On Christmas Eve 1968, the world watched and listened as astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders orbited the moon. The team sent back pictures of the moon and Earth while reading passages from the book of Genesis, closing with the following wish: “From the crew of Apollo 8, we pause with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth.”
That Christmas morning, Mission Control waited for word from the team that the engine burn to leave the lunar orbit was successful. Finally, a radio message from Lovell came through: “Roger, please be informed there is a Santa Claus.”
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 8, the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth’s orbit, reach and orbit the moon, and safely return.
The National Geographic Society played a large role in documenting the early days of the NASA space missions. Dr. Hugh Dryden, the deputy chief of NASA, served on the board of trustees for the Society, and Society President and National Geographic magazine Editor Melville Bell Grosvenor firmly believed in the importance of documenting the country’s space exploration—so much so that he loaned the full-time services of National Geographic staff photographers to NASA. Luis Marden was the first staff photographer to take up the task before Dean Conger took over as dedicated photographer and correspondent along with writer Kenneth Weaver. Conger was named Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association for his images of Alan Shepard and Project Mercury, and it was Weaver who was responsible for getting the National Geographic Society flag into space on the early Apollo missions, including Apollo 8. Astronaut Frank Borman, of the Apollo 8 crew, later became the fourth space veteran member of the Society’s board of trustees.
“‘Exploration really is the essence of the human spirit,” Borman told a Joint Meeting of Congress upon the crew’s return, “To pause, to falter, to turn our back on the quest for knowledge, is to perish.”
On April 3, 1969, the Apollo 8 crew was awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal by Vice President of the United States Spiro Agnew. (Watch the video below!)
“Never before had so many millions listened and watched, their imaginations fired, as the explorers spoke and were pictured across the vast emptiness of space,” said then National Geographic Society President Melvin M. Payne at the ceremony. “Never, indeed, had adventure borne all mankind so daringly near the boundaries of its aspirations.”