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Recalling a mission that uplifted a nation

A daring moon orbit ended a tumultuous 1968.

Earth rising , as seen from outer space. This is an image that was first seen by human eyes during the Christmas season 40 years ago, when U.S. astronauts orbited the moon.
Earth rising , as seen from outer space. This is an image that was first seen by human eyes during the Christmas season 40 years ago, when U.S. astronauts orbited the moon.Read moreNASA

"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."

- Apollo 8 Commander Frank Borman, Christmas Eve, 1968

Chris Gibbons

is a Philadelphia writer

The astronauts in the cramped capsule of Apollo 8 were astonished by the alien landscape that lay before them. Astronaut Jim Lovell said, "We were like three school kids. We had our noses pressed against the glass. It was a really amazing sight."

For the first time in history, human eyes were gazing down on the far side of the moon. However, it was something totally unexpected that captivated the crew even more: the beautiful, blue Earth beginning to rise above the desolate lunar landscape.

Astronaut Frank Borman said the "most awe-inspiring moment of the flight was when we looked up, and there, coming over the lunar horizon, was the Earth. It looked so lonely in the universe."

This Christmas season marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most daring expeditions in human history: the Apollo 8 voyage to orbit the moon.

In mid-1968, CIA intelligence reports indicated that the Soviet Union might attempt a manned lunar mission by year's end. NASA scrambled to devise a counter-mission, as the United States was determined to take back the lead in the Cold War space race and beat the Soviets to the moon.

The Apollo 8 crew of Borman, Lovell and Bill Anders, all former fighter pilots, readily accepted the dangerous mission proposed by NASA. For the first time, astronauts would ride the powerful Saturn V rocket beyond the safe confines of Earth orbit and head into deep space. Privately, NASA manager Chris Kraft gave the men only a 50 percent chance of returning safely.

Apollo 8's Christmas Eve broadcast from lunar orbit was the most watched television event to date. My father and my brother Jerry skipped midnight Mass to follow the historic mission. They listened in stunned silence as the crew read from Genesis.

"To hear those tinny, analog voices on our kitchen radio, coming from so far away ... it was daring, incredible and just awesome," Jerry told me, remembering that night. CBS's Walter Cronkite struggled to hold back tears as the crew signed off.

1968 was a year rocked by war, assassinations, street riots and protests. However, it closed with a cautious message of hope and optimism from the crew of Apollo 8.

"The impact of seeing the Earth as a very fragile-looking ball in the blackness of space is a moment that ranks up there with any in the human species," space historian Andrew Chaikin said.

The goal of the mission was to test the hardware and techniques that eventually would help NASA land men on the moon before the Soviets could. However, its unanticipated achievement was to demonstrate humanity's incredible prospects, while also starkly revealing the precarious nature of our existence.

It's ironic that our descendants might remember a year marred by violence and turmoil for its peaceful exploration of the moon. A telegram sent to Borman summed it up best: "Thanks for saving 1968."

The tumultuous world we live in today is very reminiscent of 1968. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the social turmoil wrought by the faltering economy, and the recent terrorist attacks in India remind us that, sadly, very little has changed in 40 years.

Unfortunately, today we have no daring space mission to lift our spirits. But Apollo 8 did leave us with a lasting Christmas gift: an image of the rising Earth that will forever remind us of humanity's potential to achieve great things in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Take a moment this holiday season to gaze at the famous photo and remember that the blue world you see is the only one we know of that has life. In this tiny little corner of the vast cosmos, we are alone.

The beautiful but fragile Earth that's floating in the forbidding cold and darkness of space is the only home we have, and it's up to each one of us to make it a better place to live. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all of us here on the good Earth.