The year 1968 was one of the most discouraging in modern U.S. history. The Vietnam War dragged on. Despite major civil rights bills, many people feared the country was turning “increasingly separate and unequal.” The nation grieved over the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Riots filled city streets.
At the end of this dismal year, a Saturn 5 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral on mankind’s first attempt to reach the moon. On board were three Apollo 8 astronauts: Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders. Their mission was not to land on the moon, but to orbit it ten times. NASA told their wives that the men’s chances of making it back to earth alive were about 50-50.
On Christmas Eve millions of enthralled TV viewers watched as the astronauts transmitted a blurry but miraculous image of the lunar surface. Then they heard the voice of Bill Anders: “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. ‘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 . . .’”
The astronauts took turns reading the first ten verses of Genesis. Then Frank 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.”
After a year of death and destruction, the astronaut’s brave journey and healing gesture were like a balm in Gilead. Apollo 8 held the promise that a free people would not fail after all. Americans coming together could still achieve wonders.