Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas Fifty Years Ago

My most memorable Christmas was fifty years ago today, the first Christmas in our new home in Oak Park, Illinois. That was the day our furnace decided to give up the ghost, leaving our house cold and virtually unihablitable. We normally would have gone to my aunt and uncle's home to celebrate the holiday, but had to remain put while the furnace repairmen, no doubt earning triple time, installed the new furnace. So my parents turned on the stove and we huddled in the kitchen for the entire day.

Now it just so happened that the previous day, December 24, 1968, human beings orbited the moon for the first time ever. That distinction for the crew of  Apollo 8, Frank Borman, James Lovell and Bill Anders, was only one of many firsts. They were the first human beings to be sent into space atop a Saturn V rocket, the first to leave earth's orbit, obviously the first to see the moon's surface up close, the first to lay eyes upon the side of the moon that never faces the earth, and the first to set eyes upon the earth from outer space.

The latter distinction I believe was the most significant first as the photographs Bill Anders took of our planet represented the first time human beings back home saw images revealing our home planet in its entirety, cast adrift in a sea of nothingness. Those images had a remarkable impact. For the first time we saw photographic evidence that our planet and its ample resources are finite. I don't think it's a coincidence that the environmental movement gained tremendous influence after those photographs were published. Jim Lovell would later say "That (the earth) is our spaceship and we must protect it."

I vividly remember sitting in that cozy kitchen with my parents and grandparents watching TV as the three astronauts broadcast live from their space capsule, 50,000 feet above the surface of the moon. It turns out my memory is a little fuzzy however about one aspect of those telecasts. Looking at a timeline of the Apollo 8 mission, it turns out that the astronauts read  the story of Creation from Genesis from their spacecraft, on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day as I recall. Which means I was either watching a recording of that event in our kitchen, or am mistaken and saw it live in our still warm house the night before.

I was reminded of that mission twice this year. The first time was when I visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago with my children this summer and showed them the Apollo 8 capsule that has taken up permanent residence there. I recounted to them the incredible excitment I felt at that moment, standing in front of the very machine whose adventures I folllowed so closely all those years ago. The second time was quite accidental, catching on the car radio a remarkable David Kestenbaum This American Life interview with the mission's commander Frank Borman on his feelings about the mission and space travel.

You can hear the interview here.

It turns out that fifty years later, Borman, is quite blasé about the whole thing. Perhaps it's because he spent much of his time in space and during recovery in the Pacific Ocean, sick as a dog. Or it could be that life has soured for a ninety year old man who just recently lost his wife, the love of his life. Whatever the reason, you would never expect a person who has done one of the coolest things imaginable to essentially say, ah, it wasn't such big deal.

Kestenbaum at one point in the interview said to Borman " I don't know if you're the best person to ask about space travel or the worst" to which Borman promptly replied "oh I'm probably the worst." That brought up the notion that there probably should have been a poet on board to which Borman replied "that's the last thing I would have wanted on my crew, a poet!"

Perhaps because he was so indifferent about the experience, one thing Borman said stood out from the rest and could not have been more profound, or I'm sure much to his chagrin, poetic.

It was when Frank Borman spoke about seeing earthrise from the moon for the first time. He describes the moon as a place of utter desolation, no color at all except varying shades of gray. Then all of a sudden the astronauts spotted the earth rising up from the horizon as their spacecraft orbited the moon. It was like a gorgeous blue marble that you could cover up with your thumb he said, the only thing with color that was visible. Borman then got emotional saying "everything that was dear to me, my wife, my children my parents were there."

This is how it looked.

Earthrise from the moon. Photograph by Bill Anders,  December 24, 1968

Nothing would ever be the same after 1968, it was a terrible year in so many respects: the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assasination of Martin Luther King and the riots in cities across the country that ensued, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the general feeling of malaise in this country and all over the world, the feeling that everything was spinning out of control and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

After the crew of Apollo 8 returned to earth, they received a letter from someone who thanked them "for saving 1968."

They also saved a child's Christmas in Oak Park for which I am most grateful.

Here is a link to a Today show segment from earlier this year featuring all three Apollo 8 crew members.

The Apollo 8 capsule on permanent display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago
The bottom photograph shows Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell's seat in the center of the spacecraft

It was quite a moment in history and I am grateful to have been around to experience it.

Here I'll give Frank Borman, as of today the oldest living astronaut, the final word with which he signed off the crew's Christmas Eve, 1968 broadcast, which echo my sentiments exactly at the moment:

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.

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