The story behind the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve announcement
Christmas Eve, 1968. The most watched broadcast ever seen at the time.
Apollo 8 was the first spacecraft to get to the moon but it didn't land. Instead it orbited ten times, . And, most famously coming out of the ninth orbit, emerging from what we call the dark side of the moon, in turn each of the crew read from Genesis 1:1-10, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
It is one of the greatest moments of the 20th century. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders were in the middle of a most extraordinary and perilous journey, and it included a testimony to the living God. Carefully planned, it signalled the cultural significance of faith. An ancient Jewish text, read in the English of the King James Version,
''That wouldn’t happen now'', said a New Zealand media personality in 2008. It was an affable enough comment, but the implication was that these astronauts or NASA were somehow unsophisticated and naive people because they used a Biblical text. Is the naivete perhaps in the minds of our media personalities: a paucity of imagination in their view of the universe?
I have been lucky enough – really fortunate - to talk briefly with one of the Apollo astronauts, picked up moon rocks, held one of the legs of the spacecraft that have landed on the moon, been in seminar session on chaired by another astronaut, and visited the Smithsonian Museum Institute on flight from the Wright brothers to moon landings.
I learnt about the first meal eaten on the moon. Quote: "I'd like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way." Unquote. Thus came to earth the words of Buzz Aldrin, who with Neil Armstrong had just stepped onto the moon. What is not so well known is that he had just taken consecrated bread and wine from his local Baptist Church, to celebrate his faith with communion.
He couldn't say it openly in the transmission, however, for NASA was fearful of a lawsuit. A case was pending brought by the militant atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who claimed that the previous broadcast, from Apollo 8, had breached the Constitution of the United States which guaranteed both freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
O’Hair believed that was an inappropriate use of government funds. The Supreme Court threw out the case because it didn't have jurisdiction, but in some ways, damage had been done.
Ed Mitchell, Lunar Module Pilot of Apollo 14, sensed something else, when on the return back to earth. He said,''Then as I looked beyond the earth itself to to the magnificence of the larger scene, there was the startling recognition that the universe was not as I had been taught.''
He called this a feeling of the interconnectedness of everything. That's why even in an age of materialism and secularism and lawsuits religion can't be swept aside. He goes on to say he couldn’t probe its full meaning ''but its silent authority shook me to the very core. Here was something potent, something that could alter the course of a life.'' Unquote.
We too, all of us, are disciples of that same silent authority that can alter the courses of lives even to the end of the age and the frozen wastes of the moon and beyond.
It's is a source of pride that religious heritage wasn't so easily swept aside when the US Postal Service put out a commemorative stamp combining the famous photo of Earthrise along with the text of Genesis 1:1.
And by the way, it's natural for the very young to ask on Christmas Eve, does Santa Claus exist? On the final tenth orbit, when Apollo 8 was on the dark side of the moon, the crew had to fire rockets to break free of the moon's gravity.
The controlled burn had to be exact, it had to be very, very precise. Too little and they would plunge to their deaths crashing onto the lunar surface, too much and they would fly out into space with no way of return to earth.
Exactly on cue, Apollo 8 came out from the shadow of the moon and sent a message It was all good. Lovell said, "Please be informed, there is a Santa Claus" and Houston replied, ''That's affirmative, you are the best ones to know.''