NASA Commemorates Apollo 8 Genesis Reading
A major event for the 50th Anniversary of Apollo didn’t shy away from the historic Bible reading from the moon.
Before reading our reaction to the NASA Event “The Spirit of Apollo” (Dec 11), watch Illustra’s video “Merry Christmas from the Moon” to see what was the centerpiece of Apollo 8:
Tuesday night December 11th, 2018, The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, in cooperation with NASA, held a commemoration of Apollo 8 at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. This was one of several major events for the 50th Anniversary of Apollo. Some consider Apollo 8 an even more significant historic event than the actual moon landing 7 months later (Apollo 11’s anniversary will be celebrated in July, 2019). You will see why in the statements below.
Here are some comments from the event written in real time as the event took place. The program notes say,
Apollo 8 was the first human mission to the Moon, and its crew were the first people to see the far side with their own eyes. The mission’s dramatic highlights included a live Christmas Eve broadcast during which the astronauts read verses from the Book of Genesis in lunar orbit, and the iconic Earthrise photo, which stunned the world with the beauty and isolation of our home in the cosmos.
The evening’s speakers, including Apollo 8 astronaut Jim Lovell and Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Michael Curry, will celebrate that moment of unity and the spiritual meaning of exploration embodied by the first flight to the Moon. A dramatic choral performance will recreate the famous Christmas Eve Broadcast. Apollo 8 challenged our understanding of human limitations. Fifty years later, we come together to honor the Spirit of Apollo.
[Note: This is a summary, not a transcript. Quotations may not be exact due to rapid transcription in real time. Check the playback for actual quotes.]
19:50 Music from Holst’s The Planets is playing (Mars, the Bringer of War and Venus, the Bringer of Peace) before the start of the program.
20:00 Camera zooms in on the National Cathedral interior.
20:02 The Very Reverend Randy Hollerith, Dean of Washington National Cathedral, calls Earth “God’s gracious gift.” Mentions that a piece of moon rock from Apollo is embedded in the cathedral’s “Space Window.”
20:07 Ellen R. Stofan, PhD, recalls how NASA only told Commander Borman to ‘Do something appropriate‘ – so they read the creation story from the book of Genesis. For man’s new future in space, “they went back to the beginning.” Upon hearing the story of Genesis on Christmas Eve, even the flight engineers wept. Stofan mistakenly says twice that a million people were watching (it was more like a billion). She speculates on “What will be the reaction when we discover life?”
20:13 Multimedia film “The Firmament” with choir and orchestra. Playback of impressions of the moon’s appearance by the astronauts. Choir interlude. Genesis reading played in its entirety, with choir voices and orchestra bells behind, and photos of the astronauts who read it.
18:20 The Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, reads the Genesis passage again to the point, “Let there be light!” Quotes a black Baptist preacher James Weldon Johnson, author of “God’s Trombone,” who preached on Genesis in the 1800s. Johnson’s poetic version begins, “And God stepped out on space, and said, “I’m lonely: I’ll make me a world.” Curry remarks, “It’s not about us. We are part of a greater world.” We were made for a relationship of God who created us, with one another, and with the world, because God created it and cares about it. “And if you don’t believe me, talk to Jesus!” He quotes John 3:16. God so loved “the cosmos” that Christmas happened. We were made for God, for each other, and for this whole creation. “He’s got the whole world in his hands” he repeats: “He’s got you & me brother … sister … the little bitty baby in His hands. Curry recalls how in 1968, three human beings summoned great courage, with NASA technology. A quarter million miles from home—almost by accident—the astronauts saw something no human being had ever seen before. And when they read from Genesis, “I wonder if God kind of gave a cosmic smile, and He said, ‘Now y’all see what I see.'” God whispered in their ears, “Behold the world, the world of which you are a part. Look at its symmetry. Look at its beauty. Look at its wonder. Behold your world.” Some have said that was a moment that changed human consciousness forever. The Earthrise has been called one of the 100 most impactful photographs in all of human history. The environmental movement had its inspiration from that photograph, and from the reading of Genesis. Rev. Curry ventures off into climate change for a minute or two. Apollo’s legacy, he remarks, is a call for re-dedication to fly to new worlds, to use the wisdom of science & technology to save this oasis. “Good night, good luck, merry Christmas to all of us on this good Earth.” Curry ends by singing “He’s got the whole world in His hands,” inviting the audience to join in.
20:38 Film with astronauts commenting on Apollo, including Anders, Borman, Lovell in their senior years. Anders said that Frank had chosen to read the book of Genesis. It shocked people but really got their attention. Borman called Apollo a “uniquely American program,” but adds that “we came for all mankind.” Anders remarked that they saw the Earth the size of your fist at arm’s length. “We came to discover the moon,” he said, “but what we really discovered was the Earth.”
