Ed Driscoll

God and Man at NASA, Then and Now

Near the end of 1968, NASA, still reeling from the deaths of the crew of Apollo 1, launched an ambitious mission to orbit the moon. There wasn’t a functional lunar module available for the mission — that would be tested on Apollo 9 — but NASA had a working Saturn V and a working Apollo command-service module, and took an extremely ballsy gamble for the first manned mission, of mating them together, and lighting the fuse. In retrospect, given the disaster that crippled the Apollo service module on Apollo 13, which used the LEM as a lifeboat– it was more than a little dangerous, even by 1960s-era NASA standards. But ultimately, this mission allowed Apollo 11 to meet JFK’s deadline of landing a man on the moon before the decade was out.

While all of the missions after Apollo 1 and before Apollo 11 are somewhat forgotten, Apollo 8 in particular shouldn’t be.  As Catherine Bly Cox and Charles Murray wrote in their classic 1989 book Apollo: The Race to the Moon, Michael Collins, who would eventually circle the moon himself as the command module pilot on Apollo 11, understood the epochal significance of this earlier mission:

Reflecting on it years later, Mike Collins wondered whether the most historic moment in the Apollo Program might have occurred not on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men on the moon, but at 9:41 A.M. C.S.T., December 21, 1968. On that morning, Collins was CapCom. If it hadn’t been for a bone spur requiring surgery the preceding July, Collins would have been up there himself—he had been a crew member on Apollo 8 until the surgery had made him lose too much training time. Collins had been reassigned to a later mission, Apollo 11.

* * * * * *

As CapCom, it fell to Collins to pass up the word. “Apollo 8,” Collins said into his headset. “You are go for T.L.I. [Trans-lunar Injection]” From the spacecraft, Jim Lovell answered, “Roger, understand. We are go for T.L.I.”

Collins, a man with a sense of both poetry and history, felt even as he spoke that the words weren’t enough. Here is one of the most historic things we’ve ever done, may ever do, he thought to himself, and there ought to be some recognition of it. And what do I say? “Apollo 8, you are go for T.L.I.” But in the MOCR, that’s the way you said, “Mankind, the time has come to leave your first home.”

* * * * * *

For many of the people in the Apollo Program, Apollo 8 was the most magical flight of all, surpassing even the first landing of Apollo 11. For some, like Mike Collins, Eight’s momentous historic significance was foremost…or as FIDO Jay Greene put it, Apollo 8 was the time that they stopped “just running around in circles. Apollo 8 went some place.”

Another aspect of Apollo 8 shows how different the culture of 1968 was for the majority of Americans from elites working in the government to everyday citizens, even with the assassinations of RFK and MLK, riots, and the strong whiff of the hard left’s radical chic in the air. In a moment that presumably had to be signed off by multiple layers of NASA brass and possibly the Johnson White House as well (or maybe not: as Cox and Murray wrote, “it came as a surprise to the controllers in [Mission Control]”), on the day that was then-called Christmas Eve,  the crew of Apollo 8 read from the Book of Genesis as their tiny capsule orbited the moon.

No, really!, Dave Barry would likely say at this point, during a moment when sensible modern readers might assume the writer  was tweaking their collective lower extremity.

To get a sense of a culture can be completely transformed in less than half a century, here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia’s page on topic:

On December 24, 1968, in what was the most watched television broadcast at the time, the crew of Apollo 8 read in turn from the Book of Genesis as they orbited the moon. Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman recited verses 1 through 10, using the King James Version text.

Bill 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.
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. 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.
Jim Lovell 
“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.
Frank Borman 
“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.”

Of course, these days, for better or worse, NASA no longer directly flies manned missions into earth orbit, let alone the moon. Even before its self-grounding, the corrosive effects of political correctness had sapped the can-do spirit of The Right Stuff as charted in the early days of NASA by Tom Wolfe and Bly and Murray. Compare the above with  this story, which is now making the rounds:

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has landed robotic explorers on the surface of Mars, sent probes to outer planets and operates a worldwide network of antennas that communicates with interplanetary spacecraft.

Its latest mission is defending itself in a workplace lawsuit filed by a former computer specialist who claims he was demoted – and then let go – for promoting his views on intelligent design, the belief that a higher power must have had a hand in creation because life is too complex to have developed through evolution alone.

David Coppedge, who worked as a “team lead” on the Cassini mission exploring Saturn and its many moons, alleges that he was discriminated against because he engaged his co-workers in conversations about intelligent design and handed out DVDs on the idea while at work. Coppedge lost his “team lead” title in 2009 and was let go last year after 15 years on the mission.

Opening statements are expected to begin Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court after two years of legal wrangling in a case that has generated interest among supporters of intelligent design. The Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian civil rights group, and the Discovery Institute, a proponent of intelligent design, are both supporting Coppedge’s case.

“It’s part of a pattern. There is basically a war on anyone who dissents from Darwin and we’ve seen that for several years,” said John West, associate director of Center for Science and Culture at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. “This is free speech, freedom of conscience 101.”

The National Center for Science Education, which rejects intelligent design as thinly veiled creationism, is also watching the case and has posted all the legal filings on its website.

“It would be unfortunate if the court took what seems to be a fairly straightforward employment law case and allowed it to become this tangled mess of trying to adjudicate scientific matters,” said Josh Rosenau, NCSE’s programs and policy director. “It looks like a pretty straightforward case. The mission that he was working on was winding down and he was laid off.”

Coppedge’s attorney, William Becker, says his client was singled out by his bosses because they perceived his belief in intelligent design to be religious. Coppedge had a reputation around JPL as an evangelical Christian and other interactions with co-workers led some to label him as a Christian conservative, Becker said.

In the lawsuit, Coppedge says he believes other things also led to his demotion, including his support for a state ballot measure that sought to define marriage as limited to heterosexual couples and his request to rename the annual holiday party a “Christmas party.”

And there you have it — in 1968, NASA astronauts could say to the folks back home that “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” and wish them a Merry Christmas, and with the notable exception, as Wikipedia notes, of…

Madalyn Murray O’Hair, an atheist, [who had] responded by suing the United States government, alleging violations of the First Amendment. The suit was dismissed by the Supreme Court due to lack of jurisdiction.

…The vast majority of Americans seemed to have survived the experience relatively unscathed.

That this same culture could also send men to the moon was purely a coincidence, right? Besides, our NASA has more important things to do than actually get off the ground with manned human spaceflight.