The very first Christmas (in space)
While perusing the vast litany of uplifting Christmas stories, one might not think to probe the mission archives of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
But 48 years ago this past Christmas Eve, Otto resident Kurt Volker sat stunned – like much of the world — in front of his television, listening to words most profound echoing from somewhere in the eternal void of outer space.
Volker was born in New Jersey in 1942, but grew up in Massachusetts after his father, a World War II veteran, decided to attend dental school there.
Months after graduating from high school in Sandwich — a small town located at the root of Cape Cod — Volker joined the U.S. Navy on Aug. 1, 1961, during a period of escalating U.S. military activity.
American involvement in Vietnam would increase dramatically by early 1965, eventually becoming perhaps the greatest proxy conflict of the Cold War; but when Volker enlisted, the Navy was just four months removed from President John F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco and little over a year away from the Cuban Missile Crisis.
U.S.-Soviet tensions were perhaps never higher, and the two great powers sought to best each other — to prove which way of life was superior — on and off the battlefield by boasting of achievements in athletics, art, culture, medicine, science and technology.
Of those, the race into space was paramount. It was a chance for both countries to demonstrate state-of-the-art scientific technology that could also be repurposed for military use, and the Soviet Union was beating America badly.
They’d shocked the world by putting the first artificial satellite, the first animal and the first human into space — all by early 1962 — and had their sights set squarely on the moon, which prompted President Kennedy, who was aware of the propaganda aspects as well as the technological inferiority issues, to famously call for the U.S. to put “a man on the moon” and return him “safely to the earth” by the end of the 1960s.
“I was a little bit antsy, I didn’t feel like I was mature enough to go to college, like a lot of kids today,” Volker said of his decision to enter the armed forces. “I thought it’d be a good opportunity to travel and to learn a trade that might be valuable in the future.”
When the Navy tested Volker to determine what kind of job he’d be best suited for, he said he was told he’d performed “very well” on the electronics section.
“My grandfather was an electrician, and I used to watch him do all sorts of things, and I used to tinker with radios and stuff like that,” he said.
Volker received 28 weeks of training and was assigned to the Gearing-class destroyer USS James D. Kyes in March 1963, serving as an electronic communications technician until August 1965.
“My job was to maintain the ship’s communications equipment,” he said. “Some of it was pretty sophisticated.”
The Kyes spent much of her time deployed near the hotspots of the day — Vietnam and Korea.
“It was just a constant state of readiness,” Volker said, recalling how once, near Japan, he established an unlikely personal connection with his Soviet counterpart.
“We would cruise off the coast of Russia, watching their destroyers watching our destroyers. We had these huge binoculars called ‘big eyes.’ So I’m up there and I’m looking at a Russian destroyer,” he said, “and the guy on the Russian destroyer is looking back at me.”
The Russian gave Volker a rather crude one-finger salute, which Volker laughingly returned just in time to see his adversary also laughing.
“Even in tense times, you try to find a little bit of humor here and there,” he said.
When he got out of the Navy, he bought a 1956 Ford Victoria in Long Beach, picked up a buddy who he dropped off in Chicago, and made his way back to the cape, where he searched for a job in the electronics industry.
Finding none, the Cold-War technology whiz found work in a somewhat archaic industry. Rather than focusing on encrypted transmissions he focused on magazine subscriptions, selling them door-to-door.
Volker traveled up and down the east coast, making more than $2,000 a month in commissions at a time when the average household income was less than $5,000 per year, until a fateful encounter prompted him to knock on his last door.
As one of the company’s top salesmen, Volker had worked up quite a thirst while pounding the pavement one Friday near Cape Canaveral, Florida.
“A woman answered, as they did a lot, and I said, ‘Listen, I’m a magazine salesman, and I don’t want to sell you anything, but I’m thirsty. Could you spare a glass of water?’”
Volker and the woman got to talking, during which time he learned that her husband was an electronics contractor at Kennedy Space Center, and needed help.
But the man was away at a conference in Las Vegas, so Volker continued on to Key West, where he suddenly quit his job, hitchhiked back up to Cape Canaveral, and again knocked on the woman’s door.
“He was there, and he hired me on the spot,” Volker said.
Volker began installing closed-circuit television systems on NASA’s launchpads during Project Gemini, and bounced around with different contractors like Fairchild Hiller until he landed at Boeing in 1967.
President Kennedy’s call for Americans on the moon hadn’t died with him in 1963; rather, it became something for a destabilized, conflicted nation to rally around as it slowly beginning to eclipse the Soviet space program.
