LIMA — No one had ever been farther from home for the holidays.
Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, escaped the gravitational pull of Earth and entered into lunar orbit more than 200,000 miles away on Christmas Eve of 1968. Given the season, NASA’s Mission Control had prepared a gift for the astronauts.
“Arriving around the moon on Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8’s commander Frank Borman had just finished lamenting to Mission Control about the freeze-dried holiday dinners he and his crewmates, James Lovell and Bill Anders, had aboard when the three found the surprise meal waiting for them,” according to the web site space.com.
“In Apollo 8’s food locker, wrapped in foil and tied with red and green ribbons: real turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce,” historian Andrew Chaikin wrote in his 1994 book, “A Man on the Moon.” The “wetpack” meal, developed by the military, was “by far the best meal of the voyage.”
A United Press story from Christmas Eve 1968 described the meal. “The turkey is much like meat that has been canned. It’s cut in pieces and the astronauts will eat it with a spoon. Packaged with the dinner are cranberry-apple sauce, coffee and a grape drink. These items are freeze dehydrated.”
Although Apollo 8 took turkey to the moon, Apollo 11 took it one giant leap further. When Wapakoneta native Neil Armstrong announced on July 20, 1969, that “the Eagle has landed,” it did so with turkey in the pantry.
According to reference.com “the Lunar Module … contained a snack pantry holding candy bars, dried fruit, ham salad, turkey and bread.” The web site’s description of the turkey makes the Spartan, Spam-like dinner on Apollo 8 sound sumptuous. The meat snacks required no heating and “were coated with gelatin.”
These snacks, according to a July 16, 1969, wire story in The Lima News, came in bite-size cubes that were held in the mouth until they rehydrated. “At first they taste like cardboard but the flavor blossoms in the mouth.”
It’s unclear if either Armstrong or fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin ate the turkey while on the moon. “According to NASA, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin ate two meals consistently while on the lunar surface. The first meal was made of bacon squares and peaches, with sugar cookies for dessert,” reference.com notes. “The second was made up of beef stew and cream of chicken soup, with date fruit cake for dessert. While the astronauts had a selection of meals and snacks aboard the Apollo 11 Command Module, the supplies aboard the Lunar Module were more limited. The astronauts could enjoy grape, pineapple-grapefruit and orange drinks as well as freeze-dried coffee.”
Aboard the Apollo 11 Command Module piloted by astronaut Michael Collins there was more variety, including the “wetpacks,” which the wire story noted in July 1969, “had its premiere last Christmas when the Apollo 8 crew found a surprise turkey dinner they could rehydrate with hot water and eat with a spoon. This was the first time men in space ate with an ordinary spoon.” Among the selections on the Command Module: beef and potatoes, ham and potatoes, and turkey and gravy.
Turkey was a regular menu item for subsequent Apollo missions. The astronauts of Apollo 12 — Charles “Pete” Conrad, Richard F. Gordon and Alan E. Bean — returned from the moon to the isolation of quarantine aboard the carrier U.S.S. Hornet on Thanksgiving Day 1969.
“The Apollo 12 astronauts, who walked the lunar Ocean of Storms a week ago, spent Thanksgiving Day in isolation, their hard work broken only by the traditional turkey treat,” a reporter for United Press International wrote in a story filed from the Hornet on Nov. 27, 1969.
Later, space shuttle missions also honored the holiday tradition. On Nov. 28, 1985, the Associated Press wrote, “The launch of a third communications satellite and a dinner of turkey preserved with gamma rays, hardly the old-fashioned kind, were on the Thanksgiving Day menu for the astronauts of space shuttle Atlantis.”
Aboard the International Space Station, which has been orbiting the Earth since 1998, American astronauts routinely share their Thanksgiving Day meal with astronauts from Russia and other nations.
As for Armstrong and Aldrin in their Lunar Module on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility more than 47 years ago, they likely didn’t eat turkey. It wasn’t Thanksgiving, anyway.
Nonetheless, they were thankful. And the first food consumed on the moon was more for the soul than the body.
In his 2005 book “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstong,” author James R. Hansen writes about Armstrong and Aldrin’s first hours on the moon: “They did eat a meal as scheduled, but not before Aldrin first reached into his Personal Preference Kit, or PPK, and pulled out two small packages given him by his Presbyterian minister, Rev. Dean Woodruff, back in Houston. One package contained a vial of wine, the other a wafer. Pouring the wine into a small chalice that he also pulled from his kit, he prepared to take Holy Communion.
“At 04:09:25:38 mission elapsed time, Buzz radioed, ‘Houston this is the LM pilot speaking. I would like to request a few moments of silence. I would like to invite each person listening in, wherever or whoever he may be, to contemplate the events of the last few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way.’ Then with his mike off, Buzz read to himself from a small card on which he had written a portion of the Book of John (John 15:5) traditionally used in the Presbyterian communion ceremony.”
“I am the vine, you are the branches,
He who abides in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit
For apart from me, you can do nothing.”
Hansen writes that Armstrong “greeted Buzz’s religious ritual with polite silence,” adding that Armstrong said Aldrin had informed him of his plans and asked if Amrstrong had any problems with it. Armstrong didn’t, telling Hansen, “I had plenty of things to keep busy with. I just let him do his own thing.”