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GordonD

Ups and Downs for December

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1 DECEMBER

 

1991 STS-44 landing

Crew: Drew Gregory (CDR); Tom Henricks (P); James Voss, Story Musgrave, Mario Runco (MS); Tom Hennen (PS)

Landing site: Edwards AFB

 

This had been a DoD mission which should have lasted ten days but was cut short after the failure of one of the Orbiter's Inertial Measuring Units. Landing was switched to Edwards and in the end the flight lasted 6d 22h 51m and 110 orbits.

 

 


2000 STS-97 launch

Crew: Brent Jett (CDR); Mike Bloomfield (P); Joseph Tanner, Marc Garneau [Canada], Carlos Noriega (MS)

 

101st Shuttle mission; 15th flight of Endeavour

This was the first Shuttle flight to an occupied ISS: Expedition 1 had been going for a month and Endeavour delivered supplies as well as the first set of main solar arrays, which were installed over the course of three EVAs by Tanner and Noriega. Prior to this electrical power to the station had been supplied by the smaller arrays attached to the Zvezda and Zarya core modules but of course as the ISS grew it would require more and more power from the four main arrays it would eventually receive.

 

 


2009 Soyuz TMA-15 landing

Crew: Roman Romanenko (CDR); Frank De Winne [Belgium], Robert Thirsk [Canada] (FE)

Landing site: 51° 06' 18.18" N, 67° 17' 17.7" E (99 km NNE of Arkalyk)

 

This was ISS Expeditions 20/21. Romanenko was the first second-generation cosmonaut to fly: his father Yuri had more than 430 days in space under his belt. On this mission the younger Romanenko, like his colleagues, notched up 187d 20h 41m and 2,961 orbits.

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2 DECEMBER

 

1974 Soyuz 16 launch

Crew: Anatoli Filipchenko (CDR); Nikolai Rukavishnikov (FE)

 

This was a dress-rehearsal for the upcoming Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, in which the crew tested the modifications made to the spacecraft and carried out simulated rendezvous manoeuvres to evaluate the new radar system. The cabin pressure was reduced from 760mm to 540mm and oxygen content raised from standard 20% to 40%, as would be done on the actual mission, reducing the time needed to transfer between the two craft. All the test objectives were met and the Soviets could be confident that their side of the mission would not encounter any technical problems.

 

 


1988 STS-27 launch

Crew: 'Hoot' Gibson (CDR); Guy Gardner (P); Mike Mullane, Jerry Ross, William Shepherd (MS)

 

27th Shuttle mission; 3rd flight of Atlantis

On only the second flight since the Challenger accident, the Shuttle came closer to a catastrophic failure than any other completed mission. 85 seconds after launch, part of the nosecone of the starboard Solid Rocket Booster broke off and struck the underside of the wing. The crew were unaware of this until the incident was observed on TV footage and Mission Control asked them to inspect the area with the camera on the manipulator arm. What they saw stunned them: there were streaks of white along the underside of the Orbiter, indicating that the black outer surface of the protective tiles had been damaged. Unfortunately, because this was a classified DoD flight, they were unable to send clear TV images back to Mission Control: only encrypted low resolution with a frame rate of one every three seconds was permitted by the Defense Department. As a result the engineers at Mission Control felt the damage was minor and even put it down to a trick of the light. The astronauts, who could see the clear image fed back by the camera, could hardly believe what they were being told but decided there was no point in disputing the matter any further and proceeded with the planned activities, which was to deploy a surveillance satellite called Lacrosse 1. Some reports say that the satellite developed a problem following release and had to be repaired (which might have required an EVA) but confirmation of this has never been made.

 

 


1990 STS-35 launch

Crew: Vance Brand (CDR); Guy Gardner (P); Jeff Hoffman, Mike Lounge, Robert Parker (MS); Samuel Durrance, Ron Parise (PS)

 

38th Shuttle mission; tenth flight of Columbia

This flight carried the ASTRO-1 observatory and was the first Spacelab mission dedicated to a single scientific discipline: astrophysics. Four telescopes observed ultraviolet light and X-rays from distant galaxies, enabling astronomers to see emissions from extremely hot gases, intense magnetic fields and other high-energy phenomena that are much fainter in visible and infrared light or in radio waves, crucial to a deeper understanding of the universe.

 

 


1990 Soyuz TM-11 launch

Crew: Viktor Afanaseyev (CDR); Musa Manarov (FE); Toyohiro Akiyama [Japan] (RC)

 

Afanaseyev and Manarov were to form Mir Expedition 8, while TV reporter Akiyama was the first commercial passenger, his $14 million fee paid by his employer, the Tokyo Broadcasting System. He was scheduled to make one TV and two radio broadcasts each day. He would return to Earth with the Expedition 7 crew after a week in space. In March there was a problem with the Progress M-7 freighter which broke off its approach just 500m from the station. Two days later a second attempt was also aborted and this time a collision was only narrowly avoided. The cosmonauts entered the TM-11 spacecraft and undocked from Mir's front port and attempted an automatic docking at the rear. When the spacecraft veered off course it was determined that there was a problem with the Kurs antenna. A manual docking was completed and two days after that the Progress freighter finally linked up at the front port. A later EVA determined that the antenna's parabolic dish was missing, presumably knocked off by an accidental kick during an earlier EVA.

 

 


1992 STS-53 launch

Crew: David Walker (CDR); Robert Cabana (P); Guy Bluford, James Voss, Rich Clifford (MS)

 

52nd Shuttle mission; 15th flight of Discovery

A classified DoD flight whose main objective was to deploy the DOD-1 satellite. The flight should also have deployed six calibration spheres, two each of six, four and two inches in diameter, part of the Orbital Debris Radar Calibration System. These would have been tracked by radar systems around the world but the ejection failed due to battery problems.

 

 

 
1993 STS-61 launch

Crew: Dick Covey (CDR), Ken Bowersox (P); Kathy Thornton, Claude Nicollier [Switzerland], Jeffrey Hoffman, Story Musgrave, Tom Akers (MS)

 

59th Shuttle mission; fifth flight of Endeavour

This was the first Hubble servicing mission, carrying out essential repairs to bring the telescope up to its planned capability. A manufacturing error with its primary mirror meant it was unable to focus properly and the flight's main objective was to install equipment which would correct this. Five EVAs were carried out on consecutive days, at the end of which the HST was operating as originally advertised.

