Christmas and NASA’s Perfect Mission

Apollo 8 was NASA’s perfect Christmas Mission, which moved the human spirit. It was also an extraordinary example of bold and strong leadership, remarkable teamwork and commitment, agile and rapid program management, and brilliant, authentic communications and marketing. Apollo 8 represents leadership at its best.

I’ve always been fascinated by the great cycles of humanity’s festivals – and their links to the patterns of our solar and lunar years, and to each other. I’ve often sent greetings that search for the meanings of such festivals.

We are now a few days away from Christmas and its secular cousin of the New Year. For Christians, Christmas is of course a very direct celebration of the religion and its origins. But its date was set by Roman clergy from the 350s, and maybe earlier, to connect it to the ancient festivals of the Winter Solstice – which are in the end also about renewal and rebirth. For some Romans, the date of December 25st was the birthday of the sun god Sol Invitictus. In the north of Europe, people celebrated the pagan festival of Yule, which became synonymous with Christmas from the tenth century onwards. Many traditions linked with the non-spiritual side of Christmas – from greenery and trees from the North forest, through gift giving and feasting, to the miraculous powers of a bearded, benevolent godlike figure – have their ancient origins in these pagan festivals.

But this year I wanted to celebrate Christmas with a modern twist, and look for a story that underpins some of the themes of Christmas, and resonates with my own interests and future plans – a story that would also be an inspiration.

For me the choice is an obvious one: the Christmas flight of Apollo 8 in 1968 – the first time that humans would orbit and return from the Moon, and NASA’s perfect flight.

It is a flight seen by many who took part in Apollo as the golden moment of America’s journey to the Moon – and perhaps its greatest mission. It is a story that covers vision, teamwork, renewal and a moment of spiritual reflection, looking down upon the Moon and the Earth.

1968 – A Year of Turmoil

1968 overall was an extraordinarily challenging and difficult year for the US and the West. It started with the North Vietnamese launching the Tet offensive at Nha Trang. It was also the year of My Lai. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. There were riots in Paris, and a sense of revolution hung coldly in the air. Later, there were riots in Chicago. In June, Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert Kennedy, and in the autumn, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia with a vast army, strangling the Prague Spring. It seemed an inauspicious year.

Delays in Apollo

The Apollo program also faced its own complex challenges as the deadline set by President Kennedy closed in. First had come the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, which had killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

The defects in the Command and Service Module (CSM) spacecraft had been fixed remarkably quickly, and Apollo 8 was intended to test the Lunar Module or LM in low Earth orbit in December 1968.

But the first lunar module turned out to be broken. When it arrived at Cape Canaveral, there were too many defects to meet the schedule. It would take many weeks to fix.

A Flight to the Moon is Born

In a decision that would be remembered as an act of extraordinary vision and boldness, George Low, the Manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office,  proposed that Apollo 8 be instead sent to orbit the moon without its Lunar Module.

This would be the first manned flight using the mighty Saturn V – a rocket that had just had severe issues with “pogo-ing” fixed. It was a bold step indeed to use its first manned flight to travel almost a quarter million miles to the Moon.

Any trip to the Moon also required intense planning and training flight, and the discussions had started just a few weeks before the earth orbit Apollo 7 was scheduled to fly. It was a tough schedule to meet. Would it be possible?

Glynn Lunney, one of the most important figures in NASA Mission Control during the Apollo years summarized the thought process that would typify the response of NASA senior management “I went in minutes from ‘crazy’ to ‘brilliant breakthrough’, and ‘why didn’t I think of that’?”

So, the mission imagined on almost the spur of the moment rapidly gained the support of almost all NASA’s senior managers. They understood the immense morale boost it would create, and they had confidence in their vehicles. Above all, the team that had formed out of Mercury, Gemini and the early days of the Apollo program had gained immense confidence in itself. This great challenge could be met. This mission was possible. It was a Go.

Training was started in September. No public announcement was made about the real intent of the mission until November 12, less than 40 days before launch. The news of the real goal of Apollo 8 stunned and exhilarated the public. American astronauts were going to the Moon.


The crew consisted of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders. For Borman and Anders, this was to be their last spaceflight. Lovell would be the commander of Apollo 13. They were a good crew admired by those who supported them, and became well prepared at short notice for a mission of an entirely new kind.

Mission Control would operate 24×7 in three shifts, led by Flight Directors Charles Charlesworth, Glynn Lunney and Milton Windler.

Apollo 8 Crew
Apollo 8 Crew


On the morning of December 21, the Apollo 8 crew was awakened in the small hours, and given a traditional breakfast of steak and eggs. The countdown proceeded smoothly and at 7:51 AM, the four hold-down arms were released and the mighty Saturn V moved slowly into the air, driven by many millions of pounds of thrust.

Astronaut Michael Collins was the CAPCOM (Capsule Communications) on duty and at 2 hours, 27 minutes and 22 seconds in the mission radioed, “Apollo 8. You are Go for TLI.” The engine on the third and final stage of the Saturn V fired, and pushed out of Earth orbit.

Apollo 8 was now the first manned interplanetary spacecraft.

Apollo 8 Lift Off
Apollo 8 Lift Off

Reaching the Moon

As they approached the moon, the crew began to prepare for Lunar Orbit Insertion or LOI. This was a particularly tense moment. It depended on a burn of the service module engine on the far side of the Moon, when the spacecraft was alone and out of contact with Earth.

After the key members of Mission Control were polled for a “go” or “no go” decision, the crew was told that they were “go” and “riding the best bird we can find.”

