In late December of 1968, three men took us to the Moon. Then, on that Christmas Eve, they took us a little farther.
It was forty years ago. How can that be?
Christmas Eve, 1968: my parents, my brother, and I were in our living room, me sitting in my pajamas on our immaculately varnished hardwood floor, watching our Zenith color television set, transfixed by the CBS News coverage of Apollo 8, a manned American spacecraft over two hundred thousand miles away from the Earth, which was every two hours silently circling the Moon.
|The Night Before Launch|
Three days before, December 21, 7:51 AM Eastern Standard Time, the three thousand ton Saturn V rocket, capped with the Apollo 8 spacecraft, unleashed an inferno of burning kerosene and liquid oxygen, and was held captive as it built up a full seven and a half million pounds of thrust, straining to leap from its pad and spend itself hurtling three astronauts into deep space. Crewed by Commander Colonel Frank Borman, Lunar Module Pilot Major William A. Anders (who, due to the change in the mission profile, actually did not have a Lunar Module to pilot), and Command Module Pilot Captain James A. Lovell, the mission was to dare to do something no human beings had ever done before — leave the Earth on a immensely risky journey to circumnavigate and go into close orbit around another celestial body.
Moments later the tamed behemoth was freed, and over the course of the next few hours did its creators proud.
Being the utterly hopeless space nut that I was as a pre-teen, I was eating, drinking, and sleeping that mission, glued to the television and any newspaper commentary I could find, completely enthralled.
CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, sometimes accompanied by luminaries in the field, such as (then quietly grounded for his performance during Apollo 7) astronaut Wally Schirra or scientist and author of 2001: a Space Odyssey Arthur C. Clarke, was my space flight correspondent of choice, something of an older uncle figure to me, someone I trusted to … usually … get me the answers my young, overheated mind hungered after in those heady days.
The flight that followed was what I fully expected, until 8:25 PM on Christmas Eve, Houston time — which, if memory serves, was Indiana time as well. A muddy, black and white live video transmission was in progress, the crew pointing out landmarks and ad-libbing stiff commentary about the nature of the surface of the Moon, 60 nautical miles below. (The complete transcript of this can be found here.)
(Mission time 86 hours, 5 minutes, 42 seconds): William Anders: I hope that all of you back on Earth can see what we mean when we say that it’s a rather foreboding horizon, a very – rather… stark and unappetizing looking place.
(86:06:00) Anders: …approaching one of our future landing sites … selected in this smooth region to … called the Sea of Tranquility – smooth in order to make it easy for the initial landing attempts in order to preclude having to dodge mountains. Now you can see the long shadows of the lunar sunrise. [Long pause.]
And then, the crew said something I would never have expected.
|The Lunar Surface as Seen from Apollo 8|
(86:06:40) Anders: We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.
In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, and God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. [Pause.]
|The Lunar Surface as Seen from Apollo 8|
(86:07:29) James Lovell: And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters. And let it divide the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. [Pause.]
|The Lunar Surface as Seen from Apollo 8|
(86:08:07) Frank Borman: And God said, “Let the waters under the Heavens be gathered together into one place. And let the dry land appear.” And it was so. And God called the dry land Earth. And the gathering together of the waters called he seas. And God saw that it was good.
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.
To all of us on The Good Earth.
Ultimately the mission was a resounding success, but over that Christmas Holiday I continued to hold on to the flight like a pit-bull with a bone and refused to relinquish it until they had made it home safely.
There were serious milestones to achieve to complete the mission: successfully escaping Lunar orbit, short but crucial mid-course correction maneuvers to refine the spacecraft trajectory, and the reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, which, as the commentators made abundantly clear repeatedly, had to be at the perfect angle. Too high, and the spacecraft would “skip” off the atmosphere and coast out into space to potentially return after their oxygen was exhausted; too low, and the crew could be crushed by the “G” forces of deceleration, or, worse, could potentially be incinerated.
The last white-knuckle moment, then, was three days after Christmas (Pacific Time) during reentry, when the friction of the capsule passing through the atmosphere was used to slow it down from the unthinkable velocity of nearly 25,000 miles per hour. During this, the ionization of the surrounding atmosphere caused by the tremendous heat from this friction made communication impossible, which in turn caused a radio blackout that lasted three very long minutes, three minutes where millions were forced to wait on pins and needles to learn the fate of the three explorers.
At Mission Control the pressure must have been virtually unbearable — after the tragedy of Apollo 1, the launch pad accident that killed three astronauts two years before, the loss of the spacecraft or crew, beyond the loss of fellow comrades in the Program and heroes to the nation, could spell the end of the American Space Program, and would almost certainly surrender the Moon Race to our mocking Soviet adversaries.
|Recovery of the Crew|
After three minutes the signal was “re-acquired,” and shortly afterward the spacecraft was captured by radar, then on visual, and soon, slowed by three mammoth red and white striped parachutes, splashed hard into the Pacific, exactly on target.
|On the Carrier|
They were home, safe aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, and I could go back to my life, which probably consisted in reveling in the success and dreaming about the upcoming missions, and the race to beat the Soviets to a manned landing.
|The Command Module of Apollo 8|
The mission of Apollo 8 was a technological, political — and honestly, propaganda — triumph. But what will stay with me for the rest of my days were those haunting, blurry realtime video images of the surface of the Moon — the Moon, for God sakes! — outside the windows of Apollo 8, drifting by as the spacecraft hurtled 60 miles overhead, as the archaic King James English of the story of Creation came, in tinny audio, to us from a quarter of a million miles away,
It was a moment, not just for America, but for all of the human race. For a few minutes many of the people of the Earth were enraptured, and became quiet, and turned to look across the face of the cosmos, to feel the eternal questions about their place in the Universe.
Godspeed, Apollo 8. And thank you.
Copyright © 2008, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.
For those interested, CNN has just posted “Apollo 8 astronauts remember historic voyage” — some reflections from the adventurers themselves.
All Images Courtesy of NASA.
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Daniel Brenton is the creator/author of the 5 Second Novel series, co-author of the space race thriller Red Moon (with David S. Michaels), and is the author of the satirical column The Round Files, published in Stuart Miller's short-lived Alien Worlds Magazine.
Despite being a writer, Daniel has no cats at this time, is unwilling to become an alcoholic, and has a very difficult time keeping a straight face while writing about himself in third person.