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A Truly Heavenly Christmas

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Those words have been read both silently and aloud countless times over the centuries since they were first written, but forty years ago tonight, on another Christmas Eve, they were read for the first time by men far up in the heavens, looking down on the earth from over two hundred thousand miles away as they circled its moon. The familiar words staticked [yes, I am verbing a noun –rs] across the vast void, and crackled in the speakers of millions of televisions and radios all over the planet, as those with televisions viewed the earth from afar as well. It was the most-watched television event in history up to that time.

Mission Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell (who would circle the moon again, and fail to land on it again a couple years later as commander of Apollo XIII), and Luna Module pilot Bill Anders were the first men to leave low earth orbit, the first to be captured by the gravitation of another body, the first to orbit another body, the first to escape its orbit and the first to enter earth’s atmosphere from very close to escape velocity.

It was a partial dress rehearsal for the first moon landing, which would occur seven months later, with the Apollo XI mission in July 1969. And while it was the landing that would fulfill John F. Kennedy’s pledge seven years earlier to “land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth,” the Apollo VIII mission on Christmas of 1968 probably won the moon race with the Soviets.

It almost didn’t happen, at least on that mission. A previous Apollo mission the past April, the unmanned Apollo VI (primarily a checkout test of the new Saturn V rocket), had almost been a disaster, with severe “pogo” oscillations, multiple engine failures and structural failures in the vehicle. Afterward, though these were thought to be resolved, the most prudent plan would have been another unmanned test flight, after which the “C” mission — a test of all the components in earth orbit would have been flown in early 1969.

But the Apollo team was in a dual race against time: the end-of-the-decade pledge made by Kennedy in 1961, and a more unknown deadline – the ongoing Soviet program. The Soviets had been performing unmanned lunar flybys with their “Zond” vehicle, and there was concern that they might beat the US to a manned flyby, if not a lunar landing itself, which would have been seen as a major propaganda defeat, reminding the public of how they had beaten the U.S. both in terms of the first satellite and the first astronaut years earlier. So they put crew on the next mission in October and made it the C mission, and then planned a new type of mission, which they dubbed C-Prime, to do everything that a lunar mission would except land (because the lunar module would not be ready for flight prior to early 1969).

Jim Webb, the NASA administrator, was opposed to the idea, considering it too risky, too bold a step for only the second manned flight of the Apollo program. But Wernher von Braun, Saturn designer, and George Low, Apollo spacecraft manager, reasoned that most of the risk was in getting the Saturn into space in the first place, and that once there, the additional risk of going around the moon (and perhaps orbiting) was very little, compared to the benefits of accelerating many of the rehearsals that might otherwise have to wait months for another mission opportunity. Shortly before the successful mission of Apollo VII in October, Webb “retired” after a political falling-out with Lyndon Johnson, probably over the latter’s decision to end the Apollo program the previous year, which cleared the way for the decision to go ahead with the lunar flyby in December.

As it turned out, the mission went off flawlessly. The Saturn had been demonstrated to have had all the bugs wrung out, and all of the Apollo elements seemed to work well with the exception of the missing lunar module, which was all that was needed now for a successful landing. (In retrospect, though, it was noted after Apollo XIII that had the Apollo VIII service module suffered the same failure with the oxygen tank explosion, the crew would have been lost, because they had no life-support backup in the form of the lunar module, as the XIII crew did).

With the successful flyby, the Soviets seemed to abandon their manned lunar efforts, to the point at which they denied that they had ever been racing (denials that many opposed to the manned space program continue to repeat as a means of removing our justification for Apollo).

But while winning the space race was an important achievement, Apollo VIII will probably be remembered longer for its role in making humans aware of both the beauty and apparent fragility of their home planet. The three astronauts weren’t just the first humans to orbit another body – they were the first to see their own planet from far away, a tiny bubble of life in a velvet black and apparently sterile universe, and to show and describe it to others. The “earth rise” picture taken by Bill Anders as his spacecraft rounded from the far to the near side of the moon has become iconic, and posters of such pictures of earth from space suddenly started to adorn dorm rooms and homes. Such imagery provided a powerful impetus for the environmental movement, which resulted in the first Earth Day less than a year and a half later.

Thus, it is a continuing irony that our highest technologies have provided the means for those who are often opposed to technology to promulgate and accentuate their views. Further irony lies in the notion that (as Gerard O’Neill discovered about the same time) the development, industrialization and settlement of space might ultimately be the best means to ease environmental pressures on earth arising from humanity and its technologies. Let us hope that, forty years after that first use of space to launch a movement to protect and properly steward earth, we can finally start developing the technologies we need to actually move humanity off the planet, and gather the resources above it, rather than just take pretty pictures of it. After all, God didn’t create just the earth.