The Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner Surprise: Turkey and Gravy en Route to the Moon in 1968On Christmas Day in 1968, the Apollo 8 crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders were delighted to find a surprise in their food locker: a specially packed Christmas dinner, complete with red and green ribbons.

This “home-cooked” meal, as close to a traditional holiday feast as NASA could muster for space travel, lifted the crew’s spirits and whet their appetites.

Beyond its culinary appeal, this meal also marked a significant moment in the evolution of space food.

During their journey to the Moon, the Apollo 8 crew found themselves lacking in appetite. Food scientist Malcolm Smith later detailed the crew’s minimal food intake.

Frank Borman, in particular, consumed the least, with just 881 calories on day two, a concern noted by flight surgeon Chuck Berry.

Borman attributed this to the unappetizing nature of most of the food provided.

The crew tended to avoid the compressed, bite-sized items and faced another challenge: when rehydrating their meals, the food often absorbed the flavor of its packaging rather than retaining its original taste.

The Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner Surprise

The Apollo 8 Christmas menu included dehydrated grape drink, cranberry-applesauce, and coffee, as well as a wetpack containing turkey and gravy.

Throughout the 1960s, astronauts and personnel at the Manned Spacecraft Center voiced numerous complaints about the food provided.

Prior to the Apollo 8 mission, Apollo 9 astronaut Jim McDivitt took matters into his own hands, jotting down his in-flight food preferences on the back of the Apollo 8 crew menu.

He urged the food lab to reduce the quantity of compressed, bite-sized items “to a bare minimum” and to incorporate more meat and potato dishes.

Expressing his concern, McDivitt wrote, “I get awfully hungry, and I’m afraid I’m going to starve to death on that menu.”

The Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner Surprise

The prime crew of the Apollo 8 lunar orbit mission pose for a portrait next to the Apollo Mission Simulator at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Left to right, they are James A. Lovell Jr., command module pilot; William A. Anders, lunar module pilot; and Frank Borman, commander.

In 1969, Rita Rapp, a physiologist leading the Apollo Food System team, approached Donald Arabian, head of the Mission Evaluation Room, for his assessment of a four-day food supply used in the Apollo missions.

Arabian, known for his adventurous palate and humorously describing himself as a “human garbage can,” was surprised to find the food lacking in flavor, aroma, appearance, texture, and taste.

At the end of his four-day assessment, he concluded that “the pleasures of eating were lost to the point where interest in eating was essentially curtailed.”

The Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner Surprise

When the Apollo 8 crew unwrapped their Christmas surprise – a specially prepared meal complete with ribbons – their delight was genuine.

It turned out to be a full-on space feast: turkey with gravy, cranberry sauce, and even grape punch! So good, in fact, that astronaut Jim Lovell couldn’t resist contacting mission control to share their good fortune.

“Looks like we might have been a little rough on the food guys back home,” he chuckled to capsule communicator Mike Collins.

“Right after our TV broadcast, Santa Claus dropped off a TV dinner for each of us, and let me tell you, it was outstanding! Turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce – the whole works.”

In response, Collins expressed delight in hearing the good news but shared that the flight control team was not as lucky. Instead, they were “eating cold coffee and baloney sandwiches.”

The Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner SurpriseThe meal aboard Apollo 8 marked a significant breakthrough. Prior to this mission, astronauts’ food choices were limited to freeze-dried items that required rehydration and compressed foods in cube form.

Most of the food was heavily processed. However, NASA introduced a new concept with the “wetpack” for Apollo 8: a thermostabilized package containing turkey and gravy that retained its natural water content and could be eaten with a spoon.

While astronauts had previously consumed thermostabilized pureed food during the Project Mercury missions, they had never before enjoyed solid chunks of meat like turkey in space.

The Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner SurpriseIn the Project Gemini and Apollo 7 missions, astronauts resorted to using their fingers to eat bite-sized cubes and used zero-G feeder tubes for rehydrated food.

The inclusion of the wetpack on Apollo 8 was the result of years of development.

The U.S. Army Natick Labs in Massachusetts created the packaging, and the U.S. Air Force conducted numerous parabolic flights to test the feasibility of eating with a spoon from the package in microgravity.
The Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner SurpriseThe newly improved meal proved to be a real morale booster for the astronauts.

Its appeal stemmed from several factors: the new packaging allowed them to see and smell the turkey and gravy; the texture and flavor of the meat remained unaltered by adding water from the spacecraft or the rehydration process.

More importantly, the crew could skip the process of adding water, kneading the package, and waiting to consume their meal.

NASA recognized that the Christmas dinner highlighted “the importance of the methods of presentation and serving of food.”

The Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner SurpriseEating with a spoon, as opposed to using the zero-G feeder, improved the in-flight dining experience, resembling the way people eat on Earth—using utensils rather than squirting pureed food from a pouch into their mouths.

Using a spoon also simplified eating and meal preparation.

Following this success, NASA increased the number of wetpacks aboard Apollo 9, and the crew experimented with eating other foods, including rehydrated items, with the spoon.
The Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner SurpriseThe Apollo 8 mission was significant not only because it was the first time that human beings had orbited the Moon, but also because Apollo 8 images of the Earth rising over the Moon and sitting isolated in space became important in encouraging the growth of environmental awareness.

Seeing the entire Earth from the vantage point of space for the first time, through the images from Apollo 8 and later Apollo missions, gave rise to the environmentally important concept of “Spaceship Earth” and helped foster the environmental consciousness and the Green movement.

Two Apollo missions took place in Earth orbit, the rest involved journeys to the Moon, lasting up to 12 days.

The Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner Surprise

Thermostabilized wet meat product, turkey & gravy.

The Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner Surprise

The Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner Surprise

Food used on the Gemini-Titan IV flight. Packages include beef sandwich cubes, strawberry cereal cubes, dehydrated peaches, and dehydrated beef and gravy. A water gun on the Gemini spacecraft is used to reconstitute the dehydrated food and scissors are used to open the packaging.

The Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner Surprise

The Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner Surprise

The Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner Surprise

Finished Apollo 8 Christmas dinner meal replica – with Christmas ribbons.

The Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner Surprise

Many are familiar with Apollo 11, the mission that landed humans on the Moon for the first time, but there were 14 missions total during the Apollo Program (1961-1972).

(Photo credit: NASA / U.S. Natick Soldier Systems Center Photographic Collection).