This Christmas season has become a time of economic unrest, bailouts, and dwindling 401(k)’s. It is a time when the Federal Reserve can’t make up its mind whether its function is central banking or central planning, where monetary policy could easily be confused with the whims of weather vane, a Congress more intent on approving its own stimulus package, and a new administration just on the horizon with the promise of “change”.
Forty years ago the national mood wasn’t any better. America and the world were rocked by war, racial violence, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. President John F. Kennedy had called for America to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, only to have suffered the tragic loss of three astronauts (Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee) during a ground test in 1967. To complicate matters the CIA believed (wrongly) that the Soviet Union was about to launch a manned lunar mission that, if successful, would beat the United States to the moon after first beating the United States into orbit.
The importance of Apollo 8 could not have been greater. It was the first mission to send a crew – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders – from the Earth to orbit the moon and return to the Earth. It was not without its challenges. The big Saturn V rocket needed to propel the Apollo 8 to the moon had suffered a number of setbacks and instrumentation problems during its test flights.
This mission, among all of the Apollo missions, was the most important. Its success, or failure, could determine the fate of the American space program and Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade - and give hope to a Nation.
It launched on December 21, 1968 and reached lunar orbit on Christmas Eve as millions watched and listened around the world.
After the third lunar orbit the spacecraft was turned slightly and gave the astronauts the first view by human beings of the Earth rising over the lunar surface.
The broadcast that night ended by the crew taking turns reading from Genesis, a stark contrast to the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev engaging in atheistic, communist propaganda saying, “Why should you clutch at God? Here is Gagarin who flew into space but saw no God there.”
The reading began in Genesis 1:1:
"We are now approaching lunar sunrise. For all the people back 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 the Seas: and God saw that it was good."
Frank Borman later recalled of the lunar sunrise, “It was the only thing in space that had any color to it. Everything else was either black or white, but not the Earth." Jim Lovell said that Earth was "a grand oasis in the vast loneliness of space."
Apollo 8 was a triumph of our understanding of astrophysics, gravity, trajectory, combustion, aeronautics, engineering, and American “know how”. America ended a troubled year with great achievement and presented her with three more heroes.
Christmas gives us hope in good times and in bad regardless of the economy, Washington, or the Federal Reserve. It is a timeless message of love and mercy born in manger, a young child that changed the world and continues to change hearts today.
Frank Borman concluded that Christmas Eve broadcast saying, "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."