Christmas marks the 50th anniversary of the flight of Apollo 8. While not as well known as Apollo 11 (the first lunar landing) or Apollo 13 (made famous in the Hollywood film starring Tom Hanks), many consider Apollo 8 to be the most risky and important space mission of them all. In so many ways, it was Homeric in scope — a genuine odyssey for our time.
Apollo 8 marked the first time human beings ever left home, and the first time we arrived at a new world — our most ancient companion — the Moon. It called for astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders to be in lunar orbit on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 1968, and remains legendary among astronauts, NASA figureheads, space enthusiasts, even environmentalists. Yet, just four months before launch, the mission didn’t even exist. It was born of an epiphany and required almost unimaginable daring, creativity, and vision. But if it succeeded it could work miracles at NASA, and in America.
Many experts begged NASA not to launch Apollo 8. Besides the myriad dangers in flying the mission so suddenly (a normal space flight required 12–18 months of preparation), it was scheduled for the very end of 1968, one of the worst and most divisive years in American history, a year in which two civil rights leaders (Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy) had been assassinated, record numbers had died in Vietnam, and violence and protests erupted with regularity in the streets. By December, it didn’t seem that America could withstand another tragedy. Even NASA’s chief, James Webb, recognised the profound risks in flying Apollo 8. ‘If these three men are stranded out there and die in lunar orbit,’ he warned, ‘no one — lovers, poets, no one — will ever look at the Moon the same way again.’ And the same was true of Christmas. Yet, for dramatic and important reasons, NASA was committed to go.
The story of Apollo 8 has it all: a sudden change in plans that seemed to invite disaster; a race against an existential enemy (the Soviet Union) that comes down to the final hours; the support of three heroic women; a photograph, ‘Earthrise,’ that would change the world (and remains iconic to this day); a stunning Christmas Eve broadcast heard by nearly one-third of the world’s population; a thrilling journey back to Earth; and so much more. There has never been a space flight — or a Christmas story — like it.
My new book, Rocket Men, tells the story of Apollo 8. I worked closely for three years with the astronauts and their families to make it the definitive account of the mission. More than ever, I think, we need heroes like this today.