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They emerged from the dark side of the moon at a dark moment in American history, and with one click of a Hasselblad 500E camera and 10 verses from the Book of Genesis, three explorers, farther from their home planet than any humans had ventured before, made a statement of peace on Earth and goodwill to man that has endured for a half-century.

Frank Borman, William Anders and James Lovell were the astronauts aboard Apollo 8. Fifty years ago, they became the first people to leave the gravitational pull of the Earth, the first to see the distant, hidden side of the moon, and, literally, the first to transform the first words of the Bible into a message from the heavens to the Earth.

The United States has launched several landmark space missions -- Alan B. Shepard's flight to become the first American in space, John H. Glenn's mission to be the first American to orbit the Earth, the three Apollo 11 astronauts' achievement to become the first humans to step on the surface of the moon -- but in some ways, the December 1968 mission of Apollo 8 was, to employ a word the astronauts rendered meaningless, groundbreaking.

"This was as significant as Apollo 11," said Jay Apt, who flew four Space Shuttle missions, one as mission commander. "It was the first time anyone had left the gravity of the Earth to go into the gravitational attraction of another heavenly body."

This was a high point in human exploration; as Anders looked down on Earth from space, he said he had "the feeling that the travelers in the old sailing ships used to have, going on a long voyage from home." But this high point came at a low point in the national spirit. Americans were still dying in Vietnam. The wreckage of the urban riots still remained in the streets. The youth rebellion tore families apart. The grievances of women and blacks laid bare the distance between the nation's ideals and the national reality.

But then, in frosty December, the three astronauts -- on a spacecraft launched from a planet traveling through space at 67,000 mph, aimed at another celestial body traveling 2,300 mph -- transformed the way we look at the Earth and, for a moment at least, the way we thought about technology, about national purpose, about courage, and ultimately about the American project itself.

"There they were, 200,000 miles from Earth," Walt Cunningham, the lunar module pilot on Apollo 7, which preceded Apollo 8 into space by 10 weeks, said in an interview, "and they made a huge impact back on Earth."

It began with a photograph, now perhaps the most replicated picture of all time, a "Mona Lisa" from the lunar world, revealing how fragile -- how luminous -- how beautiful -- was our human home, even with all its recurrent problems and its broken promises. Anders took the photograph after he glimpsed ("Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There's the Earth coming up") what the astronauts, intent on their demanding checklists, had neglected to examine.

"This picture has made its way into the world's eyes," said Jennifer Levasseur, curator in the space history department of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "It's because it contributes to our understanding of the Earth. Earth had been seen that way before; Lunar Orbiter 1 took an almost identical photograph. But it meant something because this photograph was taken by someone you could meet on the street."

The photograph was a feast for the senses. What followed was a feast for the ears, and for the spirit.

The astronauts knew their mission to the far side of the moon was an important landmark in the human story, and they knew they had to say something -- something profound -- to mark the occasion. But the crew was composed of an electrical engineer, a naval aviator and a test pilot. They were not poets.

"We couldn't think up anything appropriate for that moment," Lovell, now 90, told me, "so we asked around."

Finally they consulted Joseph Laitin, who had a gift for the perfect phrase and who had served five presidents. He, too, struggled, and finally at 5 o'clock one morning his wife, Christine, came up with the notion that married the moment with majesty.

It began with the voice of 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."

There was a pause, and then a message like no other, delivered from a platform like no other, to a world listening 240,000 miles away:

"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."

One by one the astronauts spoke of the light, of a firmament in the midst of the waters, of the division of the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament, of the gathering of the waters under heaven unto one place, of the appearance of the dry land, and of God seeing that it was good.

Watching on Earth, Mission Control's Gene Krantz had the same reaction millions -- across the very planet the astronauts were addressing from such distance but with such understated eloquence -- were experiencing: "For those moments, I felt the presence of creation and the creator. Tears were on my cheeks."

For this was a moment when, as poet Archibald MacLeish wrote, inhabitants of our planet would "see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats," and when they could see themselves "as riders on the Earth together."

Hardly anyone remembers the end of the 147-hour-long mission, or the fact that the spacecraft, traveling at 24,696 mph and with its heat shield registering temperatures of about 5,000 degrees, landed a mere 5,100 yards from the USS Yorktown. What they remember 50 years later is the voice of Borman signing off on Christmas Eve:

"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."

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

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