The Apollo Education Experience Project

Merry Christmas! And Happy Anniversary, Apollo 8!

Merry Christmas, everyone! Or, since this site has viewers from all over the world, “Feliz Navidad!” “Joyeux Nöel!” “Buon Natale!” “Fröhliche Weihnachten!” “S rozhdyestvom Hristovym!” I also want to celebrate the anniversary of Apollo 8, which left lunar orbit to return to Earth on Christmas Day. Yes, I know the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8 was last year, but the Project and this site weren’t started then, so here we are!

I wanted to commemorate Apollo 8’s historic mission (the first humans to orbit the moon) by re-creating the special Christmas dinner provided for the crew. Since they were going to be nearly a quarter-million miles away from their families and their home planet, Deke Slayton and the Apollo team wanted to give the astronauts at least a little to be joyous about. So they managed to provide a meal of real turkey, stuffing, and gravy (not dehydrated) and cranberry sauce (OK, so that WAS dehydrated). Frank Borman said “it was the best meal of the trip”, and given the standard astronaut fare of the time, that was saying a LOT!

The turkey and gravy entree was the first for a NASA space mission – a natural-form “wet pack” food which was thermostabilized to provide a long shelf life. In truth, NASA did not produce this – it was made by the U.S. Army for troops serving in Vietnam. To re-create this, I found a package of fully-cooked turkey, stuffing, and gravy that was ready to eat (well, “heat and serve”, but ready to eat if you don’t mind the temperature). I had purchased some heat-seal mylar pouches with the drink packaging I used for some earlier replicas, and divided the turkey meal between two of them. I re-created the Army label from a Smithsonian photo and applied it to the pouch.

Finished replica of the Apollo 8 turkey, stuffing, and gravy entree.
(Photo: The Apollo Education Experience Project)

Honestly, I’ve been working on the cranberry sauce for a long time. Freeze-dried cranberries are just not available in stores. Regular dried cranberries are, but they’re more like raisins. But I found an online seller of cranberry powder, and ordered a few ounces. I already had several ounces of freeze-dried apple slices, so I ground some up and sifted enough apple powder for about a serving. I combined that with about half as much cranberry powder, along with a little powdered sugar. I tested a small amount to get the volume of water correct, then put the mix into one of the long pouches. I put about 2/3 of what I had mixed into the first pouch, thinking the full amount might be too much, but in retrospect I could have used the full batch in one pouch. I put the remaining amount in a second pouch. A replica label finished the job.

Finished replica of Apollo 8-style cranberry-applesauce.
(Photo: The Apollo Education Experience Project)

What’s a Christmas dinner without some coffee? My local grocery store had some little single-serve packets of freeze-dried instant coffee which I bought. Each packet requires 6 ounces of water but the replica needed 4, so I measured 2/3 of a packet into a long pouch. I added a teaspoon of sugar to the pouch as well. The original Apollo 8 Christmas dinner had coffee without sugar, but I’m not about to drink coffee without it! So sue me for this inaccuracy! But historically, coffee with sugar was an option available for the astronauts to select, so it’s not too much of a deviation.

Finished replica of Apollo-style coffee with sugar.
(Photo: The Apollo Education Experience Project)

I have put together quite a collection of vintage photos of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab food items. One of those photos shows four of the elements of the Apollo 8 Christmas dinner. Now that I have replicas of those items, I staged a re-creation of that photo using the replicas.

Re-creation of the layout of a vintage photograph of the Apollo 8
Christmas dinner elements using replica packages.
(left to right: grape drink, cranberry-applesauce, coffee with sugar, turkey and gravy)
(Photo: The Apollo Education Experience Project)

One item on the Christmas menu not included in that photo was sugar cookie cubes. Food cubes date back to the Gemini days, but were still in use through the Apollo-Soyuz mission. I started my replica with some store-bought sugar cookies, and cut them into squares exactly 11/16″ per side (although they were thinner than that vertically). This is the size that NASA food engineers determined to be optimum for bite-size items. The real Apollo sugar cookie cubes were also coated in gelatin, something I’m not currently equipped to do. The gelatin coating prevented stray crumbs from getting away and floating about the cabin. I found that sugar cookie cubes create a LOT of crumbs, so I can appreciate this precaution! Needless to say, my replica is NOT space-rated!

Replica package of Apollo-style sugar cookie cubes.
(Photo: The Apollo Education Experience Project)

Each meal on an Apollo mission is pre-packaged in a clear bag labeled with the day number and meal letter for easy identification. The Apollo 8 Christmas dinner would have been “Day 5 Meal C”, so I made a label with that designation and applied it to my bag. Then I folded the long pouches and stuffed the turkey, cookie cubes, sauce, and drinks into the bag. I also found a small bag for the spoon (not that I needed a bag).

Completed Apollo 8 Christmas dinner meal package replica.
(Photo: The Apollo Education Experience Project)

But something is missing. At least one account of the Apollo 8 Christmas dinner states that the astronauts were surprised with their Christmas dinner meal bags “wrapped in green and red ribbons.” There are no photos or other documentation that I can find describing the ribbons in any more detail, so I was left to my own devices. Oddly enough (well, probably not odd to regular visitors to this site who know I have lots of old stuff), I happened to have some 1960’s vintage ribbon in both green and red. I doubt this was the exact type used to wrap the Apollo 8 meals, but it works for me. I cut lengths of both colors and tied them around the bag.

Finished Apollo 8 Christmas dinner meal replica – with Christmas ribbons.
(Photo: The Apollo Education Experience Project)

Now for the moment of truth. I reconstituted the cranberry-applesauce using a recently-purchased 30-ml syringe and some cold water, massaging it to ensure all the powder was moistened, then left it to soak. Then I reconstituted the grape drink. I used some scissors to cut open one side of the pouch of turkey and gravy to make a sort of bowl. I could have simply cut open one end, but based on some vintage photos this was how a “wet pack” entree was opened. After all that work, I was able to enjoy a meal virtually identical to that enjoyed by the Apollo 8 astronauts!

Apollo 8 Christmas dinner replica, reconstituted and opened, ready to eat.
(top to bottom: grape drink, cranberry-applesauce, turkey and gravy)
(Photo: The Apollo Education Experience Project)

The Apollo 8 crew closed out their Christmas Eve television broadcast with a reading of the Creation account from Genesis. Although Madalyn Murray O’Hair claimed that they were ordered to read that passage, NASA had simply asked the crew to say something “appropriate” and left it at that. The crew chose the Genesis passage because it is recognized and accepted by many of the world’s largest religions, not just Christianity. I won’t quote it here, since it is available all over the Internet, but if you have the updated OpenDSKY software and audio, you can listen to the first part (Bill Anders) by entering “PRO 68”, or you can listen to the full passage read by all three astronauts (Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman) by selecting clip 15 using “V21 N98” then playing it with “V16 N98”.

For those looking for updates to the Command Module construction, I have been hard at work getting as much done as I could before the Christmas break. I have uploaded enough photos for about 10 articles, but haven’t had the time to write text for them yet. I will be getting to them soon, I promise! Until then, let me say what Frank Borman said 51 years ago: “good night, good luck, Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

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