In a year of conflict and war, it was a moment of conciliation. In a year of death, it was a moment that affirmed life. In a year of disbelief, it was a moment remembered for its words of faith. In a year unlike any other, it was a moment like no other.
There never has been a year quite like 1968, with war raging in Southeast Asia and in the streets of America; with assassinations depriving the nation of two inspiring leaders; with a presidential campaign catapulting to power a man who vowed to “bring us together’’ even as his election drove Americans apart; and, 50 years ago this week, with a tiny contrivance of humankind leaving the surly bonds of earth and permitting earthlings for the first time to transit the dark side of the moon.
The 45 minutes of silence when the Apollo 8 spacecraft, on the eve of Christmas, slipped behind the moon and out of radio contact, were heart-stopping for all alive in that hour. The crackly return of the astronauts’ voices was a moment of grace and unspeakable relief to all who listened in — which was just about everybody.
And then there was the earthrise, the first ever seen by humans.
Today the wounds of that war have largely healed, the assassinations of that year are firmly part of history, Richard M. Nixon is a figure of a distant past, but the image taken from Apollo 8 — of the pastel blue Earth rising out of the ink-black depths of space, a deeply moving portrait of a world at war with itself and yet projecting a soothing kind of peace — endures a half-century later.
“It was an important symbol for the American people in a tough year,’’ Apollo 8 command-module pilot James Lovell, now 90, said in an interview. “A novelist couldn’t have done a better job of staging this. The country needed an uplift, and this was it.’’
Apollo 8 — its astronauts at 55 hours, 39 minutes, and 55 seconds into their mission crossing a barrier no human had even approached before, the line between the gravitational realm of the Earth and that of the moon — was an achievement of technology tinged with a strain of theology. It was an important turning point for national security and national identity, a fresh symbol of the surpassing power of television and a welcome tonic to the travails of everyday life on Earth.
And 50 years ago Monday, as the inhabitants of a weary nation wrapped their presents on Christmas Eve, trod through snowy streets to Mass, set their holiday tables, and reflected on the meaning of the season, the crew of Frank Borman, Bill Anders, and Lovell, the first humans to orbit another heavenly body, marked the lunar sunset by reciting the first 10 verses of the Book of Genesis — a dramatic rebuff to the (likely apocryphal but still powerful) remark of Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who was the first man to ride a space capsule into Earth orbit, that there was no God in space.
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.
It was a moment of inspiration and serene beauty made possible by a mad hurry of improvisation and inspiration, of precision, preposterous ambition, and peril. Never did the space race seem more like a sprint than with Apollo 8. The crew, authors of what we might regard as the second-best Christmas story, had not trained for a circumlunar flight, but American space officials, ever wary of the space program of America’s Cold War rival, picked up troubling signs that the Soviet Union was about to mount a manned mission to the moon. NASA decided to hurry up, though Robert C. Seamans Jr., the agency’s deputy administrator, harbored beliefs that, as he put it, “such a mission in 1968 seemed at the edge of the envelope.’’
Indeed, Apollo 8 was a dramatic statement by NASA, reckless and audacious both. Three astronauts would sit atop the vast, new, and still balky rocket, the most powerful machine ever made in America, designed to power the craft out of Earth orbit and off at 25,000 miles per hour to our nearest celestial neighbor.
“This flight followed an unmanned Saturn V that had severe first-stage vibrations due to fuel sloshing around and two engines that failed in the second stage,’’ said Jay Apt, who flew four space shuttle missions, one as commander. “Then NASA decided to send men into lunar orbit. The decision was unbelievably breathtaking.’’
The mission began routinely enough for something that was an entire departure from centuries of human routine.
“It was the moment when we really realized the moon was the next steppingstone,’’ said Douglas Brinkley, the Rice University historian whose “American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race” is to be published in early April. “It just captured the nation and produced the most famous photograph of all time. It has permeated our culture far and wide. It was a turning point, and many people remember it as indelibly as the moon landing.’’
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.
“For us the importance of Apollo 8 was that they were going that far away from Earth for the first time humans had ever done so,’’ said Walt Cunningham, the lunar-module pilot on Apollo 7, which preceded Apollo 8 by 10 weeks, in a shakedown cruise that orbited the Earth. “We didn’t know whether the spacecraft could handle that.’’
The dangers — that Apollo 8 might become the powerless plaything of the moon’s gravity, or that any one element of its myriad systems might fail, or that the men might crash into the lunar surface or perish in Earth reentry — now are yesteryear’s fears. It is the seasonal sentiment the astronauts created, and the photograph Anders planted in the world’s memory, that are as alive today as they were a half-century ago.
