The Christmas Eve message from Apollo 8 December 24, 1968
It was not a mission that was supposed to have happened at that time. The flight of Apollo 8 to the moon 50 years ago occurred because of a switch in the lunar missions. By summer of 1968 it was becoming evident that the Lunar Module (The Lunar Excursion Module or LEM) was not going to be ready for testing in space much to the angst of NASA and the LEM’s (affectionally called “Spider”) builders at Grumman Aircraft. Amidst reports of Russian space plans to send a manned mission to the moon and the delay of the LEM, NASA contemplated solutions to keep the Moon program on track before the end of the decade. They decided to move the LEM testing to Apollo 9 in March 1969 and send Apollo 8 around the moon in December of 68. This left crew of astronauts Frank F. Borman II, James A. Lovell Jr. and William A. Anders with two to three months’ less training and preparation time than originally planned, and replaced the planned lunar module training with translunar navigation training. It would be the first time men ever traveled so far from the earth.
The mission called for 10 orbits of the moon. When the spacecraft came out from behind the Moon for its fourth pass across the front, the crew witnessed an “Earthrise” in person for the first time in human history. Anders grabbed a camera and took what is considered one of the most iconic photos of time-the earth as seen from the moon.
On Christmas eve, as they rounded the Moon for the ninth time, the astronauts began their second scheduled television transmission. Borman introduced the crew, followed by each man giving his impression of the lunar surface and what it was like to be orbiting the Moon. Borman described it as being “a vast, lonely, forbidding expanse of nothing.” Then, after talking about what they were flying over, Anders said that the crew had a message for all those on Earth. Each man on board read a section from the Biblical creation story from the Book of Genesis. Borman finished the broadcast by wishing a Merry Christmas to everyone on Earth. His message appeared to sum up the feelings that all three crewmen had from their vantage point in lunar orbit. Borman said, “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 words chosen that Christmas eve were not spontaneous. It had been planned for some time. Before the flight Commander Borman had been told by NASA that the Christmas eve broadcast would be heard by the biggest audience to date. It had been left to Borman to find “something appropriate” to say for what was expected to be the biggest broadcast audience to date. “We all tried for quite a while to figure out something, and it all came up trite or foolish,” Borman recalled. Overloaded in the short 4 month training for the mission, Borman appealed for help from a friend, Si Bourgin, who in turn discussed it with reporter Joe Laitin. Laitin in turn mentioned it to his wife, and it was Mrs. Laitin who came up with the reading from Genesis.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair, an atheist from Baltimore, later caused controversy by bringing a lawsuit against NASA over the reading from Genesis. O’Hair wanted the courts to ban American astronauts—who were all government employees—from public prayer in space. Though the case was rejected by the Supreme Court of the United States for lack of jurisdiction, it caused NASA to be skittish about the issue of religion throughout the rest of the Apollo program.
Apollo 8 came at the end of 1968, a year that had seen much upheaval in the United States and most of the world. Even though the year saw political assassinations, political unrest in the streets of Europe and America, and the Prague Spring, Time magazine chose the crew of Apollo 8 as its Men of the Year for 1968, recognizing them as the people who most influenced events in the preceding year. The effect of Apollo 8 was summed up in a telegram from a stranger, received by Borman after the mission, that stated simply, “Thanks. You saved 1968.”