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3 DECEMBER

 

1985 STS-61B landing

Crew: Brewster Shaw (CDR); Bryan O'Connor (P); Jerry Ross, Mary Cleave, Sherwood Spring (MS); Charles Walker, Rodolfo Neri [Mexico] (PS)

Landing site: Edwards AFB

 

Three comsats were deployed and two EVAs conducted during which the astronauts tested out construction techniques that would later be used in the assembly of the International Space Station. Flight time was 6d 21h 5m and 109 orbits.

 

 


2018 Soyuz MS-11 launch

Crew: Oleg Kononenko (CDR); David Saint-Jacques [Canada], Anne McClain [USA] (MS)

 

ISS Expeditions 57/58/59. This was the first flight since the launch abort on MS-10 and was vital for the continuation of operations aboard the ISS. The current crew were nearing the time where they would have to return to Earth before the 'shelf life' of their Soyuz craft expired and if it had not been possible to replace them the station would have had to be temporarily shut down, ending eighteen years of unbroken human presence in space. The ISS had not been designed to operate with no-one aboard and this was a situation to be avoided if possible. Fortunately the problem on MS-10 had been traced to an assembly error and not a generic fault in the system so clearance was given to launch another crew before the deadline. Much to the relief of everyone, Soyuz MS-11 reached orbit without a hitch and docked with the station after only six hours, having followed the fast-track approach. 

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4 DECEMBER

 

1959 Little Joe 2

 

The first Mercury flight to carry a living creature was a further test of the Launch Escape System. Fifty-nine seconds after launch, at an altitude of 30 km, the LES was triggered, pulling the prototype spacecraft clear and on up to a maximum height of 85 km. The Rhesus monkey passenger, Sam (named for the School of Aviation Medicine), was weightless for about three minutes during the flight, which ended with a safe splashdown some 312 km downrange, though it was two hours before the capsule was recovered.

 

 


1965 Gemini VII launch

Crew: Frank Borman (CDR); Jim Lovell (P)

 

The main objective of the Gemini VII mission was to put two men into orbit for fourteen days, during which they would carry out a series of scientific experiments including Earth-observation studies and medical checks to establish the effects on the human body of such an extended period in zero gravity. However after Gemini VI’s Agena target vehicle failed to reach orbit a new objective was added: Gemini VII would act as a replacement target so that the rendezvous manoeuvre could be carried out, though no docking would be possible. Brief consideration was given to fitting an inflatable cone in the rear of the Equipment Module but Borman firmly rejected this: however much he trusted the flying skills of his colleagues he had no desire for their spacecraft to be poking around in such a vital area of his own. It seemed that the most difficult part of the procedure would be the refurbishment of the launch pad in the short time available. So on 4 December Borman and Lovell, testing a new type of lightweight pressure suit, lifted off from Pad 19. Following orbit insertion they spent some fifteen minutes station-keeping with their discarded second stage before pulling away. For the next eight days they carried out the programme of experiments originally planned: during this time they were kept informed about events on Earth with a daily news report, something that would become familiar on the later Apollo missions. The lightweight suits had been designed to be taken off in flight—though Mission Control at first said that only one astronaut at a time could do this—so towards the end of the second day Lovell removed his, though due to the cramped conditions it took him more than an hour instead of the few minutes expected. Observing this difficulty, Borman agreed to remain in his own suit until later in the mission rather than switching over as originally planned. On 12 December the astronauts had Cape Kennedy in view as the countdown on Gemini VI-A reached zero. The engines fired for less than a second and the report came down from orbit: “We saw it ignite—we saw it shut down.” Three days later, at the third attempt, Schirra and Stafford got off the ground at last and the rendezvous was completed before the end of the fourth orbit. Schirra carried out the final approach, closing to within a foot of the other capsule and giving the opportunity for some of the most spectacular photographs yet obtained in the space programme. Schirra and Stafford were also able to solve a minor mystery that had been puzzling their colleagues for days: the shadows that flitted across their cabin windows from time to time were being caused by lengths of tape trailing from the rear of the capsule’s Adapter Section. The two spacecraft flew in formation for some five hours before Gemini VI-A pulled away to allow both crews some well-earned sleep before Stafford and Schirra returned home.

 

 


1998 STS-88 launch

Crew: Robert Cabana (CDR); Rick Sturckow (P); Jerry Ross, Nancy Currie, James Newman, Sergei Krikalev [Russia] (MS)

 

93rd Shuttle mission; 13th flight of Endeavour

This was the first International Space Station assembly flight, known officially as ISS-01-2A. The Orbiter rendezvoused with the recently-launched Zarya base block and linked the Unity module, also known as Node 1, to it. This module was 4.6 metres in diameter and 5.5 metres long, with connecting ports on all six sides to which future modules would be attached as the station grew: in addition to Zarya, it would connect the Destiny laboratory module (added on STS-98), the Z1 truss and a Pressurized Mating Adapter (both on STS-92) and the Tranquility module with its viewing cupola (STS-130). The remaining port was used to temporarily berth the Leonardo and Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules on several missions before Leonardo was left permanently in place on STS-133.

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5 DECEMBER

 

1997 STS-87 landing

Crew: Kevin Kregel (CDR); Steven Lindsey (P); Kalpana Chawla, Winston Scott, Takao Doi [Japan] (MS); Leonid Kadenyuk [Ukraine] (PS)

Landing site: Kennedy Space Center

 

This flight carried the US Microgravity Payload on its fourth mission (USMP-4). Flight time was 15d 16h 34m and 252 orbits.

