‘There Is a Santa Claus’: The Voyage of Apollo 8 (Part 2)

Hanging in the black sky, five degrees above the lunar horizon and with the terminator crossing Africa, this astonishing view of the Home Planet represented the first occasion on which human eyes glimpsed “Earthrise” from the Moon. It is a timeless image which continues to draw inspiration and wonder. Photo Credit: NASA

Forty-six years ago, today, on 21 December 1968, three men were launched atop the most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status—the Saturn V—to begin a mission more adventurous, more audacious, more challenging, and far more dangerous than had ever been attempted in two million years of human evolution. As described in yesterday’s history article, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders roared away from their Home Planet and re-lit the third stage of their launch vehicle in an event somewhat innocuously described as “Trans-Lunar Injection” (TLI). That six-minute firing propelled them out of Earth’s gravitational clutches for the first time in history and set them on course to visit our closest celestial neighbor, the Moon.

Strangely, in the hours after TLI, none of the men could see much of the Moon at all. It was barely a crescent from their perspective and they would not really see it in its entirety until they arrived in orbit around it on Christmas Eve. “I saw it several times in the optics as I was doing some sightings,” admitted Lovell, but “by and large, the body that we were rendezvousing with—that was coming from one direction as we were going to another—we never saw … and we took it on faith that the Moon would be there, which says quite a bit for ground control.” As they headed toward their target, Apollo 8 slowly rotated on its axis in a so-called “barbecue roll,” to even out thermal extremes of blistering heat and frigid cold across its metallic surfaces.

One hundred and forty thousand miles from Earth, and 31 hours after launch, the astronauts began their first live telecast from the mysterious “cislunar” environment, betwist Earth and the Moon. Borman had tried to have the camera removed from the mission, but had been overruled, and now found himself using it to film Lovell in the command module’s lower equipment bay, preparing a chocolate pudding for dessert. Next there was a shot of Bill Anders, twirling his weightless toothbrush. “This transmission,” Borman commenced for his terrestrial audience, “is coming to you approximately halfway between the Moon and the Earth. We have about less than 40 hours to go to the Moon … I certainly wish we could show you the Earth. Very, very beautiful.”

Unfortunately, a telephoto lens fitted to the camera by Anders did not work, and when they switched back to the interior lens it resolved the Home Planet as little more than a white blob, giving away little of its splendour. Borman was disappointed that he had been unable to show viewers the “beautiful, beautiful view, with blue background and just huge covers of white clouds.” Lovell closed out the transmission by wishing his mother a happy birthday, after which Borman placed Apollo 8 back into its barbecue roll, which took the high-gain antenna off Earth. A day later, their second telecast allowed Lovell to describe for his spellbound audience the appearance of the western hemisphere: the blues of the deep ocean trenches, the browns of the landmasses, and the whites of the cloud structures.

Like plaster of Paris or a sandpit beaten up by Bill Anders’ kids, the haunting, forbidding, and starkly beautiful lunar surface was the object of intense photography during Apollo 8’s 10 orbits. Photo Credit: NASA

Lovell was an explorer at heart. His excitement in wanting to fly Apollo 8 was motivated equally as much, if not more so, by the simple urge to explore new places than by a desire to carry out scientific investigations. The science was important, but Lovell’s sentiment could perhaps be best tied to a statement made three years later by Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott: that going to the Moon was “exploration at its greatest.” At one stage in the flight, Lovell turned to Borman and wondered aloud what alien travelers might think as they approached Earth. Would they believe it to be inhabited or not? Would they decide to land on the blue or the brown part of its surface?

“You better hope that we land on the blue part,” deadpanned Anders.

By the afternoon of 23 December, almost 60 hours since their Saturn V left Earth, the gravitational influence of their home planet was finally overcome by that of the Moon. At this point, Apollo 8 was 190,000 miles (305,700 km) from Earth and just over 40,000 miles (64,000 km) from its target, and the spacecraft’s velocity had slowed to 2,700 mph (4,350 km/h) as it moved farther into the Moon’s gravitational “well.” As they sailed toward Lunar Orbit Insertion (LOI), their trajectory was near-perfect: only two of four planned mid-course correction burns had been needed to keep Apollo 8 locked into its free return trajectory. At 3:55 a.m. EST on Christmas Eve, Capcom Gerry Carr told Borman that they were “Go for LOI.”

The three astronauts had still not seen the Moon, despite their close proximity to it, since their angle of approach caused it to be lost in the Sun’s glare. At length, Carr asked them what they could see. “Nothing,” replied Anders gloomily, adding “it’s like being on the inside of a submarine.” Less than an hour later, at 4:49 a.m., Apollo 8 passed behind the Moon, with Lovell telling Carr that “we’ll see you on the other side.” Eleven minutes later, they fired the service module’s large Service Propulsion System (SPS) engine for four minutes to reduce their speed and brake themselves into an orbit of 69 x 193 miles (111 x 310 km). The burn was flawless, although Lovell admitted that it was “the longest four minutes I ever spent.” Had the engine burned too long or too short, they could have ended up either crashing into the Moon or vanishing into some errant orbit. Just to be sure, Borman hit the shutdown button as soon as the clock touched zero.

