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December: A Significant Month in Apollo

Apollo Program Patch - s65-55202.jpg

In 1968 and 1972, the month of December marked two significant events in NASA history—the first and last missions to the Moon. Apollo 8 for the first time brought astronauts close to the Moon, setting the stage for the next four years of lunar exploration.
Apollo 17
marked the last time humans would venture to this celestial body as part of a program full of personal sacrifice and team success.

Read below excerpts from oral history interviews conducted with some of the individuals who provided the country and the world with an avenue to space and the Moon.



Apollo 8: December 21 - 27, 1968
Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, Jr., William A. Anders

Apollo 8 gave the world the first look at itself and set the Nation on a non-stop path towards its goal of reaching the Moon by the end of the decade. Some refer to the mission in December 1968 as the highlight in a year full of turbulence for the country; others call it the most gutsy decision ever made by NASA.

To read more, click on the person’s name; from that page, click on the link for the entire oral history transcript.


Frank Borman
Looking back at the Earth on Christmas Eve had a great effect, I think, on all three of us. I can only speak for myself, but it had for me. Because of the wonderment of it and the fact that the Earth looked so lonely in the universe. It’s the only thing with color. All of our emotions were focused back there with our families as well. So that was the most emotional part of the flight for me.

James A. Lovell, Jr.
At the time, we didnít know what the effect of the flight would be. We didnít know whether the flight was going to be successful or not. But with riots and assassinations and the war going on [that year], I was part of a thing that finally gave an uplift to the American people about doing something positive. Thatís why I say Apollo 8 was really the high point of my space career.

William A. Anders
So here was this orb looking like a Christmas tree ornament, very fragile, not an infinite expanse of granite and seemingly of a physical insignificance, and yet it was our home.

Christopher C. Kraft, Jr.
It was an opportunity for those of us that were allowed to do it that doesn't present itself very often in any human being's life. We were extremely fortunate that all the conjunction of the stars and the politics and the money and the technology all came together in the 60s, in '68. That was a very extremely unique period in man's history from all those points of view.

Glynn S. Lunney
We were ready, and as soon as we got the launch vehicle and the spacecraft that could go there, it was a very courageous and bold decision that became Apollo 8, but the teams of people were ready for it. They were ready for it, and it was a result of what we learned and what we matured through the Gemini experience. I mean, it was a real training ground for us.

John W. Aaron
When they announced Apollo 8, I just couldn't believe it, but we were all over George Low to go try it, because we were young enough to try anything.

Richard H. Battin
A lot of nervousness there. Our system had to work. If it didn't, we might never see the astronauts again. It could be that they would make a correction which would send them crashing into the Moon, or the whole thing might blow up when they turn the engine on, and you'd never know it.

Jerry C. Bostick
I remember probably as much or more about Apollo 8 as any other mission, just because it left such a lasting impression on me. We had so many firsts, starting with translunar injection, and it hits you, “My God, we're leaving Earth.”

Eugene F. Kranz
I think that was probably the most magical Christmas Eve I've ever experienced in my life, to actually have participated in a mission, provided the controllers, worked in the initial design and the concept of this really gutsy move, and now to really see that we were the first to the Moon with men.

Joseph P. Loftus, Jr.
That was one of those decisions that you could never get a committee to make. George Low, in effect, said, "Why don't we do that," and he was saying it in such a way that said, "We're going to do that unless you can prove to me there's some reason we shouldn't."

Thomas K. Mattingly II
Listening to these meetings, it’s like no one had ever thought about going to the Moon. We’ve been in this program for how many years, and yet people are asking questions that are almost like, “Does anyone know where the Moon is and how to find it?” And here we’re supposed to be going.

Dale D. Myers
We had looked through all the systems, and we had looked through all the systems of the service module, which included the oxygen tanks that blew up on Apollo 13. If that had happened on Apollo 8, we would have lost those guys, because we had no lunar module to bring them home.

Granville E. Paules
We had no problems at all with Apollo 8 all the way out. It’s just that eerie feeling when the guy goes behind the Moon that first time. That’s the first time that humans had ever been out of sight of Earth.

G. Merritt Preston
I wonder how the three astronauts really—they must have gone into that with a certain amount of destiny in their thinking, because the odds were greatly unfavorable. I mean, hell, how in the world could we expect to do that? But we did.

