By Mark W. Ohlemeier

On Christmas Eve in 1968, three American astronauts became the first human beings to travel to another world. The Apollo 8 crew — Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders — had made the quarter-million-mile journey from Earth to the moon, a hazardous voyage through the deadly vacuum of space. Even though this mission would be overshadowed seven months later by the first manned moon landing, the flight of Apollo 8 was a remarkable technological achievement. And it was made even more memorable by the way in which the crew decided to mark this historic event.

Celebration at the Cathedral

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum will present “Spirit of Apollo” at 8 p.m. Dec. 11 at Washington National Cathedral. The event is sold out, but it will air live on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry will discuss the spiritual meaning of exploration.

The program will include remarks by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Apollo 8 astronaut James Lovell, and Ellen Stofan, the John and Adrienne Mars Director of the National Air and Space Museum.

Video presentations and a choral performance will re-enact the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast, and the cathedral will illuminate its space window.

The astronauts wanted to do something special during their live television broadcast from lunar orbit, and had been contemplating it for weeks before the mission. They considered several different ideas, such as rewriting the words to “Jingle Bells” or “’Twas the Night before Christmas” with a space-moon theme, but those ideas did not seem to fit the occasion. They attempted to draft a message of world peace, but everything they came up with seemed hollow. Just a few days before launch, however, they knew that their dilemma was solved thanks to a suggestion made by a friend of the crew.

As the Apollo 8 spacecraft circled the moon on that Christmas Eve, millions of people on Earth tuned in to witness the broadcast. The astronauts pointed out the contrast between the lifeless surface below them and the tiny blue orb outside their window that was home to all known life in the universe. Then, each man took a turn reading the first few verses from the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” These mortal men, as they moved through the dark void of space, had an unprecedented view of creation and chose to mark the occasion by praising the work of the Creator.

The year 1968 was a troubled time in American history: the conflict in Vietnam was still raging; riots at the Democratic National Convention and elsewhere had caused millions in damage; and the country reeled from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. But the mission of Apollo 8 and its message from the moon offered hope to a divided country and an uncertain world.

Fifty years later, while we too face conditions of national and global anxiety, we can reflect upon the mission of Apollo 8 as a time when the world came together as one, if only for a brief moment, as the crew wished for everyone: “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.”

The Rev. Mark W. Ohlemeier is assistant rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Springfield, Missouri.

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