On Dec. 24, 1968, the three astronauts of NASA's Apollo 8 - Mission Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders - turned their cameras on the Earth as they circled around the moon. The images they sent back looked nothing at all as one with feet firmly stuck to the ground might have expected. The tumult of 1968 was lost in the great cloud-swept oceans and land masses and the massive, truly massive, curtain of blackness surrounding this little swirly marble in the heavens. The vast emptiness of space was a silent reminder of an obvious truth: that we only have one Earth, and probably ought to spend our time on it appreciating life.
Forty years ago today that was certainly not the game plan. As the Vietnam War raged, GIs were coming home in body bags with heartbreaking regularity. The assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy sent the youth of America reeling; one byproduct of their deaths sent voters everywhere searching for a safe, moderate message, thus fueling Richard Nixon's phoenix-like rise from the ash-heap of history all the way to the Oval Office. Meanwhile, fires and protests and outrage took hold of urban centers. The United States has seldom seemed so torn up, so confused, as it did in the closing days of 1968.
Forty years later, it's strange how little things have changed. Once again the country is at war. Once again the country is largely defined by its cultural divisions. Yes, Barack Obama's election to the White House is proof that progress is afoot. But with so much of humanity hurting as the end of 2008 approaches, there's little doubt that humanity's ancestors would be depressed to learn that the species has progressed no further than flat-screen televisions and iPods.
Happily, some still take comfort in the wisdom of old stories. That was certainly the case for the crew of Apollo 8 who, with a world watching the planet Earth spin on its axis, closed that night's broadcast from space by reading from the Book of Genesis. William Anders went first. He began, "For all the people on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you."
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. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day."
"And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: 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."