A One-of-a-Kind Gift from Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve

A new book describes the joy, stress, and sense of success inside NASA mission control.

The Apollo 8 mission controllers waited on Christmas Eve, 1968, as humans flew around the moon for the first time. Courtesy University of Nebraska Press. (NASA)
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Astronauts take a back seat in a new book about the stars of space travel. Go, Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965-1992, by Rick Houston and Milt Heflin, gives detailed insight into the drama and stress of being responsible for astronaut lives and billions of dollars of machinery over the course of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and shuttle programs (up through the 1986 Challenger disaster). Even well-known stories are worth revisiting here; the dialogue in the control room is supplemented by portions of memoirs, NASA reports, and recent interviews with just about everyone still alive. Houston and Heflin breathe life into the friendships, missteps, and proud moments of the hard-working personnel behind the curtain.

This excerpt from the chapter on the Apollo 8 mission is a great example. Mission controllers had just spent 36 minutes on Christmas Eve, 1968, waiting as the astronauts sped around the far side of the moon, when Jim Lovell’s voice came through: Apollo 8 was in an elliptical orbit with an altitude of 169.1 miles above the moon at its high point and 60.5 miles at the low point.

“Apollo 8, this is Houston. Roger, 169.1 by 60.5. Good to hear your voice.”

At the flight director’s console, Glynn Lunney could not suppress a grin. “It was lunar orbit on Christmas Eve 1968,” he wrote [in From the Trench of Mission Control to the Craters of the Moon]. “Playing to an American audience, which was overdue for a reason to celebrate, it choked up all of us. Misty eyes, nods all around, and touches on the shoulders and backs were the shared signs of a decade of work together by the MCC team.” Sy Liebergot, training on the EECOM [electrical and environmental systems] console, stood up during the celebration and made a rather distinct announcement. “I was excited,” Liebergot said. “That little booger came right around from the backside of the moon after the orbit insertion burn, right to the second. I just leaped to my feet and screamed, ‘The Russians suck!’ I think everybody agreed with me.”

The first television transmission from lunar orbit began a little more than two hours later, at 6:31 a.m. in Houston. Almost as soon as it began, the faraway astronauts began calling off craters that had been named in honor of their NASA brethren.

Brand.
Carr.
Mueller.
Bassett.
See.

Their own craters—Borman, Anders, and Lovell—came into view. After that, Anders continued the running commentary.

“Okay, we are coming up on the crater Collins.”

Carr, who already had his crater, asked about one that was just passing out of the frame of the television picture.

“What crater is that that’s just going off?”

Anders came back.

“That’s some small impact crater.”
“Okay.”
“We’ll call it John Aaron’s.”
“Okay.”
“If he’ll keep looking at the systems anyway.”
“He just quit looking.”

Aaron never forgot the surprise of hearing his name called over the air-to-ground loop. “On the way out there, there were a couple of problems with one of our coolant system’s pieces of hardware,” Aaron remembered. “I had made some recommendations to the crew about what to do about it and so forth, and it kind of stuck in their minds because they knew who the EECOM was on the ground. So they started naming craters after people, and all of a sudden, they named one after me, an EECOM. I mean, I wasn’t in management at NASA. I was totally shocked that they would remember me, to name a crater after me.”

Aaron had not seen anything yet. Apollo 8’s second television broadcast from the moon, which started at 2:34 p.m. on Christmas Eve in Houston, some sixteen hours after arriving in lunar orbit. It was estimated that one billion people in sixty-four countries saw or heard the live broadcast, with another thirty countries added later the same day with a delayed broadcast. By contrast, “only” about 600 million were said to have seen or heard the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Excerpt from Go, Flight!: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965–1992  by Rick Houston and Milt Heflin by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2015 by Rick Houston and Milt Heflin. Available at nebraskapress.unl.edu or wherever books are sold.

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