December 19, 2012
Apollo 8 & Christmas Eve

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

By almost any measure 1968 was a troubling year in American history. It began with North Korea seizing the USS Pueblo in January, claiming the ship had violated its territorial waters. The crew was held as spies, and some were tortured. The standoff ended in December when the men were released, but the ship was never returned.

In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on the balcony of his Memphis hotel. Two months later, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California Democrat primary during his bid to become president.

In Vietnam, more American soldiers were killed during 1968 than any other year of that long war. Anti-war protests reached their peak on college campuses across the nation, and civil rights demonstrations – often violent, sometimes deadly – erupted in cities from coast to coast. In some cities, federal troops were mobilized to quell the riots.

Closer to home, Cleveland was rocked by the Glenville Shootout, a race riot in July that left more than a dozen people wounded, and seven people dead, including three police officers.

But then, in late December, something happened that would have been impossible just months before. That turbulent, destructive year reached an unlikely conclusion when three men – Bill Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman – climbed aboard a rocket and took off for the moon.

Apollo 8, the latest effort in America’s quest to beat the Soviets in the space race, was originally intended only to orbit Earth for further tests on the rocket’s components. But with the Soviets inching ahead in the race, NASA decided to take a risk: the new goal was to prove that we could get to the moon and back. When the Soviets learned of the mission, they considered it an adventure with no chance of success.

Less than a year later, Wapakoneta’s own Neil Armstrong would gain everlasting fame as the first person to step onto the moon. While Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crewmates – Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – are rightly remembered for their historic mission, it was Apollo 8 that really set an impressive string of “firsts.”

Launching on December 21, the ship rocketed into space and then, after getting the go-ahead from Mission Control, set a course for the moon, thus making Borman, Lovell and Anders the first humans to leave Earth orbit.

Each moment they sped toward the moon they set a new record – no one had ever traveled so far, or so fast. The crew reached their destination three days after takeoff, and in due course became the first humans to orbit the moon. Which, in turn, made them the first people to gaze upon the far side of the moon.

Apollo 8 was also equipped with television cameras, and on December 24 – during the evening hours in the United States – the crew of Apollo 8 appeared on television from lunar orbit. The Christmas Eve broadcast was the most watched television program of all time at that point. An estimated one billion people watched – a quarter of the world’s population in 1968.

The crew was aware of the historic nature of their broadcast, and they had searched for a theme for their mission, something to match the significance of this achievement that had elevated all of humankind. And so, with the world watching, the crew of Apollo 8 read the first ten verses of the Book of Genesis, from the Old Testament.

Bill Anders began: “We are now approaching lunar sunrise and, for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth ... ’”

After Jim Lovell read the middle verses, Borman finished with, “And God called the dry land earth; and the gathering together of the waters He called seas; and God saw that it was good.”

It’s safe to say that never before had anyone spent Christmas so far from home as the men on Apollo 8. As Borman closed their unforgettable broadcast his words reflected that distance, a trace of homesickness in his voice: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

Of course, not everyone shared the joy. Madalyn Murray O’Hair – the vocal atheist – responded to the Genesis reading by suing the government, alleging violations of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court eventually dismissed the suit, but it was an ugly footnote to a beautiful moment.

There was another important first that came out of this mission – perhaps the most memorable one of all. Emerging from the dark side of the moon on their lunar orbit, the crew of Apollo 8 was greeted with a sight no human had ever witnessed: the Earth rising over the moon’s horizon. Anders snapped a picture – later called “Earthrise” – that became one of the most famous photographs of all time: Earth as it appears from outer space.

Many of the events of 1968 put on graphic display the very worst of human behavior – war, violence, hatred, murder and senseless destruction. But then that desolate year gave us an unexpected gift: for the first time we saw our beautiful planet, floating alone in the darkness of space, at once magnificent and fragile, and we sensed – if only for a brief moment – that our differences mattered little, and we saw all of humanity, alone together.

After the mission, Borman received an anonymous telegram that simply said, “Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”  Like the spirit of Hope that fluttered out of Pandora’s Box after all the pestilence and evil had been unleashed on the world, Apollo 8 lifted off Earth and flew into the heavens to give us a look back at ourselves, and we saw what noble things humankind was capable of when our better angels prevail.

Merry Christmas everyone, “all of you on the good Earth.”