The “Earthrise’’ photograph showed our home planet in vivid colors, a stark contrast with the moon, which Lovell described as “a vastness of black and white — absolutely no color,’’ floating in space, that endless emptiness that Anders described as “a rather forbidding, foreboding expanse of blackness.’’
It is perhaps the most famous photograph ever, in some ways the greatest self-portrait ever taken. It appeared on the front pages of newspapers, but also on magazine covers, and on a Postal Service stamp, and was taped to a thousand college dorm room walls, often with a quote from Robert F. Kennedy or Thomas Carlyle.
“It contributes to our understanding of the Earth,’’ said Jennifer Levasseur, a curator in the space-history department of the National Air and Space Museum who has completed a book on the cultural significance of astronaut photography. “This showed Earth in a completely different context from how it had been seen before by actual humans. It showed that we could do it — send people that far from Earth — and that we could record a photo that changed how we regarded ourselves in relationship to the Earth.”
And yet it was a case where human fumbling produced a picture that led to human humbling.
The astronauts hadn’t been prepared for just how dramatic the view would be outside their window, and when the sight of Earth was visible in their porthole they knew they had to act. Borman took the first photograph, a black-and-white shot that had dramatic contrasts but lacked dramatic context. Anders asked Lovell to hand him a roll of color film. But where was it? Somewhere in a storage locker? Finally Lovell, rooting around desperately, found it, Anders shot the picture, and the world, 4.54 billion years old, seemed to change in an instant.
The photo was visual poetry, and it inspired poets. “To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats,’’ wrote Archibald MacLeish, the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Franklin Roosevelt’s choice as librarian of Congress, “is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright liveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.’’
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.
The biblical reading was not spontaneous, but it wasn’t an obvious choice, either. The astronauts knew they would have the largest television audience ever, along with five or six minutes of airtime to fill with remarks that needed to be significant enough to match the moment. Borman struggled to think of something — anything — to watch the moment in eternity. He came up dry; astronauts’ eloquence always came in their acts but not in their words, for at best Borman and his riders of repurposed military missiles and the mighty Saturn V booster were masters of the “what-a-view!’’ genre of visual commentary.
In their desperation, the astronauts contacted, in advance of the mission, Joseph Laitin, a long-serving government public affairs specialist revered in Washington and trusted for his advice by members of both Democratic and Republican presidents. The question taunted and tortured him, too. Finally, around 5 one morning, Laitin’s wife, Christine, broke through with an idea. The 10-line fruit of that idea would reach the Earth after eight orbits of the moon.
It began with a simple introduction, an “in-the-beginning’’ of its own: “For all the people back on Earth,’’ Anders said, “the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.’’
And then the astronauts read, in turn, from a Bible provided by the Gideons, the evangelical Christian society.
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 Seas; and God saw that it was good.
Shortly after the reading, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the nation’s leading atheist, filed suit, charging that the recitation from the Bible represented a violation of the First Amendment separation of church and state. The suit went nowhere, and in fact not all atheists took issue with the astronauts’ reading.
“It was a beautiful moment, and Genesis is part of our Western cultural heritage,’’ said Viktor Toth, an atheist and a senior research fellow at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, who played the lead role in the investigation of the Pioneer Anomaly, the mysterious acceleration of the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts in deep space. “This was an awe-inspiring thing: Human beings for the first time cut off from the Earth, and then they reemerged and saw the Earth again. The message was entirely appropriate.’’
Three days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson placed a phone call to Susan Borman, wife of the mission commander. “When Sputnik came over the ranch many, many years ago, we had dreams of something like this,’’ he told her, his voice scratchy in the tapes in the Johnson Library. “But we never thought it could be so perfect.’’
It wasn’t perfect — no space mission is — but Apollo 8 provided the ideal coda to a year of despair.
“They were threading the needle,’’ Gene Krantz, the famous NASA mission-control officer, wrote later in his memoir, “shooting a spacecraft from a rotating Earth at the leading edge of the Moon, a moving target a quarter of a million miles away, passing 60 miles in front of it three days after launch.’’
The ultimate fulfillment of John F. Kennedy’s 1962 vow that Americans would land on the moon before the decade of the 1960s was over — “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone’’ — would not come for another seven months. In July 1969, two Apollo 11 astronauts would take that small step that was the giant leap onto the moon’s surface.
But it was during the flight of Apollo 8 that the country, like the astronauts, emerged, if only for a brief time, from the dark side. Days later, they were named Time magazine’s Men of the Year, pushing Richard Nixon, the original choice, off the cover at the very last moment.
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.
Eventually, of course, the astronauts began their descent into the atmosphere, into a political atmosphere of persistent earthly dissent. But they had produced a moment of pride at a time when there were few moments of American pride. It was a Christmas present to all on the good Earth, a gift that, 50 years on, keeps on giving.
David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.