 

 

 

2001 STS-108 launch

Crew: Dom Gorie (CDR); Mark Kelly (P); Linda Godwin, Daniel Tani, Daniel Bursch, Yuri Onufriyenko [Russia], Carl Walz (MS)

 

107th Shuttle mission; 17th flight of Endeavour

Bursch, Onufriyenko and Walz were ISS Expedition 4 and would be replaced on the way down by the current residents Culbertson, Tyurin and Dezhurov. Endeavour delivered around 390kg of food,  450kg of clothing and other provisions, 135kg of scientific equipment, 360kg of EVA gear and 270kg of medical supplies. These were carried in the Raffaello cargo module, making its second flight, which was temporarily berthed to the station then returned to the payload bay before the Orbiter departed. Docking was achieved on Day Three. One EVA was conducted, by Godwin and Tani on 10 December, in which they installed insulation blankets on the mechanisms that rotate the solar arrays. This lasted 4h 12m.

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6 DECEMBER

 

1957 Vanguard TV3 launch failure

 

With two Soviet satellites in orbit, the US was anxious to catch up and two months after Sputnik 1 went aloft they were ready to try, with a rocket designed by the Naval Research Laboratory. However the attempt ended in a humiliating failure: the launch vehicle climbed about a metre before losing thrust and falling back onto the pad, where it exploded. The press had a field day, with headlines describing the attempt as FLOPNIK, KAPUTNIK, OOPSNIK and STAYPUTNIK. A few days later a Soviet delegate to the United Nations asled whether the US was interested in receiving aid earmarked for undeveloped countries! The satellite itself survived the explosion: it was thrown clear and found outside the blast zone, its transmitter still working, but it was too badly damaged to be reused. At the end of January 1958 the Americans finally managed to put a satellite in orbit, though it was the team led by Wernher von Braun and not the Navy who were responsible.

 

 


1957 Death of Robert Esnault-Pelterie

 

Esnault-Pelterie was a French aircraft designer (he came up with the concept of the aileron after concluding that the wing-warping method used by the Wright Brothers was impractical) and spaceflight theorist, considered to be one of the founders of modern rocketry alongside Konstantin Tsiolkovsky of Russia, Hermann Oberth of Germany and Robert Goddard of the USA. He died a month after his 76th birthday but lived to see the first two Sputniks go into orbit.

 

 


1988 STS-27 landing

Crew: 'Hoot' Gibson (CDR); Guy Gardner (P); Mike Mullane, Jerry Ross, Bill Shepherd (MS)

Landing site: Edwards AFB

 

Atlantis had suffered significant damage during the launch phase, though Mission Control seemed unaware of it. Part of the nose cap of the starboard Solid Rocket Booster had broken free and struck the Orbiter's forward fuselage and underside of the right wing. When the crew used the camera on the manipulator arm to inspect the damage they saw numerous streaks of white, indicating that the black surface of the thermal protection tiles had been affected. In addition, due to the limited reach of the arm, the condition of the tiles further back was completely unknown. Unfortunately as this was a classified DoD mission, they were not allowed to use the normal TV to send back pictures of what they were seeing: they had to make do with a low-resolution encrypted system that produced an image only once every three seconds. As a result Mission Control dismissed the damage as minor: some engineers even put it down to a trick of the light. The astronauts could not believe what they were hearing but since there was nothing that could be done about it anyway they decided not to dwell on the matter. However in an interview years later Gibson said that he estimated that he would have had around thirty to sixty seconds' warning of a catastrophic failure and would have used them to tell Mission Control exactly what he thought of their analysis. Happily this did not become an issue, though after Atlantis landed safely at Edwards the engineers were astonished at what they saw: more than 700 tiles had been damaged and one was missing entirely, and the aluminium fuselage underneath had begun to melt through. Fortunately it happened to be right at the point where the steel mounting plate for the L-band antenna was located, which had prevented disaster. Flight time had been 4d 9h 6m and 68 orbits.

 

In 2003, of course, the STS-107 crew would be less fortunate when Columbia broke up during re-entry after the leading edge of its left wing was punctured by a chunk of foam from the external tank, allowing the superhot gases to enter and destroy the internal structure, with the loss of all aboard.

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7 DECEMBER

 

1972 Apollo 17 launch

Crew: Gene Cernan (CDR); Jack Schmitt (LMP); Ron Evans (CMP)

 

Seventh lunar landing

CSM: America; LM: Challenger

The original choice for LM Pilot was Joe Engle, but he was replaced by Jack Schmitt, a geologist who was trained as an astronaut rather than the other way round. Schmitt had been named as LMP on Apollo 18 but when that mission was cancelled he was reassigned as this would be the only chance to put a 'real' geologist on the Moon. Because of Apollo 17's chosen landing site, celestial mechanics required a night launch, the only one of the Apollo programme. Lift-off was delayed by more than two hours due to a problem with the launch sequencer but once this was dealt with the launch proceeded, the F-1 exhaust turning night into day and visible 800 km away. Following the checkout the S-IVB engine was restarted and the spacecraft headed for the Moon, the last time to date a manned spacecraft has broken free of Earth orbit to head outwards.

 

 

 

1996 STS-80 landing

Crew: Ken Cockrell (CDR); Kent Rominger (P); Tamara Jernigan, Thomas Jones, Story Musgrave (MS)

Landing site: Kennedy Space Center

 

Deployed and retrieved two free-flying scientific payloads; a planned EVA was cancelled when the outer airlock hatch could not be opened. Story Musgrave became the only astronaut to fly aboard all five Orbiters. Flight time was 17d 15h 53m and 279 orbits - this was two days longer than planned due to bad weather at Kennedy.

 

 


2002 STS-113 landing

Crew: James Wetherbee (CDR); Paul Lockhart (P), Michael Lopez-Alegria, John Herrington, Peggy Whitson, Valeri Korzun, Sergei Treshchyov [both Russia] (MS)

Landing site: Kennedy Space Center

 

Whitson, Korzun and Treshchyov had formed ISS Expedition 5, which lasted 184d 22h 14m and 2,910 orbits. Flight time for Endeavour's crew was 13d 18h 47m and 215 orbits. This was the last completed mission before the Columbia accident.

 

 


2018 Chang'e-4 launch

 

This was China's second lunar probe and the first from any nation to land on the far side of the Moon. Communication was maintained via the Queqiao relay satellite, which was in a halo orbit around the L2 Lagrange point, around 1.5 million km from Earth in line with the Moon and beyond it. Chang'e, named for the Chinese lunar goddess, deployed the Yutu-2 roving vehicle after landing. Its original design life was three months (i.e. three lunar days) but experience gained from the previous rover, Yutu-1, in 2013 enabled the engineers to make improvements which they hope will keep it operating for "a few years".