Rodney G. Rose
A lot of people have asked me which was the high point in the Apollo Program, thinking that it’s Apollo 11. Well, 11 was really something, but I think as the high point, Apollo 8 had to take the vote, because as an engineer, it was the first time we’d been out there, and we only had the one engine to come back with.

Christmas Eve Message, December 24,1968
(Audio/video broadcast - 41MB, MOV)

Apollo 8: Earth's Rise to a New Era
Narrated by Clay Morgan, Apollo 8: Earth's Rise to a New Era was recorded in December 1998 in celebration of the 30th anniversary
of Apollo 8.
Apollo 8: Earth's Rise to a New Era (5MB, MP3)

NASA Johnson Space Center: 1958 - 1978
The JSC History Office and the University of Houston Center for Public History joined together to publish the Fall 2008 issue of Houston History magazine, dedicated to NASA JSC history between the years 1958 and 1978 and featuring Remembering Apollo 8, by Chris Kraft.
NASA Johnson Space Center: 1958 - 1978 (7MB, PDF)


Apollo 17: December 7 - 19, 1972
Eugene A. Cernan, Ronald E. Evans, Harrison H. "Jack" Schmitt

The Apollo 17 crew left the lunar surface on December 14,1972. As they prepared to leave, Commander Gene Cernan commented that, "America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow." With Apollo's significant contributions mankind had a better understanding of the Moon, the Earth, and space exploration.

To read more, click on the person’s name; from that page, click on the link for the entire oral history transcript.


Eugene A. Cernan
Everything's three dimension when you look back at the Earth in all its splendor, in all its glory, multicolors of the blues of the oceans and whites of the snow and the clouds. If your arm were long enough while you're on the surface, it's almost as if you could reach out and put it in the palm of your hand and bring it back close to you and take it home with you. Take it home with you so everybody else could see.

Harrison H. "Jack" Schmitt
But most hard, I think, to get used to was a black sky, an absolutely black sky. The biggest problem I think photographers have in printing pictures from space is actually finding a way to print black, absolute black.

Joseph P. Allen
The Apollo Program represents the collective efforts of hundreds of thousands of people. These efforts are the aggregate of virtually every bit of human skill and knowledge in one way or another, all the way from knowledge of mathematics that had to do with the trajectory, to the knowledge of sewing that had to do with the putting together of the spacesuits.

Michael B. Duke
By the end of the program, there was quite a lot of respect among the scientific community for the way in which the engineers pulled this all off.

Farouk El-Baz
Apollo 17, when Jack Schmitt mentioned orange soil at the site, “What do you mean, orange soil?” He talked about this might be fumarolic activity. Fumarolic activity is mostly at the very end of volcanic eruptions, meaning that it is rather recent, last million years or something. We had no idea that the Moon could have been surviving alive that long.

Jan M. Evans
Both sides of the street, all the way from the entrance into our cul-de-sac, was lined with flagpoles with the flag flying. That was just a bit overwhelming.

Eugene F. Kranz
A flight director's got probably the most interesting job description in history. It's only one sentence long: "A flight director may take any action necessary for crew safety and mission success." That's it.

William R. Muehlberger
We all flew to El Paso, rented a station wagon, and I took them all through the Big Bend country. We'd stop at some place and I'd turn my back to the things we were looking at, and said, "Describe it to me."

Richard W. Nygren
That was just absolutely spectacular, just unbelievable, being as far away as we were, and the Moon was dull compared to how bright that Saturn V was in the sky. It just lit the sky up, just unbelievable.

Robert A. R. Parker
Jack and I spent nights down at the crew quarters naming the craters, because every crew got to name the craters; it was the good way of talking about where they were. And Jack and I spent time naming a lot of the craters in the landing site. Hey, not everybody gets to do that.

Granville E. Paules
Flocks of birds take off, these seabirds between you and the launch vehicle, as this shock wave comes rolling toward you. You can see that the brush and the trees all wiggle. You’re still not expecting this thing, and it all of a sudden it hits.

Philip C. Shaffer
The argument escalated, and finally we ended up in the presence of Chris Kraft about landing site selection for Apollo 17. Chris listens to the scientists make their plea and the trajectory guys doing their doom-saying, and then he looked at me and he said, "Well, what do you think?"

Leon T. Silver
I was jumping up and down, and I was calling out to the PI, and it was then he had to talk to Jim Lovell [CapCom]. I said, “Get them to take a core. Get them to take a core. Get them to take a core.”


Apollo 17 Information at JSC
The Apollo 17 Mission

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