As Gemini drew to a close in 1966 like Project Mercury had in 1963, Project Apollo began with the goal of answering Kennedy’s call.
After an inauspicious start during which astronauts Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom and Edward H. White asphyxiated during a pre-launch test, the Apollo project succeeded in setting a number of human spaceflight milestones that had finally put the moon within reach.
Volker began work on Apollo 4; as the missions progressed sequentially, all were meant to test equipment and procedures that would be needed to land on the moon.
Apollo 4 was the first test of the massive Saturn V rocket, Apollo 5 was the first test of the lunar module and Apollo 6 again tested the Saturn V. All were unmanned and took place in an astonishingly short five-month span from November 1967 to April 1968.
Kennedy’s deadline was drawing ever closer; failure to meet it carried huge psychological consequences for the Americans, who aimed to prove that American ingenuity and dedication couldn’t be silenced by a sniper’s bullet.
“We were extremely motivated,” said Volker.
The final countdown
In October 1968, Apollo 7 lifted off intending to carry out the ill-fated mission of Apollo 1, which had killed Chaffee, Grissom and White some 20 months prior.
The successful test of the command/service module by Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walter Cunningham paved the way for Apollo 8’s launch on Dec. 21.
Apollo 8 would become the first time humans would leave low-earth orbit. Crewed by William Anders, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell — who would famously be played by Tom Hanks in a movie about the Apollo 13 mission — Apollo 8 was to orbit the moon and return the three men to the earth, essentially doing everything but land on the moon.
“My job was to monitor a strip chart recorder,” Volker said of the gear that recorded dozens, if not hundreds, of sensors and performance indicators on the Saturn rocket that for the first time would carry humans atop.
“They had a lot of early problems with vibration in the rockets, because you’re looking at 7.5 million pounds of thrust from five engines,” he said.
Volker vividly remembers working the Dec. 21 launch.
“You’re in the firing room, and you just feel the rumbling,” he said. “But you can’t look.”
His responsibility ended just after liftoff.
“As soon as it clears the tower, you can rush up to the windows,” he said, describing the column of flame escaping the rear of the 363 foot-tall rocket as it began the three astronauts’ 400,000-mile journey.
That journey took six days, 3 hours, and 42 minutes, during which time Anders, Borman and Lovell were never far from the minds of those who helped put them in space.
“In my head, I was flying with those guys the whole time,” Volker said. “You’re just hoping and praying. Praying nothing goes wrong.”
After days of cautious optimism, Anders, Borman and Lovell returned without a hitch.
“That thing went off exactly on time, splashdown was, I think, exactly where it was supposed to be, when it was supposed, to be,” he said.
As with other successful missions, Apollo 8 led to Apollo 9 in March 1969, when astronauts would test the command vehicle and lunar module in low earth orbit. That in turn led to Apollo 10, which would bring astronauts to within 9 miles of the moon’s surface by May 1969.
Apollo 11 would finally answer Kennedy’s call in July 1969.
O holy flight
Apollo 8 returned to earth on Dec. 27, 1968, after bring gone almost a week.
While circling the moon, astronauts celebrated the first Christmas in outer space with a live video transmission from orbit and in doing so, created an indelible Christmas memory for a generation of Americans.
“I was watching television, like everyone else,” Volker said of his Christmas Eve in 1968. “Then they came on with that live feed, in black and white.”
Today, video and internet communications between the earth and space have become so commonplace as to render the once-futuristic mundane; interactive video chats and tweets from beyond the Van Allen belt are barely newsworthy anymore.
But back then, a grainy greyscale broadcast from lunar orbit attracted what was at the time the largest television audience ever.
“I think I stood up and cheered,” Volker laughed.
Faced with the challenge of addressing the greatest amount of people that had ever heard a lone human voice, Frank Borman said in 1998 that the only instructions he’d been given by NASA with which to mark the momentous occasion were to “do something appropriate.”
As Anders, Borman and Lovell circled the moon — the first 10 human orbits of the moon, ever — while beaming back images to millions of transfixed humans 200,000 miles away, they began to read the first 10 chapters of the Book of Genesis.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day. And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.
“That whole passage is just so significant as to where we are, as humans in relation to our Creator,” said Volker. “Whether you’re a believer or not.”
Notably, the mission also produced another significant first — what has been called the most influential photograph ever taken.
Titled, “Earthrise,” astronaut William Anders’ Christmas Eve photo of the earth coming into view above the moon’s horizon continues to serve as a profound reminder of humanity’s place in the universe, even almost 50 years after it was taken.
“I was extremely proud to be part of the program,” Volker said. “Every year at this time of the year, I look up, and I think, I was part of that.”