Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Forty Years Ago

"Earthrise," as seen by astronaut William Anders
on Christmas Eve in 1968.

Today is Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve always seems to be a significant day, but it was especially so in 1968.

To put it bluntly, 1968 was a grim year. That December marked the end of a year of enormous upheaval in America and the world. The year began with the Tet offensive that convinced millions of Americans that the war in Vietnam could not be won. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated earlier in the year.

When the Democrats met for their national convention that summer, the proceedings were marred by riots in the streets. Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Soviet Union. A three-way race for the presidency went down to the wire that November.

Then, 40 years ago, Apollo 8 became the first manned voyage to orbit the moon. On Christmas Eve of 1968, as the command module orbited the moon, astronaut William Anders took the photo that became known as "Earthrise" because it showed the earth as it appeared to rise above the surface of the moon.

In a Christmas Eve broadcast from space, the crew members took turns reading the first 10 verses from the Book of Genesis. At that time, it was the most-watched TV program in history.

Mission Commander Frank Borman ended the broadcast by saying, "And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, and a Merry Christmas to all of you, all of you on the good earth."

After all that had happened in 1968, the combination of Christmas with Apollo 8 brought the year to an end on a positive note. The feeling was summed up by a telegram that was sent to the crew after the mission: "Thank you, Apollo 8," it said. "You saved 1968."

And when Borman met Pope Paul VI, he was told, "I have spent my entire life trying to say to the world what you did on Christmas Eve."

All three crew members from Apollo 8 are still alive — Borman, Anders and Jim Lovell (who commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13 a little more than a year later) — and they've been reunited on anniversaries of their flight to reminisce about it.

My brother was not quite 6 years old at the time and probably has no memory of it, but I recall how it was the topic of conversation among the adults in my world on Christmas and for days after — how the mission seemed to give everyone a psychological lift after a long and difficult year.

With the problems facing our nation today — with holiday sales at their worst level in 40 years and unemployment filings at a 26-year high — it's too bad there isn't an Apollo 8 to end 2008 on an upbeat note.

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