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?

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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By Jay Garmon

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...