I was only a 14-year-old boy with my eyes glued to the silver screen of my grandmother’s 17-inch portable television screen on Christmas Eve, but what I was about to witness was an event that bolstered my personal faith, and the beliefs of untold millions of other TV viewers, in an all-powerful God of the universe, unlike anything I had ever expected.
The story of the three wise men who were guided by a star to the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem was always one of my favorite aspects of the Christmas story and I even once helped write a planetarium show about the Christmas story. It was three other wise men, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders, who made another journey, the longest journey ever taken by men up to that time, who touched the hearts of believers everywhere while simultaneously angering atheists like Madalyn Murray O’Hair on that Christmas Eve of 1968.
The three astronauts were the first to reach the Moon on December 24, 1968, a mission that they were fully aware had a 50% chance of taking their lives. The risks involved in their mission were every bit as potentially deadly as those that confronted the Magi during their journey across the wilderness and through the kingdom of the madman King Herod. For the astronauts, it was the first time that human beings were to fly aboard the world’s most powerful rocket, a 36-story flying skyscraper called the Saturn V.
The explosive potential of the propellants loaded into that Apollo 8 moon rocket was equivalent to 2 kilotons of TNT, and no personnel were allowed to stand unsheltered withing three miles of that rocket when it’s 7.5 million pound thrust rockets lifted it from the ground to supersonic speed in about 60 seconds. The Apollo Command Module where the astronauts lived and worked during the roundtrip to moon orbits and back was only flying for the second time and never before at lunar distances. Also, an untried deep space communications system and 90-minute radio blackouts, while Apollo 8 orbited around the back of the Moon, meant there was the possibility of facing life-threatening malfunctions without the aid of the experts and powerful computers back on Earth.
It was also the first time astronauts would be spending a long duration outside of the protections of Earth's radiation-shielding natural magnetic field and then return to Earth by slamming into the atmosphere at a record 25,000 miles-per-hour. All in all, the crew was facing far many more dangerous unknowns that even Apollo 8 launch eyewitness - and their hero - aviator Charles Lindbergh had faced when he made his mark in history by becoming the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. With that background in mind, let’s get back to my grandmother’s home on Christmas Eve when Apollo 8 gave the world a most precious Christmas gift.
1968 had been a terrible year. The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in April and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in June punctuated a year marked by violent civil unrest in America, the North Korean seizure of a US Navy ship and crew in January, and the long and bloody Tet offensive by Communist forces in Vietnam. The nation seemed to be coming apart at the seams and President Lyndon Johnson was so discouraged and hapless that he refused to run for reelection to the White House.
As I sat mesmerized in front of that little portable television set, watching live video of the lunar surface rolling across the Apollo 8 rendezvous window, I heard the voice of Bill Anders from the Moon saying, “Now you can see the long shadows of the lunar sunrise, and 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, 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.” Those words were the opening of the story of Creation from the Book of Genesis and there was nothing no man, either in space or on earth, could say that would have been more powerful that night. The other two crew members took turns reading the rest of the Creation story and Commander Borman ended the first telecast from the Moon with, “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.”
The three wise men of Apollo 8 had delivered the most inspiring, powerful, and uplifting message to the USA and the world at a time when we were in dire need of hope and inspiration. Naturally, there were some who were very angry that a taxpayer-funded space mission was used as a platform for a public reading from the Bible, and a lawsuit filed by the aforementioned atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair compelled NASA to discourage further religious messages or sentiments coming from the astronauts or anyone else working for the space agency. So astronauts like Buzz Aldrin had to keep his communion prayer off of the air after he and Neil Armstrong made the first Moon landing seven months later on July 20, 1969, in Apollo 11.
One of the largest television audiences in history had watched and listened as Apollo 8 delivered the Genesis story to the world. Even officials in the Godless Communist regime in Moscow, USSR, watched it. I, along with many of the millions of others who watched the Apollo 8 mission and are still alive feel very blessed to have watched and heard it. After all we had been through during that terrible year, it was a Merry Christmas after all.
According to NASA, Frank Borman received a telegram from an anonymous citizen after the crew returned safely to Earth. The sender wrote, “Thank you, Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”
Readers can watch the Apollo 8 reading of Genesis here:
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