By Rick Lee
Christmas Eve will mark the 50th anniversary of an event that inspired and awed a large number of people living on Earth at that time. It was the first of two events that would bring final fruition to the grandiose dream of President Kennedy to send man to the moon and return safely to Earth. It was, seemingly, an impossible dream. As a nation, we don’t have those dreams anymore. Much could be said as to the reasons why, but that’s not for now. That the United States and mankind’s first reach for the heavens, documented in such a tangible way, was to happen on Christmas Eve made it all so much more memorable.
I’m speaking of Apollo 8, the second manned spaceflight mission in the United States’ Apollo space program. Launched December 21, 1968, from present-day Cape Canaveral in FL, it was now in lunar orbit. Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth’s orbit, reach the Earth's moon, orbit it and return safely to Earth. The three-astronaut crew — Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders — became the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit, see Earth as a whole planet, enter the gravity well of another celestial body (Earth's moon), orbit another celestial body, and directly see the far side of the moon with their own eyes; witness an Earthrise.
Fifty years ago the United States had undergone an extremely turbulent and polarizing year. Think things are bad now? Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated. The war in Vietnam had escalated and race riots had broken out in cities across the country. But, as the year drew to a close, the nation united, if only briefly, turning its sights to the heavens in support of and to watch and listen to the live Christmas Eve broadcast from Apollo 8 in lunar orbit out in space.
Tens of thousands of spectators turned out the morning of the launch, including two Supreme Court justices and aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh. Newspapers proclaimed the promise of humankind’s potential. The New York Times called Apollo 8 “the most fantastic voyage of all times.”
As Apollo 8 rounded the moon for a ninth time, Commander Borman got the prime-time Christmas Eve broadcast started by saying the crew would take the audience with it through a lunar sunset. In front of the largest TV audience to date, U.S. astronauts described the experience of being the first humans in lunar orbit while transmitting close-up footage of the moon’s features. They were really static and fuzzy, but they were coming live from the moon!
Borman described the moon as “vast, lonely and forbidding” and added that it “would not appear to be a very inviting place to live or work.” Lovell chimed in that the “vast loneliness of the moon is awe inspiring, and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” Anders, meanwhile, declared himself quite impressed with lunar sunrises and sunsets. He later added, “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
To conclude the broadcast, they took turns reading the opening verses of the Bible.
William Anders began, "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; 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. …”
Jim Lovell followed, "And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. …”
Frank Borman finished, "And God said, Let the waters under the heaven 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."
"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."
It was quite a Christmas Eve. The moon will be just past full this Christmas Eve. Give a look up to the moon and remember those three brave men, in the cold of space, and everyone who made such a dream come true 50 years ago. Wouldn’t it be nice to make some more seemingly impossible dreams for peace and humankind’s potential for good a reality in today’s world?
Lee lives in Granville and is a DJ at WMRW. This essay is part of his annual Christmas show. When he has finished reading this, he plays these pieces: Louis Armstrong, “What a Wonderful World”; Crosby/Bowie, “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”; and BB King, “Christmas Love.”