Remembering 1968: Apollo 8's Christmas greeting from the moon

Former astronaut says NASA’s aim to send humans to Mars is ridiculous

The planet Mars from an undated NASA

But in 1968, maybe watching the news on Christmas Eve, when Walter Cronkite reported that Santa had left the North Pole and was traveling south, I was a bit wary of the myth.

Later that evening, the crew did a live TV broadcast, showing images of the Earth and moon to what has been described as the largest TV audience in history at the time.

In a race to beat the Russians to the moon, their mission was planned in only four months. It was initially supposed to be a flight only to low earth orbit, where the crew could start getting used to NASA's new lunar module, and run through simulations of re-entering earth's atmosphere after a lunar voyage. "Theater of the World: The Maps that Made History", his first book, was honored with the 2017 Brageprisen, an award given annually to Norway's premier work of nonfiction, and begins with the historic "Earthrise" image taken from NASA's Apollo 8 mission around the moon. The CIA reported the Soviets might be planning a manned mission by the end of the year. Their safe return cemented the USA lead in the space race and led to six successful landings on the Moon.

Whereupon, in a surge of audacity and élan, NASA switched gears.

Leaving the Moon, Apollo 8 got this incredible view of the Moon's terminator, the line where lunar day fades to night.

The risks were enormous.

"Experienced astronaut Frank Borman was the first to the importance of the picture, while equally experienced astronaut James Lovell was quick to follow", Spier writes. Add to it the fact that the crew of Apollo 1 had been burned to death during a ground test in 1967 owing to a launchpad fire, and it seemed that all the ingredients and a recipe for disaster were in place.

But 1968 was an especially turbulent year in the United States.

Humans had seen the Earth from space before Apollo 8, but the view never gets old.

The death of astronauts was no mere theoretical concern. "That was really only about six or seven months after Apollo 8, and 8 really showed them that they could do it". Chris Kraft, NASA's director of flight operations, later said that the decision to go to the moon on such short notice "took more courage. than anything we ever did in the space program".

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It wasn't just the crew of Apollo 8 that reflected during the flight. The decision was thus made that Borman, Lovell and Anders crew, the crew of Apollo 8, would fly anyway with what they had - the Apollo orbiter alone - and take it to the place it was created to go in the first place: the moon.

And now it was Christmas Eve.

Anders knew he got it ("Aw, that's a attractive shot!") and said he took it at 1/250th of a second at f/11. Earthrise was the first step toward the "Pale Blue Dot" perspective-that we are, as Carl Sagan would say, living "on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people".

"Oh, my God!" Borman suddenly said. "And God saw the light, that it was good".

Borman brought the transmission to a finish after the men recited 10 verses.

"I just wish I really had that moment to live over again", Collins says, "because I would have said to them, 'Apollo 8, you can now slip the surly bonds of Earth and dance the sky, Apollo 8".

Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins gets a turn in the spotlight as well, by virtue of his role as Mission Control's capsule communicator.

"On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 launch, it's important to remember what this mission gave us".

They weren't the only ones overcome with emotion.

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