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8 DECEMBER

 

1964 A-002

 

The second Little Joe abort test, launched from White Sands as usual, involved a simulation of an emergency situation developing at the moment of Maximum Dynamic Pressure, or Max-Q: the same test that had caused endless problems with the original model of Little Joe during the Mercury development programme. This time, everything went without a hitch, the LES firing at an altitude of some 8.8 km and pulling Command Module BP-23 3 km higher still before separating to allow it to go into its recovery sequence. This flight marked the first use of the Boost Protective Cover, which shielded the capsule during the early stages of the launch, and the pop-out canard fins at the tip of the escape tower, which would flip the Command Module over after separation from the launch vehicle, so that the heat-shield was directed forwards.

 

 


1974 Soyuz 16 landing

Crew: Anatoli Filipchenko (CDR); Nikolai Rukavishnikov (FE)

Landing site: 30 km SW of Arkalyk

 

This had been a dress-rehearsal of the Soviet side of the upcoming Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The crew had practised changing the composition of the cabin atmosphere, which would reduce the transit time between the two spacecraft when it came to the real thing, as well as evaluating upgraded systems. Flight time was 5d 22h 24m and 97 orbits, which was almost exactly the same as Soyuz 19 would fly the following summer.

 

 


1983 STS-9 landing

Crew: John Young (CDR); Brewster Shaw (P); Owen Garriott, Robert Parker (MS); Ulf Merbold [West Germany], Byron Lichtenberg (PS)

Landing site: Edwards AFB

 

This was the first flight of Spacelab, which had gone so well that the mission was extended by one day. Shortly before re-entry two of the guidance computers crashed, but one was successfully rebooted and Columbia touched down safely, with a flight time of 10d 7h 47m and 167 orbits, despite a fire which broke out in two of the APUs just before landing, due to a hydrazine leak.

 

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9 DECEMBER

 

1992 STS-53 landing

Crew: David Walker (CDR); Robert Cabana (P); Guy Bluford, James Voss, Rich Clifford (MS)

Landing site: Edwards AFB

 

This was a classified DoD mission and as usual only the basic details are known, though several scientific experiments were conducted, including one to measure any changes in the eye's visual capability in microgravity. Flight time was 7d 7h 20m and 116 orbits.

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10 DECEMBER

 

1977 Soyuz 26 launch

Crew: Yuri Romanenko (CDR); Georgi Grechko (FE)

 

This was the first expedition to Salyut 6 and would reclaim the duration record for the Soviets: the crew would remain aloft for 96 days, beating the 84-day Skylab 4. Docking with the station's rear port was achieved the day after launch, to the relief the authorities as the previous attempt to put a crew aboard had failed when Soyuz 25 was unable to achieve a hard dock. A Stand-up EVA on 19 December confirmed that the front port had not been damaged and the stage was set for the marathon mission, Prior to the launch of the first Progress freighter, Salyut's aft port had to be freed up but the Soviets were not yet ready to try moving Soyuz 26 to the front port; therefore Soyuz 27 was launched on the first Taxi flight. When it docked, Romanenko and Grechko sealed themselved aboard Soyuz 26 in case of a depressurisation emergency. The Soyuz 26/Salyut/Soyuz 27 combination was the first three-craft assembly in space history, with a mass of around 33 tonnes and seven individual compartments. When the visiting crew departed aboard Soyuz 26 the rear port was now available for the arrival of the Progress: this was just the first of many spacecraft exchanges which enabled the Soviets to achieve very long missions. 

 

 


1980 Soyuz T-3 landing

Crew: Leonid Kizim (CDR); Oleg Makarov (FE); Gennadi Strekalov (RC)

Landing site: 130 km E of Dzheskasgan

 

This had been a test flight of the upgraded Soyuz, the first three-man Soviet mission since the Soyuz 11 tragedy, and as such no spacecraft exchange was made, but it meant that future Salyut missions could be conducted by larger crews. The flight lasted 12d 19h 8m and 204 orbits.

 

 


1982 Soyuz T-7 landing

Crew: Anatoli Berezovoy (CDR); Valentin Lebedev (FE)

Landing site: 190 km E of Dzheskasgan

 

The crew had been launched aboard Soyuz T-5 and had been the first residents of Salyut 7. Flight time was a new record: 211d 9h 5m and 3,344 orbits.

 

 


1990 Soyuz TM-10 landing

Crew: Gennadi Manakov (CDR); Gennadi Strekalov (FE); Toyohiro Akiyama [Japan] (RC)

Landing site: 69 km NE of Arkalyk

 

Manakov and Strekalov had been Expedition 7 to Mir and their flight time was 130d 20h 36m and 2,070 orbits. Akiyama was a journalist whose week in space had been funded by the Tokyo Broadcasting System, making him the first commercial passenger aboard a Soyuz. His flight time was 7d 21h 55m and 125 orbits.

 

 


2006 STS-116 launch

Crew: Mark Polansky (CDR); Bill Oefelein (P); Nicholas Patrick, Robert Curbean, Christer Fuglesang [Sweden], Joan Higginbotham, Sunita Williams (MS)

 

117th Shuttle mission; 33rd flight of Discovery

Delivered the P5 Truss segment to the ISS, as well as a partial crew exchange: Sunita Williams joined Expedition 14 and was replaced on the ride home by Thomas Reiter from Germany. As was now routine, shortly before docking the Orbiter performed a slow backflip to enable the station crew to inspect its underside for tile damage. Two cameras were used for this procedure: one with a 400mm lens providing resolution up to 7.5cm, and one with an 800mm lens giving up to 2.5cm resolution. Once photograph was complete the docking took place and the two crews began their common work programme. The new truss segment was installed over the course of four EVAs, the last one unplanned when it was required to deal with a stuck solar array.

