn V and sending them all the way to the moon, possibly even into lunar orbit.

Johnson, seeing a chance for a last hurrah for his administration, bought it. So, in spite of Christmas, the first manned Saturn V headed for the moon.

The great untested rocket burned perfectly through its three mighty stages and sent Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders rushing away from Earth at 24,200 miles per hour on the morning of December 21, 1968.

Zond was left standing on the launch pad, and bitterness replaced the usual holiday round of vodka and cognac toasts. Lev Kamanin, top aide to Kremlin space officials and the son of the chief of cosmonaut training, sent Martin Caidin a note:

For us this day is darkened with the realization of lost opportunities and with sadness that today the men flying to the moon are named Borman, Lovell, and Anders, and not Bykovsky, Popovich, and Leonov.

All members of science, however, were brothers in the realization that a marvelous product of human technology and engineering was on its way to the moon. The Apollo command module was moving swiftly toward becoming the first spaceship to orbit another body in our solar system. It was Christmas Eve, and Apollo 8 was fast approaching the point of decision.

The astronauts and the world would have been happy to know that inside Mission Control the news was good. Every monitoring instrument was “in the green.” Apollo 8 was moving right down the pickle barrel without a red light in sight.

The astronauts seemed to be right on top of the moon, and they held their breaths as they disappeared behind lunar mountains and began their flight around the moon’s far side, where radio signals between Earth and Apollo 8 would be blocked.

It meant astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders would be out of contact with Mission Control for more than twenty minutes and CapCom Jerry Carr was sending the message everyone wanted to hear: “You are GO for lunar orbit. You are GO all the way.”

Jim Lovell’s voice was incredibly calm as he responded, “We’ll see you on the other side,” and with those words, Apollo 8’s astronauts vanished into silence.

Suddenly, the three astronauts were filled with wonder. They were the first humans to see the side of the moon always facing away from Earth. But they were also filled with worry. They were now only thirty seconds away from the moment Apollo 8’s main rocket engine had to fire to place them in lunar orbit.

Mission Control could only hope Apollo 8’s big rocket ignited as planned, slowing the astronauts into an orbit sixty miles above the lunar surface. But, if it didn’t, the astronauts would still be safe. Their higher speed would bring them back to Earth on the “Free Return Trajectory.”

The rocket was scheduled to burn four minutes and twelve seconds, and Jim Lovell would later say, “It was the longest four minutes I’ve ever spent.”

The rocket’s ignition was a thing of beauty. Apollo 8 emerged from behind the moon with its crew hearing CapCom Jerry Carr calling and calling, “Apollo 8, Apollo 8, Apollo 8…”

“Go ahead, Houston,” came the calm voice of Jim Lovell.

Those three words sent Mission Control into a wild celebration. It was bedlam—cheering, whistling, shouting, and backslapping—as electronic signals flashing in from Apollo 8 told the mission controllers the astronauts were in a lunar orbit 60 by 168 miles. Later, on orbit three, the SPS rocket fired again, dropping Apollo 8 into the planned, circular orbit of 60 by 60 miles.

But the hell with all the engineering jargon and numbers! A worldwide television audience wanted to know one thing. What did the moon look like?

Tour guide Jim Lovell keyed his microphone and cleared his throat. “Essentially gray in color,” he reported. “Its surface is like plaster of Paris or a sort of grayish beach sand.” Apollo 8 relayed pictures of a desolate landscape pitted with both massive and tiny craters. “It looks like a vast, lonely, forbidding place, an expanse of nothing…clouds of pumice stone,” Borman reported. Lovell saw the distant Earth as “a grand oasis in the big vastness of space.” Anders added: “You can see the moon has been bombarded through the eons with numerous meteorites. Every square inch is pockmarked.” Then, Lovell spoke as the poet: “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring, and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”

It was a Christmas Eve like none before. Millions of families gathered around their home fires, exchanging presents and watching Apollo 8’s fabulous adventure.

And for those millions, the astronauts spoke directly.

