They saved 1968

The year 1968 was easily one of the worst years in American history. In January, the Tet Offensive by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese was a massive tactical defeat for the enemy but a strategic victory in hindsight. Also in January, North Korea seized the USS Pueblo and kept it for 11 months. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, setting off riots in dozens of cities. In June, Robert Kennedy, the probable nominee for president by the Democrats, was killed in a hotel kitchen following his victory in the California primary.

The world appeared to be falling apart. Riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago, riots in France bringing that nation to the brink of revoluition, the "Prague Spring" crushed by 200,000 Soviet troops - you were almost afraid to open the newspaper in the morning in fear of being informed of some new outrage.

But then, Christmas and the flight of Apollo 8 - the first spacecraft to leave earth and orbit the moon. Crewed by Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, it was one of the biggest gambles NASA ever took. The Saturn V rocket - the largest, most complex machine ever built by man -only had two test flights and its performance was dicey. But NASA felt itself against the wall:

Originally the mission was slated to test the lunar lander hardware in Earth orbit. But the lunar lander wasn't ready and then other political issues came into play. NASA was told, incorrectly it turned out, by the CIA that the Soviet Union was preparing its own manned lunar mission and was ready to launch. As NASA wanted to be first to the moon and also fulfill President John Kennedy's call for a US manned lunar landing by the end of the decade, they took a gamble and designated Apollo 8 to go and orbit the moon.

The decision was controversial. NASA's giant Saturn V rocket, the only rocket capable of taking humans to the Moon, had been fraught with problems and instrument failures on its two test flights. Also, fresh in everyone's minds was the fire in 1967 in which killed three astronauts - Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee - during a ground test of an Apollo capsule.

Gamble, or no, the incredible scientific and engineering accmplishment was overshadowed by two events that reminded us of our humanity and the common bond we all share living on earth.

On Christmas Eve, on the spacecraft's 4th orbit, Commander Frank Borman decided to orient the Apollo capsule away from the surface of the moon toward the horizon. What transpired next was nothing short of serendipitous. By pure chance, the astronauts had turned the window of their craft at exactly the time that the earth was coming over the moon's horizon. NPR has a transcript of the reaction:

Aboard Apollo, Anders is the first to see the potential shot: "Oh, my God, look at that picture over there," he can be heard saying. "There's the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!"

But what happened next will sound familiar to anyone who remembers the days before digital cameras:

Anders (to astronaut Jim Lovell): "You got a color film, Jim? Hand me a roll of color, quick, would you?"

Lovell: "Oh, man, that's great! Where is it?"

Anders: "Hurry. Quick."

Lovell: "Down here?"

Anders: "Just grab me a color. A color exterior. Hurry up. Got one?"

Lovell: "Yeah, I'm lookin' for one. C368."

Anders: "Anything quick."

Lovell hands him the film just as Anders is heard saying, "I think we missed it."

But within seconds, Lovell sees the shot again in another window of the command module. He asks for the camera from Anders, who seems a bit defensive at having his role as mission photographer usurped.

Anders: "Wait a minute, just let me get the right setting here now, just calm down. Calm down, Lovell!"

Anders then gets the shot that has been reproduced thousands of times all over the world in the past 45 years.

"It sounds incredible to us to think, 'Weren't they looking for [the Earth] when they got to the moon?' " Chaikin tells NPR. "But as Bill Anders explained to me many years later, he said, 'Look, we were trained to go to the moon. We were focused on the moon, observing the moon, studying the moon, and the Earth was not really in our thoughts until it popped up above that horizon."

One of the most famous photos in history:

It wasn't until a few days after they returned to earth that NASA published the photo. It became a symbol of the fragility of earth, as well as reminding us how pitifully small and insignificant our place in the universe truly is.

But far more immediate and just as impactful is what the astronauts did during the first live broadcast from lunar orbit. Jim Lovell remembers:

Standing by a part of the Apollo 8 spacecraft he once rode, retired astronaut James Lovell on Monday read the 1968 Christmastime broadcast from the day he and two others became the first humans to orbit the moon.

Lovell marked the 45th anniversary of the orbit and the famous broadcast a day early with a re-enactment of sorts at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.

"The idea of bringing people together by a flight to the moon where we encompassed everybody in our thoughts is still very valid today," Lovell said. "The words that we read are very appropriate."

Millions tuned in on Dec. 24, 1968, when Frank Borman, Bill Anders and Lovell circled the moon. A television camera on board took footage of the crater-filled surface as the astronauts read Bible verses describing the creation of Earth. They circled 10 times and began reading from the Book of Genesis on the last orbit.

"It's a foundation of Christianity, Judaism and Islam," Lovell said of choosing Genesis. "It is the foundation of most of the world's religions. ... They all had that basis of the Old Testament."

On Monday, local high school students, a parent and Lovell, who lives in suburban Chicago, each read a few verses. Gov. Pat Quinn hosted the event, calling the broadcast an uplifting message that the country needed in 1968 and one that is still applicable today.

After the Christmastime broadcast, atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair filed a lawsuit against NASA, alleging First Amendment violations. But the case was dismissed, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

Lovell said at the time the astronauts weren't sure who would be listening and how the broadcast would be taken. He said Monday he thought it'd still be received well and noted the lawsuit during a news conference.

He pointed out the High Court's decision, saying, "They said, 'Don't worry about it.'"


He closed Monday with the same message the astronauts did in 1968.

"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," Lovell said.

If astronauts tried the same thing today, they'd be fired.

What made the reading so incredibly dramatic and emotionally uplifting were the live pictures being beamed back to earth of a strange, alien world. Combined with the verses from Genesis, there has never been a more powerful combination of words and images on television.

Lovell recalled his favorite congratulatory telegram. It came from an ordinary citizen named Valerie Pringle. ''You saved 1968,'' she wrote.

Given all that transpired that horrible year, it's hard to argue with her.

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