A Year to Remember by Kevin Diehl
By almost any measure, 2020 has been a difficult year for our nation. The unrelenting coronavirus pandemic has infected thousands of our fellow Americans. The subsequent lockdowns have damaged the economy, crushed small businesses, kept kids out of school, and left many people feeling isolated from family and friends. The riots during the summer further tore apart our already frail social fabric, and the autumn election exposed the ever-widening gap between the left and the right. Add to the mix the rising crime rates in our major cities and you’ve got a recipe for a very troubling year.
Is it our worst year ever? No. There have been other truly bad years. But perhaps the last time we, as a nation, experienced a year with national troubles on this scale was 1968.
That year began when North Korea (yes, North Korea was a problem even back then) seized the United States Navy vessel USS Pueblo in January, claiming the ship had violated its territorial waters. The 83 crew members, one of whom was killed in the attack, were held as spies, and most were tortured. While the incident is largely forgotten now, the standoff lasted the entire year and caused global tension. Finally, in December, the men were released, but the ship was never returned. It’s anchored in the harbor in Pyongyang, and is open as an unlikely tourist attraction.
In April of 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., a disciple of peace, met a violent end when he was gunned down on the balcony of his Memphis hotel. Two months later, while the nation was still reeling over Reverend King’s killing, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated on the night that he won the California Democrat primary during his bid to become president.
As a grim backdrop to these national tragedies, the Vietnam War continued with no end in sight. In fact, more American soldiers were killed during 1968 than any other year of that long war. Anti-war protests reached their peak on college campuses across the nation, and civil rights demonstrations – often violent, sometimes deadly – erupted in cities from coast to coast. In some places, federal troops were mobilized to quell the riots.
Closer to home, Cleveland was rocked by the Glenville Shootout, a race riot in July that turned into a four-hour gun battle between the Cleveland Police and the Black Nationalists of New Libya. Seven people were killed, including three police officers, and more than a dozen people were wounded.
So there you have it: a tense standoff with a foreign nation holding American sailors hostage; two high-profile assassinations; a deadly and unpopular war getting even more deadly and unpopular; and violent, fatal race riots. That was 1968.
But then, in late December, something remarkable happened, something that would have been impossible just months before. That turbulent, destructive year reached an unlikely conclusion when three men – Bill Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman – climbed aboard a rocket and took off for the moon.
Apollo 8, the latest effort in America’s quest to beat the Soviets in the space race, was originally intended only to orbit Earth for further tests on the rocket’s components. But with the Soviets inching ahead in the race, NASA decided to take a risk: its new goal was to prove that we could get to the moon and back. When the Soviets learned of the mission, they considered it an adventure with no chance of success.
Less than a year later, Wapakoneta, Ohio’s own Neil Armstrong would gain everlasting fame as the first person to step onto the moon. But while Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crewmates – Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – are rightly remembered for their historic mission, it was Apollo 8 that really set an impressive string of “firsts.”
Launching on December 21, Apollo 8 rocketed into space and then, after getting the go-ahead from Mission Control, set a course for the moon – thus making Borman, Lovell and Anders the first humans to leave Earth orbit.
Each moment they sped toward the moon they set a new record – no one had ever traveled so far, or so fast. The crew reached their destination three days after takeoff, and in due course became the first humans to orbit the moon. Which, in turn, made them the first people to gaze upon the far side of the moon.
Apollo 8 was also equipped with television cameras, and on December 24 – during the evening hours in the United States – the crew appeared on television from lunar orbit. Their Christmas Eve broadcast was the most viewed television program of all time at that point. An estimated one billion people watched – a quarter of the world’s population in 1968.
The crew was aware of the historic nature of their broadcast, and they had searched for a theme for their mission, something to match the significance of this achievement that had elevated all of humankind. And so, with the world watching, the crew of Apollo 8 read the first ten verses of the Book of Genesis, from the Old Testament.
Bill Anders began: “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 heavens and the earth…’”
After Jim Lovell read the middle verses, Borman finished with, “And God called the dry land earth; and the gathering together of the waters He called seas; and God saw that it was good.”
It’s safe to say that never before had any human being spent Christmas so far from home as the men on Apollo 8. As Borman closed their unforgettable broadcast his words reflected that distance, a trace of homesickness in his voice: “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, not everyone shared the joy. Madalyn Murray O’Hair – the vocal atheist – responded to the Genesis reading by suing the United States government, alleging violations of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court eventually dismissed the suit, but it was an ugly footnote to a beautiful moment.
There was another important first that came out of this mission – perhaps the most memorable one of all. Emerging from the dark side of the moon on their lunar orbit, the crew of Apollo 8 was greeted with a sight no person had ever witnessed: the Earth rising over the moon’s horizon. Anders snapped a picture – later called “Earthrise” – that became one of the most famous photographs of all time: Earth as it appears from outer space.
Many of the events of 1968 put on graphic display the very worst of human behavior – war, violence, hatred, murder and senseless destruction. But then that desolate year gave us an unexpected gift: for the first time ever we saw our beautiful planet, floating solitary in the darkness of space, at once magnificent and fragile, and we sensed – if only for a brief moment – that our differences mattered little, and we saw all of humanity, alone together.
After the mission, Borman received an anonymous telegram that simply said, “Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”
Like the spirit of Hope that fluttered out of Pandora’s Box after all the pestilence and evil had been unleashed on the world, Apollo 8 lifted off Earth and flew into the heavens to give us a look back at ourselves, and we saw what noble things humankind was capable of when our better angels prevail.
That’s a sentiment worth remembering here, at the end of 2020, our own turbulent year.
Merry Christmas everyone, “and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
BY Kevin Diehl