20:41 Jim Bridenstine, NASA Director, follows up on Rev Curry by saying “It’s absolutely true that God does hold the entire world in His hands.” He recounts the Apollo 1 disaster the previous year, and multiple failures in Apollo 6 in August 1968 (it wasn’t called a failure at the time). Apollo 8 was four months away, and not ready! One out of every four people on Earth tuned in to the broadcast to hear the astronauts read Genesis 1:1-10, including those in the Soviet Union, where Christmas was still illegal. Bridenstine shifts gears toward the future: “We are going forward to the moon,” he says, “to stay.” He announces goals for sustainable, reusable architecture, with commercial and international partners. “Today we heard the astronauts read from Genesis,” that there was a firmament in the heavens, which Bridenstine says represents empty space. There, the waters below the firmament were separated the waters above. People in 1968 believed the moon was bone dry. Now we know that there are hundreds of billions of tons of water ice on the surface of the moon, at the poles. This can provide rocket fuel and drinkable water. ‘Gateway’ will be a permanent command module able to ferry machines and astronauts to the surface of the moon and back. Open architecture means that any country will be able to see how we do it, including private individuals and commercial companies. Goals are to retire the risk, prove the technology, prove the capability, understand human physiology, and replicate as much as possible on our journey to Mars. Remarks again about the waters above and below the firmament. When our Apollo astronauts read that, they didn’t know water existed anywhere else. Now we know of oceans below Europa and 10 miles below Mars. Is there life on other worlds? We don’t know, but Mars has methane emissions that fluctuate with the seasons; also complex organic compounds. These are exciting times, Bridenstine says. They don’t guarantee life is on Mars, but are consistent with the possibility. Lovell’s words about waters above the firmament had very real meaning. NASA is following the water, discovering life. Bridenstine introduces Jim Lovell as one of his heroes, astronaut on Gemini 7 & 12, Apollo 8 and Apollo 13. Lovell comes up to the podium.
20:54 Lovell gets a standing ovation from the audience. He recounts the bad summer of 1968. Protests against an unpopular war, beginnings of a “metoo movement” with women burning their bras, and hippies on the rise. After Gemini, Lovell was looking forward to an Apollo flight, but the Apollo 1 disaster that killed three of his friends delayed the Apollo program for 10 months. Lovell describes Borman & Anders, his co-pilots. The Lunar Module, they learned, was not going to be ready. The US also gained intelligence that the Russians were planning a lunar flight before the year was out, after three successful unmanned flights in the Zond series, including one that flew around the moon. Zond 7 was being prepared for a manned flight in December. NASA official George Lowe had a brilliant idea, provided the Command Module were certified in October, to launch Apollo 8 to moon and go into lunar orbit. In addition to numerous scientific benefits, and opportunities to check the Apollo technologies, it would give America the uplift it needed. But they only had four months to prepare. The Saturn V booster still had problems. NASA officials would only approve the risky flight if Apollo 7 were successful. For Borman, the possibility answered his dream. Anders as disappointed, because as Lunar Module pilot he wouldn’t have a working LM. “I was delighted,” Lovell recalls, because it would be “a mini-Lewis and Clark Expedition” to go where others had not gone before. On Dec 21,in the early morning, as he watched the press vehicles, “Suddenly I realized I was going to the moon.” All that navigation training was for real. At 7:21, Apollo 8 launched. There was no sign of a Russian launch. The crew entered lunar orbit entered on dark side, and the moon was nowhere to be seen. Shards of sunlight illuminated craters 60 miles below as they approached lunar sunrise. “I was observing alive that part of the moon that had been hidden from man for millions of years. “Then looking up, I saw it” – the Earth, a blue and white ball 240,000 miles away. I thought, my world has always been only as far as I can see: the horizon, the walls of a building. Seeing Earth 240,000 miles, he recalls, “my world suddenly expanded to infinity.” He pressed his thumb up against the window, and it completely hid the earth. “Everything I knew was behind my thumb,” I thought. “I realized my home is a small planet, just a mere speck in our Milky Way galaxy, and lost to oblivion” in the universe. I began to question my own existence; how do I fit into the world I see? I remembered thinking, “I hope to go to heaven when I die.” I went to heaven when I was born, he says, reflecting on we live on a planet with all the essentials for life, around “a star just the right distance that caused life to evolve in the beginning,” he continues. “God gave mankind a stage upon which to perform. How the play ends is up to us.” By all means, the flight of Apollo 8 was a complete success. Orbiting the moon on Christmas provided the spiritual environment on which to inspire the world with the reading of Genesis. He mentions Apollo 13 in passing; “that’s another story,” he quips. In Apollo 8, the American public got the real gift. He recalls a telegram received by the crew: “Thanks: you save 1968.” When Lovell accompanied the aged Charles Lindbergh to launch of Apollo 11, looking back at Lindbergh’s perilous 34-hour flight from New York to Paris, Lindbergh remarked, “Apollo 11 will be quite an accomplishment, but your flight Apollo 8 from the earth to the moon, that’s the flight I will remember.” applause.
