IN THE SUMMER OF 1969, the heavens declared the glory of God, but the streets below declared the sinfulness of man.
In August, cult followers of Charles Manson brutally murdered seven people over three days in Los Angeles. Later that month, hundreds of thousands of people packed into a farm near Woodstock, N.Y., for a music festival that also gloried in drug use and casual sex.
The year before wasn’t much better: In 1968, assassins murdered both Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy, race riots broke out in more than 100 cities, and thousands died as the Vietnam War reached a frightening peak.
Americans craving good news huddled around television sets in December 1968 as NASA launched its Apollo 8 mission: Three American astronauts became the first men to orbit the moon. It was a critical step in a fevered race to meet the late President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade.
The accomplishment was extraordinary: It came just 65 years after the Wright brothers achieved the first airplane flight in history—flying for about 12 seconds and traveling a distance of about 120 feet at Kitty Hawk, N.C. In 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft traveled nearly 250,000 miles over three days to reach the moon’s orbit.
The Apollo 8 astronauts wondered at the moon they could see outside their windows, but they also marveled at the Earth dangling in the distance. In his book Rocket Men, author Robert Kurson writes about mission commander Frank Borman: “Earthrise was the most beautiful sight Borman had ever seen, the only color visible in all the cosmos.”
During a Christmas Eve broadcast from the moon’s orbit, the three astronauts described their experiences, and ended with a message. As television viewers watched live images of the moon move across their screens, astronaut Bill Anders began: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”
The astronauts took turns reading from Genesis Chapter 1: “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the Heaven be gathered together unto one place. And let the dry land appear. … And God called the dry land Earth. … And God saw that it was good.”
Borman concluded: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with a good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth.”
Kurson writes that inside mission control in Houston, no one moved: “Then, one after another, these scientists and engineers in Houston began to cry.” It was a fitting answer to the question Time magazine had posed on its cover two years before, when it asked, “Is God dead?”