By Bernie Schmitt
In our modern, instant world of digital everything-all-the-time, it sometimes seems like we have lost sight of amazing achievements.
It might also have seemed that way as the year 1968 came to a close 50 years ago. That tumultuous year gave us almost more than we could handle, what with two assassinations (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy), racial strife, death and dying in Vietnam, youthful rebellion, and a country divided. It was a tough year.
Yet near its end, in December 1968, three American men aboard an Apollo space ship gave us our first up-close look at the moon, and almost better than that, a view of Earth never before seen. It was astounding.
What we didn’t know in early January 1969, as we began a new year with the inauguration of President Richard M. Nixon, that the elation from the Apollo 8 broadcast from the moon was only the beginning of what would be a triumph beyond belief. But back then, in the glow of that Christmas Eve, seeing the moon up close was absolutely sensational.
Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders entered lunar orbit on Dec. 24, 1968. It was humankind’s first flight to the moon, a dangerous and unprecedented feat. And while it was an accomplishment to just get there, the men circumnavigating the moon for several hours were uncertain if their rocket ship could push them out of the moon’s orbit.
They could only watch their gauges, follow protocol, and marvel at the stark lunar surface below them. This had never been done before.
It was estimated that a billion people from all over the world turned into a prime-time television broadcast, live, from the cabin of the Apollo 8 command module. A camera was focused through the ship’s window at the moon’s surface. The static crackled as three men, nearly a quarter million miles away, flying 70 miles above the moon, talked about what they saw.
“The moon is a different thing to each one of us,” said Commander Borman. “I know my own impression is that it’s a vast, lonely, forbidding-type existence or expanse of nothing. It looks like clouds and clouds of pumice stone, and certainly not a very inviting place to live or work.”
“My thoughts are similar,” said Lovell. “The vast loneliness up here of the moon is awe-inspiring, and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth. The Earth from here is a grand oasis in the big vastness of space.”
“I think the one thing that impressed me most was the lunar sunrises and sunsets,” said Anders, the astronaut who photographed the famous photo of the Earth rising above the moon.
After a few more descriptions about what their audience was seeing, the astronauts read the opening lines from the book of Genesis:
“In the beginning,” Anders said, “God created the heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep … ”
Borman finished reading and offered these words before he and his crew flew toward the dark side of the moon (where they would lose communication with Earth for 45 minutes):
“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, and merry Christmas and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
The broadcast itself was awe-inspiring. But it was what happened afterward that allowed the astronauts, Mission Control, and others to breathe a collective sigh of exhilarating relief. The engines needed to propel the men out of the moon’s orbit had to fire as the ship finished its 45-minute arc on the dark side of the moon. If they did not, the men would be forever trapped in the moon’s orbit.
“Houston, Apollo 8,” said Lovell, after several tense minutes at Mission Control. “Please be informed there is a Santa Claus.”
Mission Control exploded in cheer. The astronauts were on their way home.
It was remarkable that a few weeks ago the InSight robotic spacecraft allowed humans to hear what the wind sounds like on Mars. This is astonishing. Yet that news was only a blip in the cacophony of self-absorbed human activity on Earth.
Perhaps it’s just nostalgia. Times were different 50 years ago. Nonetheless, the achievements of Apollo 8 were utterly remarkable, and set the stage for man walking on the moon.