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December 21, 2018

An Eternal Message of Hope From Apollo 8

A Christmas Eve broadcast of unity and peace for all people.

“May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us in all our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.” —George Washington (1790)

It was December 24, 1968, 50 years ago this upcoming Christmas Eve, that astronauts on the first manned space mission to circle the Moon transmitted a message that provided hope and encouragement for hundreds of millions of people back on planet Earth.

It had been a tumultuous year in America and around the world, and their message provided a great sense of unity and peace — a message that’s applicable today and for all eternity.

Apollo 8’s crew, Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders had launched their historic and dangerous flight on December 21. The mission was to orbit the Earth, but after CIA reconnaissance photos determined the USSR was preparing to launch enormous rocket – assumed to be an attempt to beat the U.S. with a manned orbit around the moon – Apollo 8’s mission was changed to orbit moon. Preparation and completion of this mission would prove every bit as complicated as the Apollo 11 moon landing mission which followed.

It took the astronauts 68 hours to travel 240,000 miles to the Moon, but their reward was spectacular. They became the first humans to orbit another celestial body, to see the bleak far side of the Moon, and to witness a stunning “Earthrise,” photographs of which provided the first human look back at our own planet.

On that Christmas Eve, people around the globe watched the grainy televised images recording Apollo 8’s view of the Moon’s surface below them. On their ninth lunar orbit, Borman began their television transmission with an introduction of the crew. Each gave their perspective on the Moon’s surface, with Borman describing it as “a vast, lonely, forbidding expanse of nothing.”

Then, unexpectedly, the astronauts began reading the Creation account from Genesis.

William 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.’“

James 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 heaven 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.”

Commander Borman finished the broadcast, saying, “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.”

(Watch the original broadcast.)

It was 2.5 hours later that the crew began a critical burn from the far side of the Moon, out of contact with mission control. This burn had to be carried out with absolute precision in order to put the astronauts back on a track to leave the Moon’s gravitational force and begin their return to “the good Earth” on Christmas Day. That burn went exactly as planned, and upon reacquiring contact with Mission Control, Jim Lovell’s first words were, in his humorous style: “Please be informed: There is a Santa Claus.”

Notably, the return flight averted near disaster when Jim Lovell was using a sextant to fine tune the inertial guidance system keeping the craft on the correct trajectory, he accidentally entered a wrong code, PO1. That reset the inertial guidance system to its starting point on the launchpad. Miraculously, he was able to use the sextant to completely orient the guidance system to their current position in space, still 1.5 days from earth. No humorous reference to Santa Clause after that issue.

Patriots, Merry Christmas and “God bless all…on the good Earth”!

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