Earthrise, Christmas Eve 1968
Some years make a person feel weary and frustrated. As we celebrate Christmas Eve, our country is fighting two long-running wars; the economy is the worst in almost everyone’s lifetime and there is passionate debate on the right way to go forward to better times. In some ways it feels like the same period in 1968 with the Viet Nam war raging, the aftermath of three assassinations, racial strife and inflation stressing the economy. Then, too, there were passionate debates over the way forward. On Christmas Eve of that year, something happened to change many people’s perspective and raise their spirits.
Exactly forty years ago tonight, the Apollo 8 mission orbited the Moon for the first time and made a live, prime-time television broadcast to Earth that was watched or listened to by perhaps a billion people. These three astronauts, James A. Lovell, Jr., William A. Anders, and Frank Borman, were the first humans to see the far side of the Moon (please, it is not the dark side) and to view Earth from the perspective of the Moon. As they orbited the far side, they sent back their impressions of the lunar surface, astronaut Jim Lovell had said “The Moon is essentially gray. No color. Looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a grayish beach sand.”
In his latest book Boom!, a reflection on the turbulent 1960’s, Tom Brokaw reports Lovell’s reaction to the rising view of Earth as Apollo 8 emerges from behind the Moon. “The Moon is nothing but shades of gray and darkness. But the Earth – you could see the deep blues of the seas, the whites of the clouds, the salmon pink and brown of the land masses. … At one point, I sighted the Earth with my thumb – and my thumb from that distance fit over the entire planet. I realized how insignificant we all are if everything I’d ever known is behind my thumb. But at that moment, I don’t think the three of us understood the lasting significance of what we were looking at.” The view reminded Anders of a Christmas ornament.
This reaction to the new perspective of Earth had not been expected and mission control had made no preparations for specific images of Earth. As Earthrise occurred, Anders took the on-board video camera and pointed it out the window and beamed back the accompanying picture which has become an icon, appearing on a postage stamp, the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog, and numerous other places. In many ways, this was the beginning of the environmental movement. People suddenly realized, in a way that they never had, how fragile and beautiful this place is. They realized that the Earth and its inhabitants were not as large as previously believed and that we needed to protect it or lose our place in the universe.
No one had thought about sending back this picture, but much thought had been given to what the astronauts should say during the broadcast. As their message to the people of Earth, the astronauts choose to read from the creation story in Genesis. (Genesis, along with the next four books of the Christian Bible, is accepted as Holy Scripture by Christians, Jews and Muslims). Anders and Lovell read: “In the beginning, God created the heavens 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. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.” Borman read the final passage: “And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering of the waters he called Seas; and God saw that it was good.”
As they completed their last orbit of the Moon they fired their rockets to return home for the holidays. Upon emerging from the far side, Lovell radioed mission control: “Houston, Apollo 8, please be informed, there is a Santa Claus.” When they landed back home, they were amazed at the overwhelming number of messages thanking them for turning 1968 around. Let’s close Christmas Eve 2008 with Frank Borman’s words: “… Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”