Apollo 11 gets all the glory for “one small step for man” lunar landing, while the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission was immortalised by a classic Tom Hanks movie.
However, while you’re all settling in to enjoy another “Houston we have a problem” recital over port & Stilton this festive season, spare a thought for another significant space mission which took place on Christmas Eve - 49 years ago this week.
Apollo 8, crewed by Nasa astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell (the man Tom Hanks depicted in Apollo 13) and William Anders, completed the first manned orbit of the moon on December 24, 1968.
While an incredible landmark achievement, the importance of this mission was paramount in enabling Nasa to plan the trajectory and journey ahead of the forthcoming moon-landing missions.
Less than a year later, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the surface of the moon at the Sea of Tranquility landing site scoped out by the Apollo 8 crew.
The Apollo 8 crew, powered by the Saturn V rocket, left Cape Kennedy, Florida on December 21, 1968 and within 70 hours were performing their first of 10 elliptical orbits of the lunar surface. They encountered the ‘dark side of the moon’ for the first time in human history, placing them out of radio contact with Nasa for 45 minutes at a time.
In total, the crew spent 20 hours orbiting the moon before trans-Earth injection was performed from behind the moon on Christmas Day to move out of earth orbit and send them heading for home.
The trio returned to earth as heroes on December 27, landing in the Pacific Ocean 147 hours after lift-off. They were the first humans to travel to the moon and return home safely.
The smooth, “nearly flawless” execution of the mission may not have merited a Hollywood dramatisation, but it did represent the first time television audiences had received a live eyewitness account of the lunar surface.
"The moon is essentially grey," Lovell said. "No colour. Looks like plaster of Paris. Sort of a greyish beach sand."
The astronauts each took turns in speaking during planned television broadcasts, reciting verses from Genesis and wishing everyone on “the good Earth” a Merry Christmas.
"We were told that on Christmas Eve we would have the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice," Frank Borman recalled 40 years later. "And the only instructions that we got from Nasa was to do something appropriate."
As well as the TV pictures, on the crew’s forth pass from behind the moon, Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders also captured the iconic Earthrise photo (above), which captured a view of the Earth from the moon for the first time. Anders later said that as well as discovering the moon, the unique perspective enabled the three men to discover the Earth too.
In Europe, the landmark transmission of television pictures was made possible thanks to the Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station in Cornwall. Antenna 1, known as Arthur (above), was the world’s first parabolic satellite and was built in 1962 to communicate with the Telstar 1, the first active communications satellite.
The Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station was responsible for transmitting some of the biggest events in early television history, including the Apollo 11 moon landing the following year. Several Muhammad Ali fights and the 1985 Live Aid concert were also transmitted this way.
Nasa commended the Post Office for its assistance in the Apollo 8 moon orbit broadcasts with an award to then-director of external communications Dr James Gill, presented by Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman.
Goonhilly was once the biggest station of its kind and was operated by the Post Office, which handled communications prior to the arrival of British Telecom.
In 2014, Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd purchased the station from BT. Today the private company plans to launch the first private deep space communications to the moon. The station could also gain a new lease of life providing communications support for the European Space Agency / Nasa unmanned Orion Exploration Mission 1 in 2018.
Photo credit: Nasa, BT Archives