 

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11 DECEMBER

 

1972 Apollo 17 lunar landing
LM: Challenger
Crew: Gene Cernan (CDR); Jack Schmitt (LMP)
Landing site: 20° 11' 26.88" N 30° 46' 18.05" E (Taurus Littrow)

 

The last lunar landing of the Apollo programme was followed some four hours later by the first of three EVAs, assisted by the Lunar Roving Vehicle which extended the range that the astronauts could travel. Mission rules meant they could never go further from the LM than they could walk back in case of a breakdown, but all three J-missions were able to cover far greater areas than the earlier ones. However while working near the Rover, Cernan accidentally caught the head of his geology hammer under one of the mudguards, breaking part of it off and resulting in the astronauts being showered with dust thrown up by the wheel when they were in motion. This problem was solved to a certain extent before the start of the second EVA by making a replacement out of spare lunar maps fixed together with duct tape and clamped in place.

 

 


1990 STS-35 landing

Crew: Vance Brand (CDR); Guy Gardner (P); Jeff Hoffman, Mike Lounge, Robert Parker (MS); Samuel Durrance, Ron Parise (PS)

Landing site: Edwards AFB

 

This had carried the ASTRO-1 laboratory. Flight time was 8d 23h 5m and 144 orbits: this was one day less than planned as bad weather forecast at the landing site meant that the landing was brought forward.

 

 


2000 STS-97 landing

Crew: Brent Jett (CDR); Mike Bloomfield (P); Joseph Tanner, Marc Garneau [Canada], Carlos Noriega (MS)

Landing site: Kennedy Space Center

 

This had been the first Shuttle mission to an occupied ISS and had delivered the first set of solar arrays. Flight time was 10d 19h 57m and 170 orbits.

 

 


2015 Soyuz TMA-17M landing

Crew: Oleg Kononenko (CDR); Kimiya Yui [Japan], Kjell Lindgren [USA] (FE)

Landing site: 48°27'31,74"N, 69°11'06,12"E (132 km northeast of Dzheskasgan)

 

ISS Expeditions 44/45. Flight time was 141d 16h 10m and 2,207 orbits.

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12 DECEMBER

 

1965 Gemini VI-A launch attempt

Crew: Wally Schirra (CDR); Tom Stafford (P)

 

After its Agena docking target failed to reach orbit, the mission profile of Gemini VI was changed to a rendezvous with Gemini VII, which was scheduled to carry out a fourteen-day mission. Though no docking would be possible - Gemini VII commander Frank Borman having flatly refused a suggestion that his spacecraft be fitted with an inflatable collar in the open end of the Equipment Module - the astronauts could at least demonstrate the approach up to final contact. Gemini VII was launched first, and as soon as the launch pad had cooled down sufficiently engineers began refurbishing it to prepare for the second launch. The redesignated Gemini VI-A was ready to go on 12 December and as the countdown reached zero the engines burst into life and immediately shut down again. Mission rules called for Wally Schirra to trigger the abort function and eject himself and Stafford, but that would have destroyed the spacecraft, and though Schirra had felt the ignition he had not felt the rocket beginning to move, and he was convinced that it was still securely anchored to the pad and the situation was stable. He therefore did nothing. The astronauts were extracted from the capsule while the investigation began. It was soon determined that an electrical plug had dropped out prematurely and the launch vehicle's Malfunction Detection System had shut down the engines before the hold-down bolts were released. In hindsight this turned out to be a blessing, because telemetry revealed that while one engine had reached maximum thrust, the second had failed to do so, and when checks were made it was discovered that a plastic dust cover had accidentally been left inside a gas generator when the launch vehicle was assembled. Had liftoff taken place, the Titan would not have been able to develop sufficient thrust to put Gemini VI-A in orbit. The launch was rescheduled for three days later.

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13 DECEMBER

 

1993 STS-61 landing

Crew: Dick Covey (CDR), Ken Bowersox (P); Kathy Thornton, Claude Nicollier [Switzerland], Jeffrey Hoffman, Story Musgrave, Tom Akers (MS)

Landing site: Kennedy Space Center

 

This had been the first Hubble servicing mission, where the telescope was restored to its planned capability following a series of EVAs to install new equipment. The flight was an overwhelming success and the telescope began returning stunning images of the Universe once it was brought back on line. The Shuttle's landing was brought forward by one orbit due to a forecast of high winds at Kennedy: total flight time was 10d 19h 59m and 163 orbits.

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14 DECEMBER

 

1972 Apollo 17 lunar liftoff
LM: Challenger
Crew: Gene Cernan (CDR); Jack Schmitt (LMP)

 

After three EVAs over consecutive days, each one lasting more than seven hours, the last lunar explorers of the twentieth century departed for home. The liftoff was captured by the LRV camera: no easy task as the operator on Earth had to allow for the time-lag and anticipate the launch by around 1.2 seconds, panning upwards before the ascent stage fired so that it would remain in shot by the time the camera responded. Docking with the CSM followed and after the rock and soil samples had been loaded aboard, Challenger's ascent stage was deliberately crashed onto the surface. Unlike the previous J-missions no sub-satellite was carried on Apollo 17 so once everything was secured the astronauts headed for home.

 

 


2017 Soyuz MS-05 landing

Crew: Sergei Ryazansky (CDR); Randy Bresnik [USA], Paolo Nespoli [Italy] (FE)

Landing site: 47°23'35.46''N, 69°38'30.96 E (152 km southeast of Dzheskasgan)

 

ISS Expeditions 52/53. Flight time was 138d 16h 57m and 2,158 orbits.

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15 DECEMBER

 

1965 Gemini VI-A launch

Crew: Wally Schirra (CDR); Tom Stafford (P)

 

Three days after the failed launch attempt, when Schirra trusted his senses and did not eject himself and Stafford from the capsule, Gemini VI-A finally made it into space. Once orbit had been reached, the astronauts began a series of manoeuvres that would bring them close to Gemini VII. Visual contact was made five hours and forty minutes into the flight, when Schirra spotted a bright object that he initially mistook for the star Sirius. Under computer control the spacecraft completed the rendezvous: at one point they were just 30cm apart. The two remained in close proximity for four and a half hours, after which the spacecraft separated to avoid any risk of a collision while the astronauts were asleep.

