With the exception of the conspiracy theorists, most people would accept that the Apollo space program of the late sixties and early seventies represented a high point in the exploration of space, with twelve astronauts walking on the moon. On a slightly less monumental note; it also holds the record for the most remote Christmas Dinner ever eaten.
The Apollo 8 crew
The mission launched on 21st December 1968 and the crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders became the first humans to orbit the moon. The main objective of the mission was to test both the Saturn V launch vehicle that would be used for the moon landings and the Command and Service Modules that would carry the astronauts to and from the moon. The flight took place over the Christmas period because of the urgency of created by President Kennedy’s commitment to make a successful moon landing by the end of the 1960s.
After spending three days reaching the moon, the spacecraft went into lunar orbit on Christmas Eve morning. By this time the astronauts were over 234,000 miles from Earth. All previous manned spaceflights had been in Earth orbit and no one had travelled so far from the Earth. The photograph of ‘Earthrise’ taken by William Anders is probably the most famous photo ever taken in space. The image of a fragile looking Earth hanging in space is credited with giving a huge boost to the environmental movement that was just starting to find its feet in the sixties.
After ten orbits of the moon, in the early morning of Christmas Day, the main engine was fired and Apollo 8 began its journey back to Earth. As the spaceship completed its last orbit of the moon Jim Lovell radioed “Please be informed, there is a Santa Claus”, which no doubt re-assured children everywhere.
The crew were now nearly four days into the mission and had been eating dehydrated ‘space food’ that provided all the right nutrition but was not pleasant to eat. Meals were not something they looked forward to. In the early afternoon the crew made a TV broadcast back to Earth and then opened the locker to get their next meal. Instead of another tasteless, freeze-dried creation, they found three foil pouches wrapped in green and red ribbons and labelled ‘Merry Christmas’. Inside each pouch was a Christmas Dinner, including real turkey, gravy and cranberry sauce. In Frank Borman’s words ‘It was the best meal of the trip – a lot better than what those on duty in Mission Control were eating – bologna sandwiches.’
At this time Apollo 8 was only about 9 hours into a 57 hour return journey to Earth. Given that gravity accelerated the ship as it approached the planet, the crew would have been munching their turkey at least 200,000 miles from home. There have been other Christmas Dinners in space since, in recent years it has been a regular event on the International Space Station, but Apollo 8 still holds the distance record by quite a margin.
There was another treat for the astronauts in the locker, three miniature bottles of brandy. However, Frank Borman, the mission commander, took one look at them and ordered them to be put back unopened. Borman had been the astronaut representative on the board that investigated the Apollo 1 fire that had killed three astronauts. He was probably more aware than anyone of the number of things that could go wrong inside a space capsule so far from Earth. Consuming even a small amount of alcohol was just not going to happen under his command. However, the astronauts did get to keep their tiny bottles of brandy, and Jim Lovell sold his at an auction in 2008. A collector paid just under $18,000 for the brandy that had been to the moon.
Countdown – An Autobiography, Frank Borman and Robert J Serling
Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman
The Race, James Schefter