by: Tony Long
December 23, 2009
Dec. 24, 1968: Christmas Eve Greetings From Lunar Orbit
1968: The crew of Apollo 8 delivers a live, televised Christmas Eve broadcast after becoming the first humans to orbit another space body.
Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders made their now-celebrated broadcast after entering lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, which might help explain the heavy religious content of the message. After announcing the arrival of lunar sunrise, each astronaut read from the Book of Genesis.
How this went down at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Soviet Union is unknown, but it stands in stark contrast to the alleged message sent back to Earth several years earlier by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.
“I don’t see any God up here,” Gagarin reportedly said from his vantage point aboard Vostok I, although the accuracy of that statement has been challenged over the years. True or not, the reactions were poles apart and did nothing to diminish the God-fearing-West–vs.–godless-commies propaganda campaign very prevalent in the United States at the time.
The crew of Apollo 8 didn’t claim to see God, either, but they were clearly impressed by His handiwork. “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring, and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth,” Lovell said during another broadcast. (There were six broadcasts from the crew in all.)
But admiring the vastness of space was not Apollo 8’s primary mission. This was a pivotal step on the way to the ultimate goal of landing a man on the moon, which was achieved less than a year later. During a flight lasting six days and including 10 orbits of the moon, the Apollo 8 astronauts photographed the lunar surface in detail, both the near and far side, and tested equipment that would be used by Apollo 11’s crew for the eventual approach and landing.
The Apollo 8 command module is on display at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.
Speaking of famous Christmas eve broadcasts, it’s worth remembering that Reginald Fessenden made what is generally recognized as the first public voice-over-radio broadcast on Dec. 24, 1906. Fessenden, a Canadian inventor, was in the midst of promoting his alternator-transmitter to potential buyers of his patent rights, among them representatives of American Telephone & Telegraph.
Like the crew of Apollo 8, Fessenden’s broadcast was of a pious nature. There was a reading from Luke, Chapter 2, and Fessenden himself played “O Holy Night” on the violin.
Being broadcast over radio waves meant Fessenden’s program was available to anyone with a receiver who was within range of his transmitter in Brant Rock Station, Massachusetts. In 1906, that audience was severely limited, consisting mostly of shipboard radio operators at sea off the New England coast.
Photo, video courtesy NASA
This article first appeared on Wired.com Dec. 24, 2008.