Christmas Eve 1968

Forty years ago this Christmas Eve, the astronauts of Apollo 8 became the first human beings to orbit the Moon. As they orbited, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders broadcast a message that was carried live throughout United States and the world. This is NASA’s description of that Christmas Eve broadcast.

Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the Moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1968. That evening, the astronauts; Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders did a live television broadcast from lunar orbit, in which they showed pictures of the Earth and Moon seen from Apollo 8. Lovell said, “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” They ended the broadcast with the crew taking turns reading from the book of Genesis.

William Anders:

“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.”

Jim Lovell:

“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.”

Frank Borman:

“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.”

Listening to the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast is still one of the most striking memories of my youth.

Why did this broadcast mean so much to me and to the rest of the world?

The year had been filled with tragedy and bad news. The world seemed to be coming apart at the seems. Arguments over the Vietnam War, civil rights and a rapidly changing culture divided the nation.

Tremendous civil unrest characterized much of 1968. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968. Riots broke out in Washington, Baltimore, Chicago and over 100 other cities following King’s assassination, further heightening racial tensions. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June after winning the California Democratic presidential primary. In 1968, students at South Carolina State in Orangeburg were killed during a protest. Black Panthers and police engaged in shootouts in various parts of the country. Student demonstrators took over Columbia University in New York City. Political radicals and Chicago police fought violently during the Democratic Convention. It was a year filled with domestic violence.

The Vietnam War took 16,589 lives that year, the highest yearly KIA/MIA total for the war. The North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive in January, a tactical defeat for the NVA but a strategic victory in Ho Chi Minh’s propaganda war against the United States. Anti-war and anti-government demonstrations filled the news. The My Lai massacre in March further disheartened the American people and the war became the central issue of the 1968 elections. President Johnson announced at the end of March that he would not run for a second term; the war had chased the president from office. I, in my youthful naivete and ignorance, was a big supporter of Eugene McCarthy, an extreme anti-war candidate. Much to my great personal disappointment, McCarthy lost the nomination to Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s more pragmatic vice-president. Humphrey in-turn lost the general election to Richard Nixon.

The world outside of Vietnam didn’t look much brighter in 1968. The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, reasserted authoritarian control and brought the “Prague spring” of reforms to and end. The Red Army Faction in Germany was carrying out terrorist bombings. In Northern Ireland, protesters and police clashed, greatly escalating the “troubles” between Protestant and Catholic. North Korea was at its bellicose best in 1968 and seized the US Navy ship Pueblo in international waters. (Side note: The Pueblo is still a commissioned ship in the US Navy and the DPRK still has the Pueblo docked in Pyongyang as a centerpiece of its anti-American propaganda). A nuclear armed US B-52 crashed in Greenland and the US nuclear attack submarine Scorpion sank in the Atlantic. There was very little good news in 1968.

The Apollo 8 broadcast was the voice of hope as 1968 came to a close. The year had shown us how disappointing life can be; the astronauts showed us what human beings are capable of achieving. The view of earth from a quarter-million miles away put our lives in perspective. And the reading of scripture pointed us to something bigger than ourselves. I doubt that today’s environment could tolerate the sectarianism of reading from Genesis, but 40 years ago, the words of Genesis were a godsend from the heavens to a weary world.