The Apollo 8 manned moon mission holds a number of distinctions in spaceflight history. It was the first manned spaceflight to leave Earth’s orbit. It was also the first manned mission to orbit the moon. Perhaps most memorably, Apollo 8 was the first time in history human beings celebrated the Christmas holiday somewhere other than planet Earth.

On Dec. 21, 1968, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders were launched into space. Three days later — Christmas Eve, 1968 — they entered lunar orbit. Over the course of 20 hours, the crew of Apollo 8 proceeded to circle our nearest satellite 10 times. A portion of Apollo 8’s cislunar stay was broadcast on live television on Christmas Eve, to what was then the largest TV audience of all time. (They also, somewhat controversially, read verses from the Book of Genesis during the broadcast. The backlash from said reading led to NASA downplaying the religious context of any future missions.)

The next evening, Christmas Day, the crew was directed by Mission Control to open a discretionary cargo package from the food locker. To their surprise, the package contained a Christmas dinner of real (not freeze-dried) turkey and stuffing. Accompanying this feast were small presents from the astronauts’ wives, smuggled aboard by Flight Director Deke Slayton. The crew remarked on the generosity of the gesture, but nonetheless left certain gifts from the “Christmas Surprise” intentionally and conspicuously unopened — making them some of the most sought-after space collectibles of all time.


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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.

The quibble of the week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best quibble from our assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

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This week’s quibble comes from the Oct. 14, 2011 edition of Geek Trivia, which asked what outside group forces the Large Hadron Collider to shut down every winter?

Member Spitfire_Sysop demanded I acknowledge another individual who “forced” an LHC shutdown on April 1, 2010:

It was mentioned that a previous month long shut down was due to failure of a coolant system but there was no mention of the uncanny cause of this coolant failure. A time traveler (Eloi Cole) from the future was aprehended at the LHC site for walking around without an access badge. He said he dropped a baguette in to the air intake system in order to change the course of history where in the future the LHC project had unforeseen consequences.

How foolish of me to have overlooked this four-dimensional interloper (and his uncanny sense of timing). Thanks for the trans-temporal heads-up, and keep those quibbles coming!