An acrylic shield kept him from crawling inside, from settling into one of the insubstantial seats and brushing his small fingers across the countless switches and dials that peppered the control panels. But no matter. He would steep himself in what he could see: the ship’s seared outer skin, its dimly lit interior, its pitted windows, the blackened areas around its reaction control jets.
And the knowledge that this battered craft once circled the Moon.
The penitent was my six-year-old grandson; the cathedral was the Henry Crown Space Center at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. The icon was the command module of Apollo 8, at rest 50 years after its single, historic mission.
I took a photo of this moment, and we shared a sense of awe. Words, usually my playground, were hard to come by. We simply stared together into history.
As it turns out, words were a struggle for the Apollo 8 crew as well.
By any measure, 1968 was a particularly rough year. It saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. North Korea captured the USS Pueblo, and the Soviets quashed a reform movement in Czechslovakia. North Vietnam launched the bloody Tet Offensive while Chicago launched a bloody putdown of protesters at the Democratic National Convention. Indeed, protests marked much of the year as young people increasingly rose up against the Vietnam War, Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos took a courageous stand against racism, and students clashed with police in the streets of Paris in what became known as Bloody Monday.
So when Apollo 8 launched atop the monstrous Saturn V rocket on December 21, 1968, the whole world was looking for something positive, something affirming. That so many put their hopes for saving this horrid year in one of the most dangerous ventures ever attempted speaks volumes.
And speaking of speaking, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were in a quandry. They were slated to orbit the Moon on Christmas Eve—a task that included a live transmission back to Earth, one that would be seen or heard by more than a billion people. What would they say? What could they say that would capture this incredible moment?
The angst around this began long before launch. In his book, Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8, author Robert Zimmerman writes of how the question haunted the crew for weeks, especially mission commander Borman. He asked NASA Public Affairs for guidance but was told—incredibly, given the stakes—“NASA will not tell you what to say.” Borman sought input from a widening circle of writers. A few tried to draft something; all of them failed.
One of the writers, a PR man named Joe Laitin, gave up trying to pen an original text. Despite his non-religious views, started nosing through a Bible. His wife, Christine, whose colorful past included fighting the Germans as part of the French Resistance during World War II, found him futilely poring over the text. When Laitin expressed frustration, Christine solved the problem: “Why don’t you begin at the beginning?”
Borman, Lovell and Anders would all agree the selection was perfect.
On December 24, as Apollo 8 sailed above the lunar surface, a quarter of a million miles from Earth, they spoke to the largest single audience in human history:
Anders: 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. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
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.
Borman: 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 the 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.
Not everyone celebrated those words from the biblical Book of Genesis. (Atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hair unsuccessfully sued over the passage.) But based on the feedback to NASA and the astronauts themselves, most did. Among the countless telegrams Borman received about the mission’s success was one that declared, “You saved 1968.”
Of course, the saving of 1968 was more than the words spoken on Christmas Eve. It was Bill Anders’ iconic photograph of the Earth rising over the stark lunar horizon. It was the notion that three men, supported by thousands upon thousands of scientists, technicians and salt-of-the-Earth laborers, made Apollo 8 happen.
It was the reminder that, by coming together, it’s possible to save something. To save us all. In today’s turbulent times, that’s worth remembering.
Words are important, yes. But ultimately, it’s about compassion and inspiration.
It’s about all of us realizing we need each other on this good Earth.