The Christmas in space was first celebrated 55 years ago. What was the historic message of the Apollo 8 astronauts? And why did NASA decide to change the photo of the Earthrise taken by the astronauts?
The first earthlings to celebrate Christmas Eve outside of our planet were the Apollo 8 astronauts. On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1968, the spacecraft entered the orbit of the Moon. It was the first time in history that people left the Earth’s gravitational field.
There were three astronauts on board Apollo 8: Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders. The task of this mission was to work out a flight plan to the Moon and choose a possible landing site for the next crew.
The historic message of Apollo 8
The mission started on December 21, and three days later, on Christmas Eve, the Apollo 8 crew reached our satellite and made ten orbits around it. For the first time, people were a hundred kilometers away from the Moon and saw its backside with their own eyes.
Everyone on Earth was eagerly waiting for the answer to one question: What does the Moon look like from the other side? When the astronauts got in touch, Lovell enthusiastically reported: “The Moon is essentially grey, no color; looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a grayish beach sand”.
A live broadcast was organized to greet earthlings with Advent from the Moon’s orbit. When blurry silhouettes of people appeared in the frame, the Earth heard verses from the book of Genesis.
According to Frank Borman’s recollections, NASA did not give instructions on the content of the greeting. “We were told that on Christmas Eve we would have the largest audience ever to watch or listen to a Broadcast,” the astronaut recalled. “And the only instruction we got from NASA was to do something appropriate.”
The audience was indeed huge — about a quarter of the world’s population.
The most important photograph of the twentieth century
On the third orbit around the Moon, the astronauts admired the landscape: the blue ball that was home to all of humanity floated above the jagged lunar landscape. Of course, the astronauts had already seen the Earth and contemplated the Moon, but now they saw them together. William Anders took a shot that went down in history as “Earthrise over the Lunar Horizon”
This picture was called the most important photograph of the twentieth century. However, a slightly modified version of the image went down in history.
When the photo was presented to the media, the Moon was standing on the right side of the picture, and the Earth was hanging in the darkness on the left. Nine years later, George Lucas used this angle in Star Wars to depict the appearance of the Death Star near the planet Yavin. However, later the image was rotated 90° and this is how it went down in history. The Moon became a plane with a horizon, and the darkness of space became the sky in which the Earth rises. According to NASA experts, this angle makes the image more personal: it evokes associations with a familiar sunrise or moonrise and helps the observer find their place in the image.
The crew was returning home from their lunar journey during the Christmas holidays and NASA had to coordinate the flight dates with the US Navy. It was the Navy that was responsible for delivering the astronauts after their splashdown. The head of NASA’s manned program traveled personally to meet with Admiral McCain to convince him to recall several hundred servicemen from their furlough.
The admiral immediately agreed because he believed that American achievements in space could boost the morale of the nation, including the military who had participated in the Vietnam War. The commander’s son, the future senator and great friend of Ukraine, John McCain, was a prisoner of war in Vietnam at the time.
And one more interesting fact. While the crew was flying around the Moon, the daughter of the newly elected US President Nixon and the grandson of President Eisenhower were getting married on Earth. And at their wedding, the first toast was to Apollo 8! Thus, the 37th and 34th US presidents were matchmakers.
Now it’s a tradition
Since then, the tradition of celebrating Christmas in space has established. On orbit, astronauts sing songs, exchange gifts, decorate the ISS with festive socks for gifts, and watch Christmas movies to cheer up at an altitude of several hundred kilometers above the Earth.