After Hours

Geek Trivia: What onboard Christmas gifts did the Apollo 8 astronauts leave famously unopened?

Apollo 8 was the first spaceflight crew to open Christmas gifts in space -- except they did not open all of them. Why not?

As part of their surprise Christmas Day feast (and accompanying presents), Flight Director Deke Slayton included three miniature bottles of real brandy for the crew of Apollo 8. Astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders opted not to open the bottles, despite the rather rare privilege of sanctioned alcohol consumption during a flight mission.

Why the astronauts didn't open the brandy is hard to say. Borman had been ill for much of the mission — either from flu, reaction to his sleeping pill, or simple space adaptation syndrome (the Garns) — so adding booze to the mix was probably a bad idea. The crew also had to rely on sleeping pills to keep their rather strained and irregular sleeping schedule, which also made alcohol a poor choice. In any case, the three Apollo 8 mini-brandies became extremely rare space collectibles. Lovell eventually sold his at auction some 40 years later — for nearly $18,000!

Lovell also, arguably, got another unexpected Christmas gift on Apollo 8 — one he wouldn't realize until his harrowing tenure as mission commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. During Apollo 8, Lovell had to conduct a manual realignment of the command module's trajectory after a computer error left the craft off-course. Lovell used the stars Rigel and Sirius as visual references to get Apollo 8 back on course, so the crew could reset the Apollo Guidance Computer.

During Apollo 13, Lovell would have to perform a similarly unaided manual realignment of his craft. The Apollo 8 experience made the much more difficult and critical Apollo 13 attempt measurably easier for Lovell — possibly saving his and his crew's life.

That's not just a striking circumlunar solstice celebration, it's a modestly miraculous moment of Geek Trivia.

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About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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