Back on Earth, a tense world—nearly a billion people were listening in, NASA estimated, scattered across 64 different countries—waited for word of their insertion into lunar orbit. If Apollo 8 had not achieved orbit, then Borman, Lovell, and Anders would come back into communications range 10 minutes sooner than planned. At length, right on time, following a 45-minute blackout, public affairs officer Paul Haney announced with joy: “We got it! We got it!” Fifteen minutes later, the astronauts’ first close-range descriptions of the Moon came across a quarter of a million miles of emptiness. “The Moon,” Lovell began, “is essentially grey; no colour; looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a greyish deep sand. We can see quite a bit of detail. The Sea of Fertility doesn’t stand out as well here as it does back on Earth. There’s not as much contrast between that and the surrounding craters. The craters are all rounded off. There’s quite a few of them; some of them are newer. Many of them—especially the round ones—look like hits by meteorites or projectiles of some sort … ”

It has often been remarked that the irony of Apollo 8 was that it set out to explore the Moon, but really ended up “discovering” the Earth. In this view, mission controllers gaze awestruck at a view of the Home Planet on the large monitor during the cislunar coast. Photo Credit: NASA

The lack of even the slightest vestiges of an atmosphere lent a weird clarity to what was, in effect, a scene of the utmost desolation, silence, and stillness. Only weeks earlier, the film of Arthur C. Clarke’s, 2001: A Space Odyssey, had premiered and even the astronauts imagined the lunar terrain to be composed of dramatic mountains and jagged cliffs. Instead they were presented with an essentially dead place, ubiquitous in its blandness. Anders, tasked with the bulk of the lunar photography, had spent hours before launch with the only geologist-astronaut, Jack Schmitt, discussing the features of the surface, and had his own flight plan to plough through, but found it hard because of dirty windows. In fact, only the command module’s two small rendezvous windows remained reasonably clear.

For Anders, the far side of the Moon, never seen from Earth or ever by human eyes, resembled “a sand pile my kids have been playing in for a long time … all beat up, no definition, just a lot of bumps and holes.” He considered the lunar surface to be unappealing, but with a “stark beauty” of its own, and all three men found pleasure in giving temporary names to some of the craters to honour their colleagues and managers: Low, Gilruth, Shea, Grissom, White, Webb, Chaffee, Kraft, See, and Bassett. “These,” said Borman, “were all the giants who made it work.” At one stage during the excitement, when flight controller John Aaron noticed that the command module’s environmental control system needed adjustment, they responded by naming a crater for him, too. (Before the flight, Lovell had even given his wife, Marilyn, a photograph of a mountain, near the edge of the Sea of Tranquillity, which he had unofficially named for her: Mount Marilyn.)

Four hours after entering orbit, another SPS burn—this time thankfully shorter at just 11 seconds—adjusted Apollo 8’s path around the Moon into a near-perfect 69-mile circle. Then, at 10:37 a.m. EST on 24 December, the astronauts became the first humans to witness “Earthrise” from behind the lunar limb. Borman was in the process of turning the spacecraft to permit Lovell to take some sextant readings, when all at once Anders yelled: “Oh my God! Look at that picture over there.” It would become a running, though light-hearted, competition among the crew over who took the “Earthrise Picture,” which has since become world-famous: a shot of the Home Planet, a pretty blue-and-white marble, rising in the void above the Moon’s grey-brown surface. With Lovell in attendance, it was Anders who, after fitting the colour magazine and aiming the telephoto lens, snapped one of the most iconic images of the Space Age. In perhaps no other image has the beauty, fragility, and loneliness of Earth been captured with more meaning.

Years later, Anders would win praise from environmentalists for his assertion that Apollo 8’s goal was to explore the Moon … and what it really did was discover the Earth!

As the mission’s senior pilot, one of Jim Lovell’s responsibilities was taking star sightings and navigational measurements using the sextant and telescope. He is pictured at work in the command module’s lower equipment bay. Photo Credit: NASA

The astronauts’ intense workload during their 20 hours in orbit was getting the better of them, with tiredness causing them to make mistakes. On occasion, Lovell had punched the wrong code into the command module’s computer, triggering warning alarms, and Anders was overcome with his own schedule: stereo imagery, dim-light photography, and filter work. At length, clearly irritated that the timeline was too full, Borman snapped at Capcom Mike Collins that he was taking an executive decision for his two crewmates to get some rest. “I’ll stay up and keep the spacecraft vertical,” he told Collins, “and take some automatic pictures.” With some difficulty, he had to force Lovell and Anders to pry their eyes away from the windows and get some sleep.

