Apollo 8 remains to this day the greatest, longest single step into the unknown that any human being has ever taken in recorded history. Previously, no manned U.S. space mission had flown far beyond the confines of the Earth's atmosphere. Gagarin and the early U.S. astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts had flown only a couple of hundred miles above the surface of the planet. The moon was 240,000 miles away. The flight was unprecedented. The message of inspiration and hope for the human race that the astronauts sent back from the depths of space was totally unexpected.
It was the most spectacular Bible reading in recorded history. The voice of astronaut Jim Lovell echoed across the black ocean of space from an unprecedented 200,000 miles away as he read the first chapter of Genesis that Christmas Eve, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth."
Lovell read from the Book of Genesis. Though it was Christmas Eve, he read from the beginning of the Old Testament, not the New. The message was not triumphal, arrogant or exclusionist in any way. It celebrated a due respect for Divine Providence and expressed humility at the moment of the most dazzling exploration and technological triumph in human history.
"For many of the people in the Apollo Program, Apollo 8 was the most magical flight of all, surpassing even the first landing of Apollo 11," historians Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox wrote in their classic history, "Apollo: The Race to the Moon."
The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration did not seem to have taken Christmas and its symbolism into its dry, technical calculations when setting the date for the flight. All that mattered to NASA's engineers and managers was fulfilling the impossibly tight schedule that the martyred President John F. Kennedy had set them back in 1961 -- landing men on the moon and bringing them back safely to Earth before the end of the '60s -- and, of course, beating the Soviet Union in the race to the moon.
Yet Christmas and Christian symbolism had wrapped itself around the unprecedented flight long before the Saturn V booster lifted off from what was then Cape Kennedy in Florida. Time magazine compared the different stages of the space flight to the Stations of Cross. After the Service Propulsion System on the Apollo 8 capsule fired its crucial burn behind the moon to send Apollo 8 back on its long voyage home, Lovell dryly radioed Mission Control in Houston, "Please be informed, there is a Santa Claus."
What made Lovell's reading from the Book of Genesis even more special was the message of stability, inspiration and hope it sent to the American people and the wider world after one of the most terrifying and dispiriting years in the nation's history.
It had often seemed that the nation, the wealthiest and most powerful in the world, was being torn apart by race riots, violence on university campuses from coast to coast and rage over the continuing war in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War seemed to be getting worse than ever that year. The Viet Cong had been decimated in its own Tet offensive, but to Americans, including their leaders, this was not realized at the time. A mood of rage and despair unknown since the time of President Herbert Hoover 36 years before had swept the United States. Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y., and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had both been assassinated within a few weeks of each other.
Coming at the end of such a year, Lovell's message, from the deepest reaches of space, carried the resonance of President Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address that the American people "had nothing to fear but fear itself" and Winston Churchill's fearless pledge in defiance of the Nazi conquerors of Europe in 1940 that Britain would never surrender.
Apollo 8's crew of Frank Borman, Lovell and Bill Anders went on to live long, prosperous lives. It might be said they lived blessed ones. Lovell was to know a lot more Divine Providence and mercy in space when he commanded Apollo 13, the spaceship that in 1970 survived a devastating explosion in flight. With the help of the outstanding scientists, engineers and technicians at Mission Control, he brought that ship and his two crewmates safely home, too.
Some 40 years on, the Christmas Eve message of the astronauts of Apollo 8 on their epic moon voyage still resonates for the human race.