A Truly Heavenly Christmas

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

Those words have been read both silently and aloud countless times over the centuries since they were first written, but forty years ago tonight, on another Christmas Eve, they were read for the first time by men far up in the heavens, looking down on the earth from over two hundred thousand miles away as they circled its moon. The familiar words staticked [yes, I am verbing a noun --rs] across the vast void, and crackled in the speakers of millions of televisions and radios all over the planet, as those with televisions viewed the earth from afar as well. It was the most-watched television event in history up to that time.

Mission Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell (who would circle the moon again, and fail to land on it again a couple years later as commander of Apollo XIII), and Luna Module pilot Bill Anders were the first men to leave low earth orbit, the first to be captured by the gravitation of another body, the first to orbit another body, the first to escape its orbit and the first to enter earth's atmosphere from very close to escape velocity.

It was a partial dress rehearsal for the first moon landing, which would occur seven months later, with the Apollo XI mission in July 1969. And while it was the landing that would fulfill John F. Kennedy's pledge seven years earlier to "land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth," the Apollo VIII mission on Christmas of 1968 probably won the moon race with the Soviets.

It almost didn't happen, at least on that mission. A previous Apollo mission the past April, the unmanned Apollo VI (primarily a checkout test of the new Saturn V rocket), had almost been a disaster, with severe "pogo" oscillations, multiple engine failures and structural failures in the vehicle. Afterward, though these were thought to be resolved, the most prudent plan would have been another unmanned test flight, after which the "C" mission -- a test of all the components in earth orbit would have been flown in early 1969.

But the Apollo team was in a dual race against time: the end-of-the-decade pledge made by Kennedy in 1961, and a more unknown deadline - the ongoing Soviet program. The Soviets had been performing unmanned lunar flybys with their "Zond" vehicle, and there was concern that they might beat the US to a manned flyby, if not a lunar landing itself, which would have been seen as a major propaganda defeat, reminding the public of how they had beaten the U.S. both in terms of the first satellite and the first astronaut years earlier. So they put crew on the next mission in October and made it the C mission, and then planned a new type of mission, which they dubbed C-Prime, to do everything that a lunar mission would except land (because the lunar module would not be ready for flight prior to early 1969).