It seemed inevitable, after thousands of years of watching and wondering about the Moon, that humanity’s first visit would be commemorated in a religious, spiritual, or symbolic way. Before the launch, Borman, Lovell, and Anders had discussed this issue at length with friends and concluded that they would read the story of Creation from the first 10 verses of Genesis. During their ninth orbit, on their second live telecast from the Moon, they read it. Anders spoke first, then Lovell, and finally Borman closed with “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you … all of you on the good Earth.”

Eight minutes into Christmas morning, three days and 17 hours after launch, the return home got underway when the SPS engine was ignited to increase their speed by 2,300 mph (3,700 km/h). As they rounded the Moon for the last time, Lovell told Capcom Ken Mattingly, who was just coming on duty in Houston, “Please be informed there is a Santa Claus.” Mattingly replied that they were the best ones to know.

The return journey proved uneventful, with fogged windows, puddling water, and clattering cabin fans creating mere annoyances. A final televised tour of Apollo 8 showed Anders preparing a freeze-dried meal … and, when the camera stopped rolling, they found a treat in their food locker: real turkey and real cranberry sauce, wrapped in foil with red and green ribbons. It turned out to be their best meal of the entire flight, although Borman was annoyed that Deke Slayton had slipped three small bottles of brandy aboard as well. Why, if anything went wrong on the flight, the overly zealous Borman fumed, the press and public would have a field day and blame it on the “drunk” astronauts. Lovell and Anders, who have admitted that they had no intention of touching the brandy, felt that Borman had gone a little too far. Christmas spirit returned, however, with festive presents: pairs of cufflinks and a man-in-the-Moon tie pin from Susan Borman and Marilyn Lovell, and a gold “figure 8” tie pin from Valerie Anders.

Only one minor trajectory correction burn was needed, and early on 27 December the astronauts fired pyrotechnics to jettison the service module and plunged into Earth’s atmosphere at almost 22,000 mph (35,400 km/h). During re-entry, which carried them over northeastern China, then brought the command module in a long slanting path toward the southeast, Borman, Lovell, and Anders were subjected to deceleration forces as high as 7 G. Splashdown came as Cape Kennedy clocks read 10:51 a.m., but still in pre-dawn darkness over the western Pacific, completing a mission of just over six days. At Mission Control in Houston, sheer pandemonium broke out, in the traditional American back-slapping way, and the smell of celebratory cigars scented the air for hours.

“Made from American cheese!” The three men of Apollo 8—from the left, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders—wave to well-wishers at the door of the rescue helicopter after their recovery from their epic voyage. Photo Credit: NASA

Among the cheering NASA throng was an overjoyed, though dispirited, Mike Collins. “For me personally, the moment was a conglomeration of emotions and memories,” he wrote. “I was a basket case, emotionally wrung out. I had seen this flight evolve in the white room at Downey, in the interminable series of meetings at Houston … into an epic voyage. I had helped it grow. I had two years invested in it—it was my flight. Yet it was not my flight; I was but one of a hundred packed into a noisy room.”

A quarter of a world away, in the Pacific Ocean, a thousand miles south-southwest of Hawaii, water came flooding through an open vent in the command module, drenching Borman and giving Anders the mistaken impression that the hull had cracked on impact. The ship overturned onto its nose, but quickly righted itself when Borman inflated the three airbags. It did not stop him from being sick. This time, Lovell and Anders, both of whom had served in the Navy, showed no mercy on their Air Force commander: “What do you expect from a West Point ground-pounder?”

Amidst the radio chatter from a rescue helicopter despatched by the aircraft carrier Yorktown came an age-old question which the world now wanted answered. “Apollo 8, is the Moon made from Limburger cheese?”

“Nope,” replied Bill Anders. “It’s made from American cheese!”


This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next weekend’s article will focus on how astronauts and cosmonauts celebrated New Year in space, from the festivities of the Skylab 4 crew in 1973, through the Salyut and Mir eras to the International Space Station.


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  1. Ben: Thanks for this series on Apollo 8. I remember Frank Borman stating that he and his crew saw the Moon exactly at the predicted time on the flight plan stating, “There it was!” I also seem to remember that the crew solved the out-of-focus TV pictures of the Earth by putting chewing gum on the window and focusing the camera on it. Is that correct?
    The success of the Apollo program is a testament to the dedication of all who were involved. Hard to believe it’s been 44 years this Christmas.

  2. Very nice essay on the Apollo 8 mission to the Moon, which to my mind was by far the most important Apollo mission. Its influence on the culture and history of the United States cannot be measured.

