It was 9:30 p.m. Eastern time on December 24, 1968 when the voices of the astronauts of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, crackled over the airwaves and into homes all over the world.
“Apollo 8 has a message for you,” said Colonel Borman, commander of the historic space flight.
Internally, the substance of message had been the subject of great debate between the three men on board. In addition to Borman, there was Major William A. Anders and Captain James A. Lovell, Jr.
Colonel Borman passed away just last month at the age of 95. Lovell, also 95, is still living, as is Anders, age 90.
Given that the men would still be in orbit on Christmas Eve, NASA directed them to come up with an “appropriate” message for the evening broadcast. They didn’t tell them what to say – or what not to say.
I guess when you’re sending three men into outer space and entrusting them with not only hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment, but also the country’s reputation, you have to assume you can count on their good judgment.
That trust was well placed.
Looking back across the volatile year, which had featured two high profile assassinations (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy), as well as race riots and violent demonstrations, the astronauts drafted essays and statements. But none of them felt right to them, and some of the possibilities even seemed overly political or preachy.
Instead, the three men decided to read a portion of the Creation story from Genesis, starting with the very first verses in the Bible.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” read Major Anders. “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” (Genesis 1:1-4).
Captain Lovell followed next: “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night,” read from the King James translation.
“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” (Genesis 1:5-8).
Finally, Colonel Borman concluded the special message.
“And God said, Let the waters under the heaven 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 he Seas: and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:9-10).
The commander than signed off by saying, “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.”
Would that fly today?
There was pushback even in 1968. The well-known atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair sued the government, but the case was ultimately dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
Worldwide interest in the Apollo mission resulted in the special presentation being seen and heard by over a billion people across 64 countries. Up until that point, never before had so many people simultaneously heard the same reading of God’s Word.
Apollo’s 8’s historic voyage would last 69 hours and set up Apollo 11 for success later that next summer. But the recitation of those eight verses in two minutes to a watching and anxious world on Christmas Eve represented one of the most remarkable moments the world had ever seen.
Neither NASA’s Borman, Anders nor Lovell quoted from Luke’s Gospel that night, but they nevertheless communicated to those tuning in the same truth spoken by the angel that first Christmas:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Image from Shutterstock and the New York Times.