This Day in History: Genesis from the Moon
Forty years ago this day, Christmas Eve, a riotous and troubled world stopped in its tracks and held its breath. The crew of Apollo 8, which had blasted off 3 days earlier in the new behemoth rocket Saturn V, masterminded by rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun, had reached orbit around the moon, and was about to speak to the world.
Because of delays with the lunar lander, the mission planners decided to try a lunar mission earlier than first scheduled. It would help them gain confidence with orbital maneuvers and keep ahead of the Russians. It was a risky move that would involve several firsts: first manned use of the Saturn V (one of the most complex machines ever built by man), first manned lunar orbit, and farthest from Earth man had ever traveled. Lunar orbit insertion was particularly risky. The slightest mistake in calculation would have doomed the crew: either crashing them into the moon, or sending them off into space with no chance to get home. Ground controllers were in blackout when the burn completed behind the moon. A confirming voice from the spacecraft, slightly later than expected, sent a huge sigh of relief through mission control. Apollo 8 was in orbit.
For the next 20 hours the crew circled the moon 10 times. They were the first humans to witness “Earthrise,” a sight of our blue marble, brimming with life, rising above the limb of a desolate, airless world (for a more recent image in HD, see the 11/15/2007 entry and Astronomy Picture of the Day). The pictures Apollo 8 took were historic. Those images were to alter man’s perception of his place in the universe, showing how precious our delicate jewel appeared against the blackness of space (see Australian Broadcasting Corporation).
The world needed some good news. 1968 had been a disastrous year. The Vietnam War escalated during the Tet Offensive, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, millions of hippies were taking drugs and protesting the establishment, and anti-war activists were rioting in the streets. What happened next on that Christmas Eve brought a precious moment of peace on earth, good will to men. Calling long distance from the moon to planet earth, William Anders began a Christmas greeting like no other (follow along on YouTube). As people around the world hushed and watched their TV sets, he said:
We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void;
and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good:
and God divided the light from the darkness.”
“And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.
And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters,
and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament
from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven.
And the evening and the morning were the second day.”
“And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place,
and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters
called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.”
Borman then added, “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.”
An estimated one billion people listened to that greeting – the largest TV audience to date. Somehow, everything took on a new perspective. The war and the national boundaries faded into insignificance as the ancient words of Genesis, pronouncing goodness on the newly-created world, took center stage. That moment captured the imagination of poets, journalists and authors for years. An anonymous telegram to the astronauts after the mission said, “Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”
A commemorative stamp was issued showing Earthrise with the words, “In the beginning God…” The story has been retold by John S. Gardner on National Review. Background of that holy night can also be found at a NASA-Goddard web page. A very lifelike and faithful re-enactment of the event can be seen in Tom Hanks’ HBO miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon, Part 4.
The Apollo 8 Christmas Eve anniversary was mentioned today by the BBC News and Space.com and Astronomy Picture of the Day, but all three avoided mention of the Genesis reading. It was mentioned, however, on Maryland Weather, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and many other news outlets. There will undoubtedly be many Apollo celebrations leading up to the 40th anniversary of the moon landing in July, but there was never a Christmas Eve quite like that one – a modern wish for a silent night, holy night, calm, brightness, and sleep in heavenly peace.
“Trouble and anguish have overtaken me, yet Your commandments are my delight,” says Psalm 119 of God’s healing Word. “The righteousness of Your testimonies is everlasting; Give me understanding, and I shall live.”
Even back then, a few sourpuss spoilsports got uptight about the government-funded Bible reading. Madelyn Murray O’Hair, the famous atheist, tried to sue to keep the word “God” off the stamp, but the courts decided she had no jurisdiction. Ha! But can you imagine the uproar something like that would cause today? The AmurkyOnes Untied, the NCSE dobermans and the “I’ll-Sue-You” ACLU would be taking off in an imperial TIE Fighter to shoot them down. The UN would come unglued and threaten America with sanctions. Borman, Lovell and Anders might have decided it wasn’t safe to come back.
The greeting was apparently conceived by the astronauts themselves, and surprised NASA as much as everyone else. The Chicago Tribune claimed that the astronauts got the idea from the wife of a reporter friend. NASA had only asked the three to “think of something appropriate to say.” It worked. The timeless words of Genesis 1 touched the hearts of a billion people wearied by war and conflict. The image of a beautiful blue orb in the vastness of space fit those words as humans had never before sensed from such a perspective: “and God saw that it was good.”
We trust most people can celebrate that event as one of the most beautiful gifts the space program ever sent home. Too bad most people quickly forgot it and resumed their selfish, thankless, violent ways. Keep the light shining. Put this wallpaper on your desktop and tell your coworkers about the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve message. And so to all our readers, we likewise extend our wishes for a good night, good providence, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the privileged planet.