 

 


2010 Soyuz TMA-20 launch

Crew: Dmitri Kondratiyev (CDR); Paolo Nespoli [Italy], Catherine Coleman [USA] (FE)

 

ISS Expeditions 26/27. Docking took place two days after launch and the crew joined forces with the current station residents Scott Kelly, Aleksandr Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka. Nespoli had already flown aboard the Shuttle but this was his first time aboard a Soyuz, and reports stated that at 188cm he was the tallest person ever to fly it, and hardware had to be specially designed to accommodate him.

 

 


2015 Soyuz TMA-19M launch

Crew: Yuri Malenchenko (CDR); Tim Kopra [USA], Tim Peake [United Kingdom]

 

ISS Expeditions 46/47. The mission received huge publicity in the UK because it carried the first true British career astronaut. The spacecraft followed the fast-track approach, reaching the station just six hours after launch, but there was brief concern when the automatic docking failed and Malenchenko had to carry out the procedure manually. Early in the New Year Peake carried out an EVA along with Kopra, replacing a failed voltage regulator. On 24 April Peake used the station's exercise treadmill to take part in the London Marathon, finishing with a time of just over three and a half hours. During the run, the ISS travelled a distance of more than 86,000km. Then in the Queen's Birthday Honours List he was appointed Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) for services to space research and scientific education.

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16 DECEMBER

 

1965 Gemini VI-A splashdown

Crew: Wally Schirra (CDR); Tom Stafford (P)

Splashdown site: 23° 35' N, 67° 50' W (1,010 km southwest of Bermuda)

 

With the rendezvous with Gemini VII a resounding success, the VI-A astronauts prepared to come home. As they were getting ready for retrofire, however, they sent back a message that briefly astonished Mission Control. Schirra radioed, "Houston and Gemini VII, this is Gemini VI. We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He's in a very low trajectory travelling from north to south and has a very high climbing ratio. It looks like it might even be a... Very low. Looks like he might be going to reenter soon. Stand by one... You might just let me try to pick up that thing." And then before anyone could react came the sound of Jingle Bells played on the harmonica, accompanied by sleigh bells. The joke over, Gemini VI-A made the first computer-controlled landing, splashing down just 18 km from the recovery vessel, the USS Wasp, Flight time had been 1d 1h 51m and 16 orbits, though the astronauts had to wait two days for the Gemini VII crew to return before they could set course for home.

 

 


1998 STS-88 landing

Crew: Robert Cabana (CDR); Rick Sturckow (P); Jerry Ross, Nancy Currie, James Newman, Sergei Krikalev [Russia] (MS)

Landing site: Kennedy Space Center

 

This had been the first ISS assembly flight, linking the US-built Unity Node to the Russian-built (but US-financed) Zarya module. Flight time was 11d 19h 18m and 185 orbits.

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17 DECEMBER

 

2001 STS-108 landing

Crew: Dom Gorie (CDR); Mark Kelly (P); Linda Godwin, Daniel Tani, Frank Culbertson, Vladimir Dezhurov, Mikhail Tyurin [both Russia] (MS)

Landing site: Kennedy Space Center

 

Culbertson, Dezhurov and Tyurin were the retiring ISS Expedition 3 crew; they were replaced by Daniel Bursch, Yuri Onufriyenko and Carl Walz. Before returning to Earth, the Shuttle deployed a satellite named STARSHINE 2, which was fitted with 845 mirrors that had been polished by students in 26 countries, who would then track it during its eight-month orbital life. Endeavour landed safely at KSC after 11d 19h 36m and 186 orbits. Flight time for the Expedition 3 crew was 128d 20h 45m and 2,028 orbits.

 

 


2017 Soyuz MS-07 launch

Crew: Anton Shkaplerov (CDR); Scott Tingle [USA], Norishige Kanai [Japan] (FE)

 

ISS Expeditions 54/55. The spacecraft followed the two-day approach path and docked on 19 December.

 

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18 DECEMBER

 

1965 Gemini VII splashdown

Crew: Frank Borman (CDR); Jim Lovell (P)

Splashdown point: 25° 25,1' N, 70,6° 7' W (1,200 km southwest of Bermuda)

 

Following the departure of Gemini VI-A, Borman and Lovell found their mission beginning to drag. The cramped environment of the Gemini capsule was not helped by the fact that early in the flight a urine collection bag had split open and they were never able to collect all the globules of liquid that drifted around the cabin. Lovell later compared the experience to spending two weeks in the men's room. However at last the marathon flight came to an end and Gemini VII splashed down in the Atlantic just twelve kilometres from the target point. Like their colleagues from VI-A they were picked up by the USS Wasp. The mission had lasted 13d 18h 35m and 206 orbits, a record that would stand for four and a half years until the crew of Soyuz 9 beat it by four days (still the longest flight not involving a space station).

 

 


1973 Soyuz 13 launch

Crew: Pyotr Klimuk (CDR); Valentin Lebedev (FE)

 

With the Skylab 4 mission still ongoing, Soyuz 13's arrival in orbit marked the first occasion that US and Soviet crews were flying at the same time, though it was not possible for the two to communicate directly with each other. Instead of a docking mechanism Soyuz 13 carried the Orion 2 astrophysical camera, allowing the crew to perform observations of stars in the ultraviolet range. Spectrograms of thousands of stars to as faint as 13th magnitude were obtained by a wide-angle meniscus telescope of the Cassegrain system, with an aperture diameter of 240 mm, an equivalent focal length of 1,000 mm, and a 4-grade quartz prism objective. In addition, the first satellite UV spectrogram of a planetary nebula (IC 2149 in Auriga) was obtained, revealing lines of aluminium and titanium - elements not previously observed in objects of that type. Two-photon emission in that planetary nebula and a remarkable star cluster in Auriga were also discovered. The cosmonauts also studied Comet Kohoutek, which was also observed by the Skylab 4 astronauts.

