"Say something appropriate."
-- NASA instructions for the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast
"In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form, and void."
-- Genesis 1:1
The broadcasts from Apollo 8 invited huge television audiences on board the spacecraft. The astronauts showed how things worked in the capsule and performed a memorable Christmas Eve reading. But the telecasts almost didn't happen at all, because of resistance from the mission's commander.
TV Camera vs. Extra Meals
Commander Frank Borman: "I said 'no' a lot, and the nice thing about it was that NASA gave the commander enough prerogative that they backed him up. I was overruled on one thing and that was because management was a lot smarter than I was. I didn't want to take the damn television camera with me. And they said, 'Let's take it,' and they were right. ... It turned out to be so important because we could share what we saw with the world. It weighed 12 pounds. We were cutting out everything, even down to the extra meals, which weighed 16 ounces or something like that. But I was very short sighted there, and NASA was right.
Making It Real
"It didn't add a dangerous amount of weight and the camera achieved the purpose for which it was intended: to give all Americans a real feeling for the mission and what it was accomplishing."
Greetings from Space
On their first television appearance, audiences saw Borman at the controls of the spacecraft, Jim Lovell making star sightings -- and chocolate pudding -- and Anders playing with his weightless toothbrush. Not everyone appreciated the telecast, however. "We did manage to get a great shot of Lovell's grinning face as he said happy birthday to his seventy-three-year-old mother, Blanche," Borman recalled. "We all hammed it up a bit, but after we got back I heard that when CBS interrupted the pro football playoff game between the Vikings and Colts for our brief broadcast Sunday afternoon, the network had been swamped with protesting calls. Maybe we should have thrown a football around."
A Message to Earth
During their second TV transmission the astronauts succeeded in showing the Earth a picture of itself, afloat in the blackness of space. But it was the show broadcast from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve that brought a spiritual dimension to the telecasts (a development that was later scorned by atheist activist Madeline Murray O'Hare, who brought a lawsuit against NASA). Borman: "I think the reason that it became spiritual, that Apollo 8 may have become spiritual, is because we read from Genesis, and I'd like to take credit for that, but I can't. Neither can Bill or Jim. We were told by NASA, this wonderful organization, wide-open organization, something like, 'you'll have a TV appearance on Christmas Eve. You're going to be seen by more people than anybody, witnessed by more people than anyone has ever seen before, and you've got to be prepared.' And I said, 'Well, what do you want us to do?' I remember asking [NASA Public Affairs chief] Julian Scheer, 'What should we do?' And the answer came back, I'll remember it to my dying day because to me this is the essence of America. The answer came back, 'Do something appropriate.' "Now if my name had been Leonov, they would have been saying, 'Extol the virtues of Lenin and the great Communist Society,' and all that baloney."
What Would Be Appropriate?
Astronaut Jim Lovell: "We found out that we were going to burn into lunar orbit Christmas Eve. All three of us decided that that would be a significant time to say something. But what can we say? We tried new verses to "The Night Before Christmas" and to "Jingle Bells" but nothing really seemed to be appropriate."
Anders: "So we wanted to do something significant, not so much religious as to give them sort of a shock in the psychological solar plexus, to help them remember Apollo 8 and humankind's first venture from the earth. And we all had various suggestions."
Focused on Training
The lunar-orbit goal for the mission had been decided in August, giving Borman and his crew only four months to train for their flight. Borman: "I was trying to learn how to reenter [Earth's atmosphere with] this spacecraft. I was trying to cover all these squares. So I called up a friend of mine, Si Bourgin in Washington who I had gotten to know, and he's a very sensitive intellectual guy, and I said, 'Si, this is the deal. I need help.'"
Genesis Verses in Flight Plan
Historian Andrew Chaikin continues the story: "Bourgin, in turn had a conversation with a reporter named Joe Laitin and Joe Laitin, in turn mentioned it to his wife and it was Joe Laitin's wife who said, "Well, why don't they just read from the book of Genesis?", and that filtered its way back through Si Bourgin to Frank Borman who thought it was a great idea. So he had the verses typed up on a page in the flight plan -- on fireproof paper, like every thing else they brought on board -- and he had this in front of them."
Technological Wonder, Spiritual Moment
Lovell: "Almost the whole world would be listening to us on Christmas Eve. But the whole world does not consist of Christians. Why don't we say something that is significant to the majority of the people in the world? That is how it came to pass that on the last revolution of the moon, we read from the Old Testament the first ten verses of Genesis which is the foundation of many of the world's religions." Bill Anders remembers that is was "not so much a religious reading, but more of a significant statement, that not just Christians and Jews would understand, but that all people, Buddhist, Hindu or atheist would react to in a deep and moving way to help them remember this event of exploration."
Just the Right Thing
Television newsman Walter Cronkite: "You know, I'm afraid that my first reaction was, 'Oh, this is a little too much, this is a little too dramatic.' Even, I might even have thought 'this is a little corny.' But by the time Borman had finished reading that excerpt from the Bible, I admit that I had tears in my eyes. It was really impressive and just the right thing to do at the moment. Just the right thing."
Sharing the Wonder
Chaikin: "The thing about Apollo that sets it apart from every other event in the history of exploration is that because it was happening live on television, humans could share in the event as it was happening. We didn't have to wait for the letters to come back from the western frontier, weeks and months later. We didn't have to wait until the explorers returned to hear about the adventure, we could see it with our own eyes and have our own experience. And that was an experience -- watching, when the world saw those TV pictures and heard those verses in Genesis -- that was an experience for all of us to share in. That was our piece of Apollo 8. That was the moment at which we felt like explorers. We felt the awe and the wonder that these three men were experiencing so far their home planet and that was something that set Apollo 8 apart from anything that had ever happened in the history of exploration."
The Apollo 8 broadcasts won an Emmy, the highest honor given by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
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