    One tidbit not mentioned in the essay. Frank Borman took a black and white image of the Earthrise image prior to Bill Anders more famous color image. Also, while Borman framed his image with the horizon across the bottom, Anders actually framed the image with the Moon’s horizon vertical on the right. As he told me when I interviewed him back in 1998, “That’s how I took it.” To him, their capsule and the Earth were just two objects in the solar system, the capsule orbiting the waist of the Moon, with the Earth sneaking up out from behind it. Rather than being residences on a planet, they were treaveling in space, just like the Moon and the Earth.

    For the full story behind the mission, you might want to check out the just released ebook edition of my book, Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, now available from Mountain Lake Press as well as at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and all other fine ebook sellers. The new edition includes a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by myself.

  3. Ben, once again, thank you very much for the highly educational and enjoyable work, and Robert, thank you for the fascinating insight that I will always remember when I look at the famous images. Obviously both of you gentlemen have forgotten more about space exploration history than I ever knew, and I am grateful for the opportunity to ask a question of such knowledgeable individuals who can provide a definite, accurate, conclusive answer. In the video “Race To The Moon The Daring Adventure Of Apollo 8” first shown in the American Experience series by PBS, Susan Borman stated, “We all knew that the Russians were hell bent for leather to get to the Moon, and by golly, we were going to get there first. But I really didn’t think they’d get them back. I just didn’t see how they could. Everything was for the first time. Everything.” Valerie Anders stated, “I think that we were very aware that when we said good-bye, this could be ‘good-bye'”. It was further stated on the PBS video that, “Few realized the full level of risk NASA was assuming in Apollo 8. Even the Flight Operations Director (I believe that was Glynn Lunney) privately set the chance of a safe return at just 50 percent. 50 PERCENT!!! That’s loading three cartridges into a six shot revolver, spinning the cylinder, putting the muzzle to one’s temple, and . . .! If true, my respect and admiration for these courageous men is boundless (well, actually even more boundless than it already is). Absolutely amazing bravery! How many of us would climb aboard an airplane (even with a first class seat and no baggage fee) if we knew there was only a 50-50 chance of a safe landing? With plans to send a singer to the ISS, probably followed by reality show actors, pop culture celebrities, athletes, and rich people with money to burn, it certainly puts the undeniable heroism of our astronauts, such as those of Apollo 8, into perspective. I only hope that our beloved America can still produce such incredible individuals.

  4. I seem to recall that when the TV camera was first pointed toward Earth, our planet was a “white blob” and that the image was corrected by the astronauts using a piece of chewing gum stuck to the cabin window to help focus the camera. Am I correct? Also, I would like to see something regarding Jack King, whose was indeed the “voice of Apollo.”
    A real classic, two-part series on Apollo 8. A great Christmas present to readers of America Space!

  5. Such a delightful read by Ben, as usual!

    The view of the Home Planet from the Moon, athough rightfully celebrated, has a sadder dimension as well.

    Being credited as a catalyst for the birth of the mdern-era environmental movement, ‘Earthrise’ could also be seen as the tomb for humanity’s dreams of becoming a trully space-faring civilisation. For the same movement that helped to awaken us to the need of taking care of the Home Planet, environmentalism has gone to an extreme through the years, creating an anti-humanist mindset among the general public and academia, that sees the human race as a deadly virus that pollutes everything, demanding that this ‘virus’ be confined on its Home Planet forever, so as not to ‘contaminate’ the Solar System’s ‘pristine environments’ with its presence.

    Seen in this light, it is a tragedy that the photograph that helped to awaken us to the need for caring for the Earth, has also helped to undermine and burry the very effort that provided it in the fist place.

  6. A great read. Thank you.

    We have this beautiful world, a gift to mankind, filled with good and evil.

    We should give the environmentalists that hate humans their wish and just not take them with us when we colonize the solar system and then the stars.

  7. Just a side note about the risk in this mission, without the LM: had the oxygen tank exploded like in Apollo 13, they’d have died in half an hour, well before lunar insertion.

  8. It is too bad that these exploratory and adventurous days have ended. America gave up too soon and if Apollo had continued, we would not be starting over. The Shuttle kept us in LEO way too long, and now we are attempting to define further destinations in space. Sadly the drive seems to be gone. Why cannot our leaders decide on a destination and keep to it. We hardly touched the Moon and much more exploration there is needed. NASA talks of MARS, but without a habitat to house astronauts on the long mission, Orion is incomplete, without the funding needed for such a mission. Perhaps a large Bigelow inflatable could be adapted for the Mars program, but no commitment has been brought forward. Being now 66 years of age, I had always envisioned being alive to see man walk on Mars. I guess it isn’t going to happen!

  9. So you mean he wasn’t using the code word “There is A Santa Claus” to identify artificial activity on the moon?

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