Christmas Eve 1968: How Apollo 8 Made History By Reading the Bible

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Public Domain / NASA, Bill Anders / Wikipedia

You may know about Apollo 11, the 1969 mission when humans landed on the moon for the first time. And there’s a good chance you’ve seen the movie Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks.

Apollo 8 gets a lot less attention. And yet it was an extraordinary mission – one that not only made scientific history, but Church history.

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The First Moonshot

Apollo 8 was launched on December 21st, 1968 and headed toward the moon. The crew was tasked with flying to the moon for the first time in history, orbiting it (without landing), and returning to earth.

The mission accomplished several amazing feats:

  • It was the first time humans had ever gone beyond low Earth orbit
  • It was of course the closest humans had ever gotten to the moon
  • It was the first time humans had ever seen the Earth as a whole planet, as well as seen an “Earthrise” (see the article picture up top for a famous picture taken during the mission)
  • And it was the first time humans had seen with their own eyes the far side of the moon.

But it was during one of their live broadcasts back to earth during their mission that they made Church history: they read from the book of Genesis on live television while orbiting the moon.

Reading God’s Word on Christmas Eve

It was Christmas Eve 1968, and the crew was orbiting the moon. They did a live broadcast from their spaceship, garnering the largest TV audience ever at the time. The astronaut crew introduced themselves and described what it was like to see the moon so close.

Then one of the astronauts said, “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.” (Listen to the full recording with the video at the end of this article!)

The three astronauts then took turns reading the first 10 verses of the first chapter of Genesis, which describes creation. They read it from the King James Version of the Bible.

When the finished, the last astronaut concluded, “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.”

The Lawsuit

Unfortunately, the Scripture reading – which appears to have been done entirely at the initiative of the astronauts – landed NASA a lawsuit.

Atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, famous for the 1963 Supreme Court case with her name that banned Bible reading in public schools, sued NASA arguing that the fact the astronauts were public employees made the public Bible reading unconstitutional.

The case was dismissed by the Supreme Court in 1970 on a technicality, but the ordeal left NASA skittish about anything relating to religion, leading them to simply self-censor (so basically O’Hair still won). For example, during the Apollo 11 mission, Presbyterian Buzz Aldrin took communion after having landed on the moon, but he didn’t mention it in public for years for fear of another lawsuit.

Here’s a video with the audio of the Scripture reading:

The Commemorative Stamp

The reading from Genesis was so iconic that in 1969 the US Postal Service released a commemorative stamp for the Apollo 8 mission that featured the famous “Earthrise” photo taken from lunar orbit as well as the first words from Genesis:

Public Domain, United States Post Office Department, Wikipedia
Public Domain, United States Post Office Department, Wikipedia

What a cool story! Do know you a similar story that isn’t as well known? Share in the comments!

[See also: Enchanting Time-Lapse Video of Earth from Space]

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