50 Years Later, Astronaut Jim Lovell Reflects On His Christmas Eve Moon Orbit Astronaut Jim Lovell reflects on Christmas Eve 1968. He's part of the Apollo 8 crew that spent the holiday orbiting the moon. Their broadcast back to Earth helped unify a divided country.
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50 Years Later, Astronaut Jim Lovell Reflects On His Christmas Eve Moon Orbit

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50 Years Later, Astronaut Jim Lovell Reflects On His Christmas Eve Moon Orbit

50 Years Later, Astronaut Jim Lovell Reflects On His Christmas Eve Moon Orbit

50 Years Later, Astronaut Jim Lovell Reflects On His Christmas Eve Moon Orbit

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/679895379/679895397" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Astronaut Jim Lovell reflects on Christmas Eve 1968. He's part of the Apollo 8 crew that spent the holiday orbiting the moon. Their broadcast back to Earth helped unify a divided country.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I'm going to take you back to 50 years ago tonight, Christmas Eve 1968. Across the country, Americans sat glued to their televisions, listening to voices beaming down from outer space.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANK BORMAN: We are now approaching lunar sunrise. And for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 have a message that we would like to send to you.

KELLY: So began a live address by the three astronauts aboard the Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon, the first humans to witness the Earth looking very small, very blue, very beautiful rising over the moon's horizon. The astronauts were Frank Borman, William Anders and Jim Lovell. And as they circled the moon at Christmas Eve, they recited the first 10 verses from the King James Bible.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM ANDERS: In the beginning, God created the heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, let there be light.

KELLY: Jim Lovell is now 90. He was in Washington the other day for a 50th anniversary celebration of Apollo 8. I arranged to meet him at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Lovell told me NASA had not given any firm directions on what to broadcast from space, but NASA did hook the astronauts up with a newspaper reporter who drafted and tore up a bunch of ideas.

JIM LOVELL: And it was actually his wife. His wife came down and asked, what are you doing? And he told her the story. And she said, well, that's natural. You know, orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve - read the first 10 verses of Genesis...

KELLY: (Laughter).

LOVELL: ...Which is really the basis of...

KELLY: Yeah.

LOVELL: ...Most of the religions.

KELLY: Yeah.

LOVELL: And so that's how it came to pass.

KELLY: You're floating around at this point, or you strap yourself down to mic up to broadcast back to Earth. Just paint me a picture of what that looked like.

LOVELL: We had a TV camera on board. We were thinking about reciting the Genesis. One of us had the camera out. And we were going past the moon and looking at the - each little parts of the moon and then doing the reciting and trying to - actually being actors themselves and trying to figure out how to put on a program to do that. And fortunately, I think that we were successful in trying to tell our story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOVELL: And God called the light day, and the darkness he called night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

KELLY: And you had no way to know if this transmission was actually making it back to Earth.

LOVELL: Or who was listening to this transmission. And of course you can only talk on the near side. We can't - on the far side, we were out of communications with the...

KELLY: Oh, right, so you had to get it out before you...

LOVELL: We have to get it out on the near side.

KELLY: ...You went around to the back side of the moon. And I suppose to remind people, 1968 had been a difficult year on many levels - the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Vietnam War, protests. People have described afterward that listening to those words from the three of you were a unifying moment.

LOVELL: You're absolutely correct that the year was a rather bad year for the United States. But what Apollo 8 did was solidify the one thing that everybody was proud of. The biggest gift that we gave was to the American public, to be eventually proud to be an American.

KELLY: Part of that pride was Apollo 8 represented a victory against Moscow. NASA was worried the Soviet Union was about to send a cosmonaut into lunar orbit. I asked Lovell, how much was the race to beat the Russians on his and the other astronauts' minds?

LOVELL: As matter of fact, when we heard that we're changing our mission from Earth (unintelligible) to go to the moon, Frank was very happy. All he wanted to do was beat the Russians to the moon. He had no interest in exploration. For me, I was really delighted because it was another Lewis and - mini Lewis and Clark expedition where we're exploring new territory, the far side or even the moon itself. And I was happy.

KELLY: Yeah. Does it ever bug you, by the way, that you got that close and you never got to walk on the moon?

LOVELL: In the beginning because on 13 I was that close. However, over the years, I thought that accident was probably the best thing that could have happened to NASA.

KELLY: That accident was Apollo 13, two years after Apollo 8, 1970, a near disaster of a mission after an oxygen tank exploded en route to the moon. That close call has been studied, made into a hit Tom Hanks movie. Lovell, who was the commander of Apollo 13, told me he does not consider it a failed mission.

LOVELL: We were becoming very complacent at that period of time. People were not really thinking about going to the moon. It was never broadcast on any of the paid networks on the way to the moon until the explosion. And so it brought people together again and also demonstrated the ability of good leadership, teamwork and initiative on the part of the mission control team at NASA taking almost certain catastrophe into a successful recovery.

KELLY: And get you home, yeah. On Apollo 13, who actually said the famous words? I'll let you say it now. Houston...

LOVELL: The way this went was the fact - the explosion occurred.

KELLY: Yeah.

LOVELL: I was in the lunar module going down into the command module when Jack said, Houston, we got a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK SWIGERT: OK, we've had a problem here.

LOVELL: And Jack Lousma down at Mission Control Center said, say again, please.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK LOUSMA: This is Houston. Say again, please.

LOVELL: By that time, I got down there, saw that we lost two fuel cells. And I said, Houston, we have a problem here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOVELL: Houston, we've had a problem.

We have a main B bus undervolt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOVELL: We've had a main B bus undervolt.

And that was how that all came down to pass. And of course then they just said, Houston, we have a problem. And I - God, I wish I had copyrighted that.

KELLY: (Laughter).

LOVELL: I would be in my yacht right now on the riviera (laughter).

KELLY: And I went back and looked 'cause there's some controversy over - the official transcript reads, Houston, we've had a problem. And then it got changed...

LOVELL: What it is is Houston...

KELLY: ...And misquoted.

LOVELL: ...We have had a problem. We have had a problem. We have had a main B bus undervolt. And of course, you know, it got picked up. And every time someone has a problem (laughter), they say, Houston, we've had a problem.

KELLY: You ever catch yourself saying that around the house?

LOVELL: (Laughter) Yeah.

KELLY: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF THE O'NEILL BROTHERS GROUP'S "IT CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR")

KELLY: Jim Lovell talking about a couple of the times he flew in space, including 50 years ago tonight when he, William Anders and Frank Borman signed off on the first live broadcast from outer space.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BORMAN: And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas. And God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE O'NEILL BROTHERS GROUP'S "IT CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR")

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