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19 DECEMBER

 

1960 MR-1A

 

After the embarrassing failure of MR-1, when the launch vehicle fizzled on the pad and the escape tower shot off on its own, NASA tried again using a fully-developed Redstone instead of the converted military version that had caused the problem a month earlier. The heavier space-related type would climb more slowly than the missile used on MR-1, preventing any repetition. This time, everything went according to plan, the Redstone engine burning for two and a half minutes, accelerating the spacecraft to a velocity of around 7,810 km/hr. After separating from the launch vehicle, the capsule climbed on to a peak altitude of 211 km, then began its recovery sequence before landing safely 387 km downrange, slightly further than planned. It had been a textbook flight, which went a long way to restoring some of NASA’s pride after numerous embarrassing setbacks.

 

 

 

1972 Apollo 17 splashdown

Crew: Gene Cernan (CDR); Jack Schmitt (LMP); Ron Evans (CMP)

Splashdown site: 17° 88' S, 166° 11' W (560 km west of Samoa)

 

Apollo 17's safe splashdown in the Pacific brought to an end Mankind's first programme of exploring another celestial body. Original plans had been for landings up to Apollo 20 but budget cuts eliminated three flights almost as soon as Armstrong took his first steps. Before departure from the lunar surface, Cernan and Schmitt had unveiled a plaque reading HERE MAN COMPLETED HIS FIRST EXPLORATIONS OF THE MOON, DECEMBER 1972 A.D. MAY THE SPIRIT OF PEACE IN WHICH WE CAME BE REFLECTED IN THE LIVES OF ALL MANKIND. Flight time was 12d 13h 52m; the astronauts had made one and a half orbits of the Earth prior to TLI. The moonwalkers had then made 34 lunar orbits while Evans, back in the Command Module, notched up 75.

 

 

 

2012 Soyuz TMA-07M launch

Crew: Roman Romanenko (CDR); Chris Hadfield [Canada], Tom Marshburn [USA] (FE)

 

ISS Expeditions 34/35. Docking with the station took place two days into the mission and the cosmonauts joined Novitsky, Tarelkin and Ford, alongside whom they would work until Soyuz TMA-06M departed in March.

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20 DECEMBER

 

1999 STS-103 launch

Crew: Curtis Brown (CDR); Scott Kelly (P); Steven Smith, Jean-François Clervoy [France], John Grunsfeld, Michael Foale, Claude Nicollier [Switzerland] (MS)

 

96th Shuttle mission; 27th flight of Discovery

This was the third Hubble servicing mission, originally planned for June 2000 but brought forward after three of the telescope's six gyroscopes failed. Had a fourth one malfunctioned, the telescope would have been put out of action, so NASA split the servicing flight into two with the most crucial repairs being carried out on what was officially designated HST-SM-3A. Launch was scheduled for 6 December but postponed three times: twice for technical reasons and once for bad weather. NASA was keen to get the mission under way to give enough time for it to be completed and Discovery back on the ground before the end of the year, though they denied it was due to concerns about the Y2K problem (the misnamed 'Millennium Bug') - rather it was to ensure its personnel did not have to work over the New Year period. The telescope was captured by the manipulator arm on Day Three of the mission, and over the next three days EVAs were carried out to replace all six gyroscopes and install a new more powerful computer, replace a failed S-band transmitter and repair the thermal insulation on the Hubble's exterior. The telescope was released on Christmas Day.

 

 


2009 Soyuz TMA-17 launch

Crew: Oleg Kotov (CDR); Soichi Noguchi [Japan], Tim Creamer [USA] (FE)

 

ISS Expeditions 22/23. The spacecraft reached the station after a two-day approach and joined the current occupants, Williams and Surayev. The ISS had been operating with a two-man crew since Nicole Sott's departure aboard STS-129 a month earlier: she had been the last station resident to return to Earth on the Shuttle.

 

 


2018 Soyuz MS-09 landing

Crew: Sergei Prokopyev (CDR); Alexander Gerst [Germany], Serena Auñón-Chancellor [USA] (FE)

Landing site: 47°29'32''N, 69°41'41''E (153 km southeast of Dzheskasgan)

 

When Soyuz MS-09 undocked from the ISS, mission planners were relieved that they were not leaving it vacant. The failure of MS-10 to reach orbit following an in-flight abort had raised fears that the launch vehicle might be grounded for a lengthy period, beyond the time when the residents would have to return to Earth before the 'shelf life' of their own spacecraft expired, but the problem was discovered quickly and a new team had arrived safely to take over operations. MS-09's crew had been Expeditions 56/57 and their mission lasted 196d 17h 40m and 3,152 orbits.

 

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21 DECEMBER

 

1968 Apollo 8 launch

Crew: Frank Borman (CDR); Bill Anders (LMP); Jim Lovell (CMP)

 

According to the schedule drawn up after the pad fire, the shakedown flight of the Apollo CSM should have been followed by a test of the complete spacecraft, with CSM and LM being launched separately by Saturn IBs then linking up in Earth orbit. Unfortunately production difficulties at Grumman meant that the first manned LM would not be ready until the spring. A six-month gap before the next manned flight was undesirable, particularly in view of the long delay caused by the fire. Equally, a straight repetition of the Apollo 7 mission would be unproductive. However support was growing for an incredibly ambitious flight: to send the CSM, alone, around the Moon. The crew intended to fly the next mission turned it down: Commander Jim McDivitt would only be satisfied with the LM flight. The next in line was Frank Borman's crew, who accepted, and the switch was made. Assuming there were no major problems on Apollo 7, the follow-up would go where no man had gone before, to quote a minor television show of the time. Celestial mechanics meant that Apollo 8 would be in lunar orbit at Christmas, which seemed appropriate somehow. Thus on 21 December the Cape echoed to the sound of a Saturn V lift-off for the third time, but this one was different: it had men aboard. The launch went off without a hitch, the third stage shutting down eleven and a half minutes later. On any previous manned flight, the next event would have been spacecraft separation, but here it was only the beginning. After a two-hour systems check, CAPCOM Mike Collins gave the historic “GO for TLI!” command and the J-2 engine was restarted, pushing Apollo 8 out of orbit and on course for the Moon. The burn lasted 5 minutes 18 seconds, by the end of which the astronauts had smashed all the previous speed and altitude records. The faithful S-IVB was discarded at last and the crew settled down to the three-day Trans-Lunar Coast.

