A Christmas like no other...
Twenty hours, ten minutes, and 13 seconds after Apollo 8 entered lunar orbit, it was Christmas day, and the crew were looking forward to pointing their spacecraft back towards earth for the long journey home, but only after a executing a somewhat dangerous rocket burn, utilizing her one, and only main engine. Have you ever gotten into your car on a cold winter night and hoped the engine would start when you turned the key? Exactly like that, but at 250,000 miles away from Earth... Even more worrisome, was the fact that initiating the burn would have to take place in the shadow of the dark side of the Moon, and completely out of contact with their home planet.
Borman cancelled all further activites during the final four hours in lunar orbit to allow the crew some time to rest. A 3 minute 23.7 second SPS burn at 1610:16 AEST, 111.5 kilometres above the lunar surface behind the Moon boosted their speed from 5,861.7 to 9,702.1 kilometres per hour, and they were safely on their way home.
So again we were hanging in suspense waiting for them to come from behind the Moon. What if the SPS engine hadn’t fired, or fired incorrectly, they would be doomed to die when their consumables would run out within a week. They would then be condemned to circle the lonely reaches of the Moon for thousands of years. There was no rescue mission standing by, or anybody around to help them.
In all the tracking stations and Mission Control everyone went quiet. This was the last unknown. “Swallow the frights one at a time as they appear in the Flight Plan,” astronaut Michael Collins once said. George Low, the man responsible for this crazy trip to the Moon, sat hunched in the VIP lounge in Mission Control. He admitted this was his most feared moment. Chris Kraft, the director of Flight Operations in Mission Control in Houston, who knew more than anybody about the missions, said to me later, “If you weren’t shaking at that point you didn’t understand the problems.”
“Apollo 8 ....... Houston,” called Capcom Ken Mattingly into the ether.
“Apollo 8 ....... Houston,” he called again, listening to the hash coming down the line.
“Apollo 8 ....... Houston.” Everyone on the loops around the world were straining to hear a voice. Nearly a hundred seconds of hash had ticked by, then...
“Houston, Apollo 8. Please be informed there is a Santa Claus,” we heard Lovell’s voice say and knew they were heading safely for home.
It was 1625 in the afternoon on Christmas Day at Honeysuckle Creek. Apollo 8 was a success and our Moon landing missions could go ahead – well, that was providing they re-entered safely, but there were no unknowns there. We could now enjoy a late but happy Christmas.
This poem was read up to the Apollo 8 crew by astronaut Harrison Schmitt in Houston:
T’was the night before Christmas, and way out in space
The Apollo 8 crew had just won the Moon race;
The headsets were hung by the consoles with care,
In hopes that Chris Kraft soon would be there;
Frank Borman was nestled all snug in his bed,
While visions of REFSMMATS danced in his head;
And Anders in his couch, and Jim Lovell in the bay,
Were racking their brains over a computer display....
When out of the DSKY there arose such a clatter,
Frank sprang from his bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the sextant he flew like a flash,
To make sure they weren’t going to crash.
The light on the breast of the moon’s jagged crust
Gave a lustre of green cheese to the grey lunar dust.
When what to his wondering eyes should appear
But a Burma Shave sign saying: ‘Kilroy was here!’
But Frank was no fool, he knew pretty quick
That they had been first... this must be a trick.
More rapid than rockets his curses they came,
He turned to his crewmen and called them a name;
“Now Lovell! Now Anders! Now don’t think I’d fall
For that old joke you’ve written up on the wall!’
They spoke not a word, but grinning like elves,
And laughed at their joke in spite of themselves.
Frank sprang to his couch, to the ship gave a thrust,
And away they all flew past the grey lunar dust.
But we heard them exclaim, ere they flew ’round the moon:
“Merry Christmas to Earth; We’ll be back there real soon!”
“Twas the night before Christmas” – read up to Apollo 8 by Harrison Schmitt (affectionately referred to as ‘Typhoid Jack’ after he fell ill just before the mission. The crew initially – but incorrectly – suspected they had caught whatever he had).
512kb mp3 runs for 2' 53", starting at 089:59:00 GET. Recorded at Honeysuckle Creek.