“For all the people on earth,” Bill Anders began, “the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you.” A brief pause, and then Anders stunned his audience as he began reading from the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” Anders read the first four verses. Lovell followed by reading the next four. Borman read the ninth verse, and then the commander of Apollo 8’s mission sent the world a special Christmas message: “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.”

Later, as Apollo moved around the desolate lunar landscape, Frank Borman did have one more thing to say as he watched Earth “rising” above the moon’s horizon: “This is the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life.”

No sooner than the Christmas Eve telecast from moon orbit was over, the phones began ringing at the NASA news center near Mission Control. Most calls were praise for what they had just seen, but there was one complaint that NASA, a government agency, was promoting religion. The public-affairs officers smiled and thanked all callers. A Japanese reporter checked in. He had spent most of the day in the news center and now, approaching deadline, he wanted to know when NASA would have a transcript of the astronauts’ reading from lunar orbit.

The quick-thinking public-affairs person, considered the Japanese reporter was most likely Buddhist, asked, “Are you in your hotel room?”

“Yes,” the reporter acknowledged.

“Look in the drawer under your phone and you will find a black book.”

The Japanese reporter opened the drawer and said, “I have it.”

“Good,” the NASA spokesman said. “Open it to the first book entitled Genesis, page seven. You’ll find the transcript there.”

By the time we had wrapped up the astronauts’ Christmas message in the NBC broadcast trailer outside Mission Control, most of us were feeling blue. We were missing our families on Christmas Eve, and we were off to phone them from our hotel rooms.

My wife Jo’s voice was a needed tonic, and our two-year-old, Karla, and our seven-year-old, Alicia, had to tell Daddy all about the presents they expected Santa Claus to bring.

As families go, I was most fortunate.

After getting a touch of Christmas from home in Cocoa Beach, I realized I hadn’t had dinner. I slipped my coat back on and took the elevator downstairs to the coffee shop. I walked through the door paying little notice to a man at the end of the counter.

“Am I too late?” I asked the waitress.

“Merry Christmas,” she said, passing me a menu. “What would you like?”

I sat down, ordered, and as the waitress left, returned to my blue, spending-Christmas-alone mood.

The man at the other end of the counter got up and walked over. “Hi, Jay,” he said politely, “I’m John Glenn.”

I looked up and instantly congratulated myself for being the year’s biggest jackass. I had just slighted a national hero whom I admired.

“Of course you are, John,” I began laughing, motioning for him to sit down. “Would you believe my mind was at home with Jo and the kids?”

John settled on the stool next to me and nodded, “I believe.”

Suddenly, Christmas Eve wasn’t all that blue. John Glenn and I downed a few morsels and a gallon of coffee and welcomed Christmas with happy memories.

On board Apollo 8, there was more to be done. The crew studied landing sites being considered for Apollo astronauts and took hundreds of pictures.

Early Christmas morning, Apollo 8 moved through its tenth and final trip around the lunar landscape. Again, the astronauts were on the far side, out of contact with Mission Control, and the most important event of their flight was before them, the critical rocket blast to come home. If it worked, they would return to their families. If it didn’t, they would be marooned in lunar orbit.

Command Module pilot Jim Lovell counted down the final seconds—“Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, ignition,”—and the three astronauts felt the kick of the big rocket’s instant life, etching the vacuum with flame sixty miles above the moon.

Lovell watched the timer like a hawk. He needed that rocket to burn for 304 seconds. That was the Delta V needed—engineer’s talk for the exact thrust required to get from one point to another—to get from the moon to Earth. The timer clicked and the seconds dragged and those in Mission Control bit their nails, lips, pencils, or most anything within reach. They, along with the worldwide television audience, could only wait.

Finally, Apollo 8 came around the moon and there was the voice of Jim Lovell: “Please be informed there is a Santa Claus. The burn was good.”

Fifty-eight hours after leaving lunar orbit, and with Earth’s gravity dragging Apollo 8 home, the world’s first travelers to the moon splashed down on the Pacific in sight of—you guessed it—Christmas Island.

Three citizens of Earth had just completed what the New York Times called a “fantastic odyssey.”

The road to the moon had been opened.

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