Fifty years ago today, Apollo 8 was entering orbit around the moon. No human ever had ventured so far, and no space mission ever had captivated the world as did Apollo 8. On Christmas Eve 1968, the story of creation from “Bereshit” was broadcast around the world. We all remember Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” remark when he set foot on the moon from Apollo 11 seven months later, but it was the centuries old passage from the Bible that put the entire endeavor in perspective.
Apollo 8 was a huge gamble. The year before, while preparing for the three-person Apollo program, a flash fire had swept through the space capsule as it rested on the ground during a pre-flight test. Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, each of whom had been strapped in simulating launch conditions, were incinerated. The fire devastated NASA, the American space authority, who ordered a complete shutdown of the space program while they searched for the cause of the fire and how to correct it.
We were in a race against the Russians to reach the moon and also to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to land a man safely on the moon and return him to earth by the end of the 1960’s. Eighteen months later, with the program back up and running, NASA scientists decided to bypass its planned sequential steps to reach the moon. We would just go for it. In August 1968 Apollo 8’s mission was changed suddenly from a test of the lunar module in earth orbit to sending a crew all the way to the moon. Without nearly enough foundation, were actually were going to try to get into moon orbit. Nothing close to this ever had been attempted. Even NASA officials estimated the chances of surviving the mission at about 50/50.
We were doing this against the backdrop of the most destructive and divisive year in post-World War II American history. In 1968 race riots continued to engulf our cities, the war in Vietnam raged on, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, the Democratic Party convention in Chicago was devastated by student riots in Grant Park protesting the war, and the people in the country generally were at each other’s throats. Unlike today, where it is hard to explain why there is huge division in the USA, in 1968 we knew the causes. Vietnam and civil rights came together in a crescendo of tumult.
Even as we reached for the moon, many voices in America called the entire endeavor a waste. “Why spend billions flying to a rock” the asked, “when we could use that money to improve conditions for our people here on earth?” Fortunately they were overruled, and on December 21, 1968 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders lifted off on the second Apollo mission. By December 24 the command module reached orbit around the moon, and the crew scheduled a national television broadcast for Christmas Eve.
The whole country watched. From sixty miles up, the crew stuck a television camera out the window. At home in our living rooms, we all sat with our jaws open staring at the clear shapes of the craters and crevices below. You couldn’t take your eyes off it. We actually were looking live at the moon!
Suddenly, Bill Anders said, “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 heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void;…
Anders read some more, then Lovell, and finally Borman. They read the first ten versus of the King James Version of the Bible.
It was riveting.
Never before had the words of the Bible reached so many people at the same time. Never before had the words been so meaningful. At the end of one of the worst years in American history, the country was soothed by the translation of the ancient Hebrew text read over a radio from thousands of miles away. Even more than the moon landing itself, that telecast is my most dominant memory of the space program.
The program changed how we live today. Nearly all communications now relies on satellites – all thanks to the space program. Get in your car and punch in your cell phone for directions following a GPS tracker. You’re using the offshoot of the space program. We went to the moon to see if we could, and found a new way of living on earth. Most importantly it gave us confidence that, despite our immense divisions, we still were capable of doing great things.
Today, we talk about the possibility of going to Mars. One of its critics happens to be Anders, who thinks we learn more with unmanned space flight at a fraction of the cost. I respectfully disagree. If we decide to seek to send a human to Mars, I’ll support it. Like being a parent, when we undertake these adventures, what we learn most are things about ourselves. It’s like being a parent. At the end, you realize the endeavor has changed you more than anything else. Hopefully you’re a better person, and in this case a better society, for trying it.
I don’t know if in this politically correct age astronauts could get away with mixing religion and science as Apollo 8 did, but I hope so. Centuries after it was written the words still echo. They provide meaning, hope and comfort to the billions who read it.
In any age, any society and any religion, the first ten verses of Genesis provide the backdrop for the miracle of creation, no matter how it happened. Never was it better expressed than by three test pilots flying in a capsule thousands of miles away, in a language in which it was not originally written, looking at a rock in space not our own.