 

 


1987 Soyuz TM-4 launch

Crew: Vladimir Titov (CDR); Musa Manarov (FE); Anatoli Levchenko (RC)

 

Titov and Manarov were Mir Expedition 3 and if all went well they would not return to Earth for an entire year. Levchenko was in line to fly the Soviet Shuttle, and his presence aboard was to give him experience of space flight ahead of that. Docking took place on 23 December and six days after that the Expedition 2 crew departed, along with Levchenko, leaving Titov and Manarov to their marathon mission. Before they could fully settle in, they had to transfer their spacecraft to the front docking port, clearing the rear port for the arrival of their first Progress cargo freighter. This took place on 30 December, after which the cosmonauts began operating the Glazar telescope in the Kvant module to study galaxies and star groups in the ultraviolet. This involved exposure times of up to eight minutes, during which the cosmonauts had to remain motionless as even minor movements of the complex would result in blurred images.

 

 


1988 Soyuz TM-6 landing

Crew: Vladimir Titov (CDR); Musa Manarov (FE); Jean-Loup Chrétien [France] (RC)

Landing site: 160 km SE of Dzheskasgan

 

A year to the day after their launch, Titov and Manarov returned to Earth, accompanied by French spationaut Chrétien, who had arrived on Mir some three weeks earlier with their replacements. The expedition had lasted 365d 22h 39m and 5,790 orbits (technically, as 1988 was a leap year this was about 100 minutes short of a full year!) while Chrétien's flight was 24d 18h 7m and 395 orbits.

 

 


2011 Soyuz TMA-03M launch

Crew: Oleg Kononenko (CDR); André Kuipers [Netherlands], Donald Pettit [USA] (FE)

 

ISS Expeditions 30/31. Docking took place on 23 December and the crew joined Daniel Burbank, Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoli Ivanishin aboard the station.

 

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22 DECEMBER

 

2006 STS-116 landing

Crew: Mark Polansky (CDR); Bill Oefelein (P); Nicholas Patrick, Robert Curbean, Christer Fuglesang [Sweden], Joan Higginbotham, Thomas Reiter [Germany] (MS)

Landing site: Kennedy Space Center

 

This flight had delivered the P5 Truss to the ISS, as well as carrying out a partial crew exchange: Thomas Reiter's place on the station was taken by Sunita Williams. During the first landing opportunity there were clouds and rain showers at KSC, but there were high crosswinds at Edwards, leading NASA to consider bringing the Orbiter down at White Sands, where STS-3 had landed in 1982. That was undesirable as it could have taken as long as 60 days to return Discovery to Kennedy. Finally just ninety minutes before landing the decision was taken to use KSC after all and the Orbiter touched down safely after 12d 20h 44m and 203 orbits. Reiter's Expeditions 13/14 mission had lasted 171d 03h 54m and 2,682 orbits.

 

 

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23 DECEMBER

 

1672 Rhea discovered

 

Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini observed a new satellite of Saturn. It was the second of the planet's moons that he had discovered, and the third overall.

 

 


1970 Skylab Rescue feasibility study completed

 

An assessment of the feasibility of providing a crew rescue capability for Skylab was conducted during 1970. The study culminated in a NASA decision to provide a limited rescue capability should a major problem occur with the CSM during a Skylab expedition. The rescue vehicle for the first two missions would be the next CSM in flow at KSC. Should a rescue call occur, that spacecraft would be modified to permit a five-man carrying capacity. It would be launched with a two-man crew and return with the additional three astronauts.

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24 DECEMBER

 

1968 Apollo 8 LOI

Crew: Frank Borman (CDR); Bill Anders (LMP); Jim Lovell (CMP)

 

The burn to put Apollo 8 in lunar orbit took place, as always, behind the Moon, out of radio contact, and Mission Control would have no idea if it had been successful until the spacecraft reappeared. If the engine had failed to fire, the CSM's course was such that it would automatically head back towards Earth. In such a situation, radio contact would resume around ten minutes earlier than if Apollo 8 was in orbit. That moment came and went and the spacecraft had not been heard from, which Mission Control took to mean that the burn had been successful. (Nobody was dwelling on the third scenario, where the engine had fired for too long and the spacecraft had crashed on the surface. Had that been the case, the crew would simply never have been heard from again, and likely nobody would ever know what had happened to them.) And at just the right moment Houston began picking up telemetry from the spacecraft and a few moments later Lovell confirmed that they were in lunar orbit. It was a unique moment: for the first time in human history, men were in orbit around a world other than that on which they were born. That orbit was 112 by 313 kilometres (60.5 by 169 nautical miles, as used by NASA at the time), the first of ten during which Anders carried out an extensive programme of surface photography. These pictures were in black and white, all that was needed for the lunar surface, but as Apollo came around the Moon for the fourth time the crew noticed the Earth rising above the horizon and Anders quickly switched to colour film and took one of the most striking photographs ever made, which would later be reproduced on a US postage stamp.

 

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🎄 A Happy Christmas to all my readers! 🎄

 

25 DECEMBER

 

1968 Apollo 8 Genesis broadcast and TEI

 

Before making the final preparations for the return to Earth, the Apollo 8 astronauts made a live TV broadcast which turned out to attract the largest audience to date. Borman had been asked to give a special Christmas message but had trouble coming up with something that suited the historical significance of the moment. He consulted Joseph Laitin, a former journalist who was then based at the White House, but he too was unable to think of anything. It was Laitin’s wife Christine who came up with the suggestion that the crew finally used. The official records show that the broadcast was made on 24 December but by Universal Time it was already the early hours of Christmas Day, which was even more appropriate. As the transmission drew to a close, Anders said, “We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness."

Then Lovell added, “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day."

Finally it was Borman’s turn: “And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.” He ended with, “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.” as the link was cut. They had timed it perfectly as Apollo 8 crossed the terminator into darkness. Like the insertion burn, the Trans-Earth Injection firing took place out of radio contact, one orbit later, as Mission Control waited anxiously for confirmation that all was well. And then Lovell came on the radio and reported, “Please be advised there is a Santa Claus!” One of the controllers dutifully noted down the details of the burn in his official logbook, in small neat figures. And then underneath he added, in big sloppy letters, WE IS COMING HOME!

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