Last year was the 50th anniversary of the first celebration of Christmas in space. This happened during the Apollo 8 mission commanded by Frank Borman with James Lovell Jr. serving as command module pilot and William Anders serving as lunar module pilot. On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 entered orbit around the Moon. During the mission, they took the famous Earthrise photo, showing the Earth rising over the Lunar horizon. Ten hours later, they took turns during a transmission to Earth to read the opening verses of Genesis. Borman concluded the transmission by saying, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.” During a transmission four hours later, James Lovell reported, “Please be informed there IS a Santa Claus.”
After he retired from NASA, Borman lived for a time to Las Cruces, New Mexico and was still living there when I moved to town in 1995.
In December 1993, Mission Specialist Jeffrey Hoffman celebrated Hanukkah on the Space Shuttle Discovery. He brought a dreidel and a travel menorah and spoke about Hanukkah during a live television broadcast. During the mission, the shuttle captured the Hubble Space Telescope, brought it into the shuttle bay and performed a full service of the instrument over the course of five space walks.
Although we have never achieved the science fictional promise of cities in space, we have achieved more regular habitation of space in the years since Apollo 8 through the International Space Station. Christmas is regularly celebrated there and its fun to see stockings hung on the station and astronauts with fuzzy, red hats. That said, Americans aren’t the only crew members. Russians who serve aboard the ISS often emphasize New Year celebrations over Christmas. When they do celebrate Christmas, many celebrate Orthodox Christmas in January.
When I wrote my novel The Solar Sea, it seemed only natural that people would make an effort to celebrate those holidays that were special to them. December arrives as the solar sail Aristarchus travels to Mars. The character Vanda Berko finds special meaning in the menorah’s light while traveling through the darkness of space. The ship’s cook brings a small tree aboard the ship and the crew decorate it and sing carols on Christmas morning.
James Lovell, the astronaut who declared “there IS a Santa Claus” on Apollo 8 would go on to become commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13. When the Aristarchus crew gets into trouble, they cheer themselves by remembering that dire as that early mission was, Lovell helped to bring the crew home safely.
You can learn more about The Solar Sea and found out how to get your own copy by visiting http://www.zianet.com/dsummers/solar_sea.html