Mission Control had set up two countdown clocks. If Apollo 8 regained contact at the first timing point, then no burn had happened and LOI had failed. If it regained contact at the second timing point, the burn had worked perfectly. Anything else was real trouble.

It was at this point that Lunney – who was the flight director on duty, said: “Okay, all flight controllers, this is a good time to take a break.”. It amazed the members of Mission Control at first, but on reflection there was nothing to be done for around 20 minutes. Some of them took advantage.

Eventually, the first countdown clock expired. There was no signal. Tension in Mission Control increased.

Then the second clock expired. Apollo 8 radioed at that point “Houston, this is Apollo 8. Burn complete.”

The engine had worked as it should. Apollo 8 was in orbit around the moon.


Lunar Surface from Apollo 8
Lunar Surface from Apollo 8

In Orbit

It was then that the crew could start observing another world – one of the prime purposes of the mission, and essential preparation for future landings. They would take many hundreds of photos.

Jim Lovell would characterize the surface as follows:

“The Moon is essentially grey, no color; looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a grayish beach sand. “

Bill Anders would add:

“Looks like a sand pile my kids have been playing in for a long time—it’s all beat up—no definition—just a lot of bumps and holes.”

But it was not the Moon that was to get the most attention.

The First Human Earthrise

One of the key moments of the flight, and indeed all of history, came as the craft emerged from behind the Moon for the fourth time. The crew witnessed “Earthrise” for the first time – the crescent of our plant rising above the limb of the moon’s broken surface. Borman noticed first, and called in excitement to the others, taking a black and white photo as he did so. Anders took another, now famous color photo, later selected by Life as one of its 100 photos of the century.

The sense of wonder, and unity, at seeing all of Earth and all of humanity from the vastness of space was a common experience shared by many of the Apollo astronauts. Anders would go on to say:

“We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth”

Earthrise in Black and White
Earthrise in Black and White

The Christmas Eve Reading of Genesis

As Apollo 8, rounded Moon for the ninth time, they began another TV transmission. They first described the lunar surface for the people on Earth, Borman characterizing it as a “a vast, lonely, forbidding expanse of nothing.”

Then Anders said crew had a message for all on Earth. It was at that moment that each of the astronauts read a section from Genesis, about the creation of the Heaven and the Earth.

“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 God saw that it was Good. . . . “

They had chosen Genesis since it was from that part of the Bible that had meaning across several major religions. Borman ended the broadcast with:

“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.”

This was a hugely moving and unexpected experience for those in Mission Control. Flight controller Jerry Bostick later wrote:

“I was totally overwhelmed, and tears came to my eyes. [What could be] more appropriate than a Bible reading about creation, coming from the first people to ever leave the influence of Earth, on Christmas Eve?”

Returning Home

The next critical moment was Trans-Earth Injection, or TEI. The service module engine needed to be restarted a second time, and perform another perfect burn. Again, that would be done behind the moon.

It worked, and Lovell reported “Houston … Please be informed, there is a Santa Claus.”

After the long coast back to Earth, the Apollo 8 Command module re-entered the atmosphere with the dreadful violence that comes from interplanetary velocities. The deceleration peaked at 6g, and – as planned – the spacecraft bounced like a skipping stone before falling to the Pacific Ocean.

Anders would say:

“You could see the flames and the outer skin of the spacecraft glowing; and burning, baseball-size chunks flying off behind us. It was an eerie feeling, like being a gnat inside a blowtorch flame.”

At around 10,000 feet the three main parachutes slowed the Command Module, and it splashed down south of Hawaii.

Apollo 8 Command Module being recovered after splashdown.
Apollo 8 Command Module being recovered after splashdown.

Apollo 8 – In Retrospect

In the end, Apollo 8 was a genuine and complete success. It was indeed a perfect mission.

Jerry Bostick would say: “It was bold, it was exciting, and it was successful.”

Chris Kraft – who created the very notion of Mission Control – notes in his autobiography how many historic firsts it scored. It was the:

  • First manned flight of a Saturn V
  • First manned vehicle to leave earth’s gravitation field
  • First use of a computer to provide total “onboard autonomy” in navigation
  • First manned vehicle in lunar orbit
  • First close-up view of another planet
  • First exposure to solar radiation beyond the earth’s magnetic field
  • First vehicle to rocket out of lunar orbit
  • First manned vehicle to reenter from another planet

Perhaps the impact of the Mission is best summarized by a telegram sent to Borman by an unknown citizen that stated: “Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”

Apollo 8 as an Example of Leadership

Beyond the magnificence of the technical achievements, there are many leadership lessons.

Apollo 8 is a perfect example of the power of vision and imagination, creating a new mission of historic importance out of issues.

It would not have been possible with the preparation already undertaken, and the intense commitment and teamwork of the extraordinary team that had formed around mission operations.

Apollo 8 was also a remarkable moment in communications, in PR and marketing. At the end of a deeply troubled year, its success bound together humanity for a moment as would Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 in coming months.

And perhaps most importantly, each of those who witnessed Apollo 8 through the media of the day got to see our fragile home from afar.

Jim Lovell Suiting-Up for Apollo 8
Jim Lovell Suiting-Up for Apollo 8

The Final Word

Apollo 8 was NASA’s perfect mission. It shows the value of imagination and bold vision. It was founded on teamwork. It enabled all of us to look at ourselves in a different way.

And it happened at Christmas.

Merry Christmas and a Happy, Bold and Successful New Year to all of you.

Or as Borman said: ”Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”


Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services.
He is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network.
Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.

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