by David H. Levy
For those of us who were alive back then, where were you on Christmas Eve, in the year 1968? I remember exactly where I was. Sitting in front of my family’s television, we were watching a surreal scene on TV. There was a camera peering through a triangular-shaped window on a spacecraft called Apollo 8, out of which was a view of mountains, plains, and craters. And at the bottom of the screen were the words, “Live from the Moon.” I have a feeling that most of you, if you were living then, were watching too. The Apollo 8 Christmas eve broadcast was the most watched television program in the world up to that time. The announcer at our station, Walter Cronkite, was not saying much. Occasionally he would update us as to what part of the Moon the spacecraft was looking at, but most of the time, the view on the screen said it all. And it was magical!
The year 1968 was a terrible year for the most part. In April, Martin Luther King was murdered outside his hotel room in Memphis, and just two months later in Los Angeles, Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Two months after that, the Democratic National Convention disintegrated into a riot on the streets of Chicago, with “The whole world watching.” That November, Richard Nixon won a close national election. Then came Christmas Eve.
Apollo 8 was not intended to head for the Moon. The Saturn 5 rocket, as tall as a 36-floor building, had never been flown by humans aboard. The NASA picture that accompanies this article, in fact, shows Wernher Von Braun, the man who designed the Saturn 5, utterly dwarfed by five engines so large that one could set up housekeeping in each of them. (The other picture is astronaut Bill Anders’ epochal “Earthrise”). The Saturn 5’s unmanned test flights had been beset by several minor problems, and the Lunar Module, which was intended to land two astronauts on the Moon and return them to the command vehicle, was not yet ready for flight testing. But, in August, 1968, George Low, Manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program office, came up with an ingenious idea: NASA could fly a manned Saturn 5 with only the command module. If the launch was successful, it could then proceed to orbit the Moon.
After some debate and a lot of tense moments, Apollo 8 launched on the winter solstice, December 21, 1968. About two hours later, a simple message was radioed: “Apollo 8: You are go for TLI.” After the trans-lunar injection, Apollo 8, with Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, was on its way to a Christmas Eve rendezvous with the Moon, there was nothing left to do but travel and wait.
For me, by far the most memorable part was the astronauts’ Christmas eve message: “We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.” Then each astronaut read from the book of Genesis. Our family was spellbound as we listened to these words. But it was the ending that really turned the year 1968 from one of tragedy to one of promise and hope:
“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.”