Earth Rise & Genesis: Christmas Eve, 1968
Apollo 11 may have been the mission that landed man on the moon, but the ultimate scouting mission of all time, Apollo 8, is the one that touched hearts. It succeeded in doing something I don’t think has ever been accomplished since; it melded science, religion, spirituality and mass communications into a single moment that for 23 minutes, united the world in awe and wonder.
It was supposed to have been a less than spectacular low earth orbit test of the lunar and command modules. But because of delays getting the lunar module ready, it shifted to an incredibly more ambitious mission- fly to the moon and back.
And so it was that at precisely 7:51 am, ET on the morning of December 21st, 1968 the first manned launch of the massive Saturn V rocket sent astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders into their accidental rendevous with destiny.
It was a hell of a way to start a mission; the first human beings strapped onto the top of the most powerful rocket that had been invented. It was more than twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty, almost exactly two-thirds the size of the Washington monument and fully fueled, weighed nearly 6,700,000 pounds.
Borman, Lovell and Anders became the first humans to leave earth’s orbit. Sixty-nine hours and about 230,000 miles after launch, the crew commenced a nerve-racking 4 minute and 13 second burn that made them the first humans to enter into the orbit of another celestial body. If it had not been done exactly right, the astronauts could have been flung out into space never to return, or could have sent themselves into a collision course with the moon.
Over the next 20 hours they would become the first humans to see the dark side of the moon. But it was a 23-minute television broadcast on Christmas Eve that created that special moment that converged science and, depending on your point of view, either religion or mysticism. Having earlier failed to get a clear picture of the earth with their cameras, the crew went to considerable effort to make sure the broadcast would catch a clear picture of the planet that involved positioning the entire spacecraft around. An estimated half a billion people watched that broadcast from earth, then the most viewed television event in history.
And it seemed completely appropriate that as they showed the world their view of the blue planet we all ride through space, the crew would read the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis:
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. 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.
And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth, and the collection of waters he called Seas: and God saw that it was good.
I was but a 12-year old boy at the time but remember memorializing the broadcast with a small reel-to-reel tape recorder I had been given by my parents. I still remember it 41 years later like it was yesterday. It was the most moving and inspiring Christmas I ever experienced.