~18:05 Richard Attenborough film. He gives his thoughts: How isolated and lonely we are here on Earth. In Apollo 8, we had not lost our connection to the natural world; we had rediscovered it. Something extraordinary: a grand competition between Russia and the USA led to a grand discovery. Apollo 8 gave us the dawn of planetary awareness. 50 years later, we are at high noon. The discovery of Earth urges our responsibility to protect the Earth. That American inspiration united us, and assured us that any feasible goal is within our grasp. Let us always remember the moment we left Earth for the f1st time and discovered what is truly precious – all of us together on the good earth.
18:09 Hollerith: God bless you, may He bless us and keep us, and may we always be reaching for the stars.
If you missed the event, I recommend watching the recording at the Air & Space Museum website. There are some things we can complain about, as with any public “spiritual” event, but much of the program was reverent and inspiring. For instance, there was open acknowledgement of God as Creator – and not a distant Creator, but one who cares for us and for His world. The Darwin-only atheistic materialism normally fluent at NASA was notable for its absence. Also, there was no hint of syncretism, trying to include the gods of other religions with the Creator. No, this is the God of Genesis! And to have John 3:16 quoted in a NASA event may be historic.
Also memorable are the impressions of James Lovell, now 90 years old, of that famous view of the Earthrise 50 years ago. It’s amazing to me that no one at NASA realized that opportunity in advance. The pressure of the space race may have caused them to overlook it. Lovell also recounted being struck by the bland, gray surface of the moon compared to the blue-and-white gem of the Earth, so small in the darkness that he could cover it with his thumb. The music, film clips and quotes did justice to the spiritual import of that flight. It was also a celebration of American ingenuity and risk taking. Bridenstine recounted how many things went wrong with the earlier Apollo tests and flights: the Apollo 6 Command Module’s engine, for instance, which would have to re-ignite half a dozen times for Apollo 8, failed to re-ignite once after its first use on Apollo 6 in August. Other mishaps he described made the decision to orbit the moon just four months later seem reckless, and yet the Americans did it, and that during a year of political turmoil and social upheaval. So many things that could have gone wrong did not. I like to think God helped. We can look back with pride and joy at that inspiring mission, and not have our Christmases forever after ruined by the thought of dead astronauts orbiting the moon in a tin can. Several of the speakers also mentioned the perfection of Earth for human habitation. We live on an ideal planet around an ideal star, suggesting that humans have significance despite being specks in a vast universe (see Illustra’s short film, “Pale Blue Dot“).
Allow us to make one theological correction to Rev. Curry’s quote of James Weldon Johnson’s poem, that begins, “And God stepped out on space, and said, ‘I’m lonely. I’ll make me a world.'” Many of our readers know that God did not create because He was lonely. He is a Trinity, self-existing in eternal relationship, and did not need to create. Secondly, He didn’t step out on space, because space, time and matter were all part of creation: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). God is transcendent above all space, time and matter. We don’t want to be nit-picking here; we realize that Johnson, a godly preacher, was doing poetry, not theology or science. In fact, Johnson’s poem has been used in dramatic readings for years at one of America’s fundamental colleges in the south, Bob Jones University. It works very well in that context. It is very inspiring if you don’t take it as a piece of systematic theology. Envision an old black preacher waxing eloquent about Genesis 1 in a poor black church many years ago, with exuberant joy from the pulpit and rousing “Amen”s from the congregation, and you will be blessed by the poem. Watch William Warfield recite it in this YouTube video.
So we vote thumbs up on the NASA celebration of Apollo 8. Nevertheless, whenever there is a public display of spirituality, you have to take many statements with a grain of salt. Political correctness goes with the territory: human fault for climate change, the universal brotherhood of man, evolution (mentioned only briefly in passing), and the search for life on other worlds. Overall, though, it was unusual and praiseworthy to see a NASA event that (1) affirmed the God of Genesis with reverence, (2) made abundant use of the idea of a good Creation for a purpose, (3) spoke of the goodness and beauty of the Earth, (4) affirmed the spiritual value of the mission, and (5) mentioned Jesus and John 3:16, and (6) wished everyone a Merry Christmas. That was a really nice gift to the American people.
As December 24 approaches, we encourage you to share Illustra Media’s “Merry Christmas from the Moon” on social media as widely as possible. Don’t wait; right now is the best time.