Jim Lovell was supposed to spend Christmas 1968 with his family in Acapulco. Instead, he spent the holiday with Frank Borman and Bill Anders in orbit around the Moon. But being 250,000 miles from home didn’t stop him from giving his wife the perfect Christmas present. (Marilyn and Jim Lovell in their home. Credit: Life.)
Being an astronaut in the 1960s came with perks — friendships with car dealers got them deals on Corvettes and deals with Life protected their privacy and ensured a second source of income. In the mid-1960s, the astronauts forged a relationship with Frank Bransetter; the hotelier owned a resort in Acapulco where he set aside a block of rooms for astronauts. Crews and their families were invited to spend time at the resort after returning from a mission.
Lovell had never taken Bransetter up on this offer after his Gemini 12 in 1966. Instead, he cashed in the favour two years later. He planned on spending Christmas on vacation with his wife Marilyn and their four children. (The Apollo 8 crew trains for their lunar Christmas mission.)
But in August, Lovell’s plans changed. NASA learned from CIA intelligence that the Soviet Union had sent the unmanned Zond 5 spacecraft around the moon and returned it safely to Earth. It was clear that a manned Zond mission was imminent on the Soviet space roster. NASA needed to maintain the lead it had gained in the space race around 1965 with the first piloted rendezvous and docking in space. The plan to this end, pending a nominal shakedown of the command and service modules (CSM) on Apollo 7 in October, was to send Apollo 8 to the Moon in December. (Lunar Module Pilot Lovell’s Christmas activity: checking Apollo 8’s alignment using the stars.)
When he arrived at home the night in August after the Apollo 8 lunar mission was first proposed, Jim Lovell broke the news to Marilyn that the Acapulco vacation might have to wait. (Commander Frank Borman en route to the Moon.)
“I thought Frank and Bill and I might go somewhere else instead,” he said, referring to his crew mates.
“Like where?” Marilyn challenged.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Lovell replied feigning nonchalance. “Maybe the Moon.”
Apollo 8 launched on December 21, 1968. Their three-day lunar transit had the spacecraft enter into lunar orbit on Christmas eve. The crew marked the occasion with a live video broadcast from lunar orbit set to a reading from the book of Genesis. (Command Module pilot Bill Anders during Apollo 8’s lunar mission.)
The next morning, Christmas Day, a Rolls Royce from Neiman Marcus pulled up in front of the Lovell’s house. The driver spoke to the NASA public affairs office who, to the dismay of reporters camped out on the lawn, was shown to the door. He handed Marilyn Lovell a large gift box. It was wrapped in blue foil and decorated with two styrofoam balls, one painted sea blue and the other a grey Moon-like colour with a tiny spacecraft circling it.
Inside was a mink coat with a card that read “Merry Christmas and love, from the Man in the Moon.”
Marilyn spent the rest of the day, from vacuuming to church services, wearing the coat.
Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger. Apollo 13. Houghton. 1994.