Christmas in space: How Apollo 8 mission saved 1968

In August 1968, the same month that the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was rocked with riots, a young NASA manager named George Low conceived the idea of sending the second manned Apollo mission around the moon.

In short, 1968 was a Pandora’s Box of horrors unleashed on the world. It was the year of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and featured riots on college campuses and in the inner cities, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and marked the end of President Lyndon Johnson’s political career. Overseas, a near revolution erupted in France and the Soviets ended an experiment of socialism with humanity in Czechoslovakia.

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During this period of turmoil, NASA had planned a series of increasingly difficult flights in Earth orbit before a test flight with the command and service modules, as well as the lunar module in lunar orbit to be followed by a lunar landing. Low had hit on the inspiration of sending the command and service modules into lunar orbit alone, a bold move that would test so many procedures, especially deep space navigation, that the date of the first moon landing would be advanced, ensuring that President Kennedy’s goal of sending a man to the moon and back could be achieved by the end of the '60s.

At first, many at NASA were dubious about sending men into lunar orbit so soon. Such a mission could go wrong in numerous ways. Scheduling the flight during the Christmas holidays was an added risk. If Apollo 8 ended with its crew stranded in lunar orbit, the holidays would be forever ruined, and the moon landing would likely have been canceled.

However, indications that the Soviets might try a circumlunar mission with cosmonauts made sending Apollo 8 around the moon imperative. So, on December 21, 1968, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders lifted off on top of a Saturn V rocket and headed toward the moon in the boldest space mission then undertaken.

Less than three days later, Apollo 8 arrived in orbit around the moon. For the first three orbits, the crew concentrated on observing the lunar surface and setting up equipment. During the fourth orbit, Anders saw, for the first time in human history, the Earth rising over the lunar surface in real time. Anders took a series of photographs, including one that later graced the cover of Life Magazine. The Earthrise became one of the most iconic images ever created, illustrating the beauty and fragility of the home planet against the vastness of space.

During the ninth orbit, the crew delivered a Christmas Eve broadcast.

After giving their impressions of the lunar surface, each of the crew recited sections from the first 10 verses of the Book of Genesis, the creation story shared by both Christians and Jews:

“In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth…”

The Apollo 8 crew recited the verses as the image of the Earthrise was broadcast back to an estimated 1 billion people who were following the flight. Borman concluded by saying, “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.”

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The broadcast, the live Earthrise, and the Bible reading was an event of such awe-inspiring beauty that it placed the year that was then concluded in perspective. Despite the death, tragedy, and anger present 50 years ago, poor, flawed humanity was still capable of doing great things. Apollo 8 had saved 1968.

However, just to show that you can’t please everyone, atheist activist Madeline Murray O’Hair filed suit against the United States government alleging that the Christmas Eve broadcast violated the principle of the separation of church and state in the first amendment of the United States Constitution. The suit went nowhere, but it did cause Buzz Aldrin to keep quiet the fact that he took communion on the lunar surface during the Apollo 11 mission.

One can only imagine what sort of ceremony, if any, the next astronauts to head into deep space, toward the moon, will be permitted to hold in this age of political correctness.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”