We would be late for church.
Gathered in the foyer of our rural Kansas home, the seven of us – my parents, four brothers and I – were turned facing the television in the living room.
It was just shy of midnight Christmas Eve, 1968. On the screen was a gray, rumpled landscape crawling from right to left.
More amazing still was that three astronauts orbited overhead – the first time ever humans had left the security of Earth.
Most of my generation, those who grew up with monthly launches into Earth’s orbit, cite Neil Armstrong’s 1969 walk on the moon as the seminal event of the era.
Not me. Nothing compares to that first trip six months earlier, when three men, far beyond the hope of rescue, more alone than any living beings had ever been, circled another world.
From their tiny command module, the Apollo 8 crew – Commander Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders – described the moonscape as “a vast, lonely, forbidding expanse of nothing.”
Norman Rockwell could have used that assessment to paint the perfect calendar art for Earth’s 1968 – 12 months of turmoil:
April 4 – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinated in Memphis
June 5 – Sen. Robert Kennedy assassinated in Los Angeles
Aug. 28 – Police beat thousands of anti-war protester outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago
November – First revelations that up to 504 unarmed civilians were massacred by U.S. Army troops in My Lai, Vietnam, in March
That’s a lot of baggage to ferry from Earth to a quiet spot 239,000 miles away.
And yet, the Apollo 8 astronauts looked back on that blue jewel and saw something quite different.
“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.”
A long pause.
“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 so it continued for the next several minutes until all three men had recited a verse from Genesis to the largest television audience in history.
The transmission concluded with Borman:
“And God saw that it was good.
“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.”
On their journey home, NASA read congratulatory telegrams to the crew. Well-wishers included President Lyndon Johnson and aviator Charles Lindbergh. But they saved the best for last. It was a telegram from Valerie Pringle.
It read: “Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”
Not quite 50 years later, we’re in need of a little rescue again. Barely three months in and we’ve already seen nuclear threats lobbed between North Korea and Washington, a mass shooting at a Florida high school, a string of bombings in Texas and a toxic political atmosphere that shows no sign of abating.
There have been other years with worse horrors than this, for sure. But that hardly brightens our horizon.
Unless you look back… maybe to that Christmas Eve 50 years ago, that singular night when everything seemed to be falling apart, and something wonderful happened.
That one night, all the worst damage humanity could do to itself was diminished by the spectacle of what it could achieve in unity.