When the movie “Apollo 13” was released more than 20 years ago, I stood in line for an hour for tickets. I wanted to introduce my children to the heroes of my day — not sports or entertainment personalities — but astronauts, men who used their wits and slide rules to accomplish the unimaginable — reaching the moon.
John Glenn. Alan Shepard. Jim Lovell. Gus Grissom. Buzz Aldrin. Neil Armstrong. We knew these names as well as any when I was growing up. We followed their careers as if they were rock stars, watching launch after launch, splash down after splash down, mourning when three of them died before ever taking off, cheering with each success. We imagined what the world would look like when viewed from the heavens.
The year I turned 11, we got our chance to see for ourselves.
It had been a year like none other. 1968. In the course of 12 months, our nation was immersed in turmoil: two assassinations, almost constant racial unrest, violent anti-war protests, and the election of a president who would one day resign from office amid political scandal.
It would be hard for that Christmas to top the one from the year before, when my father came home on Christmas Eve, having been in the hospital for more than a month. Though a friend had told me her truth about Santa, my father’s homecoming was all I had wished for and proved Santa existed, at least for another year.
But in 1968, maybe watching the news on Christmas Eve, when Walter Cronkite reported that Santa had left the North Pole and was traveling south, I was a bit wary of the myth. There was too much anger in the world, too much war and sadness, for someone as kind and giving as Santa Claus to really exist. (Truth, though, is that I’m still waiting for him to show up at my house again.)
We’d been following the Apollo 8 mission during Christmas week and knew it was the most important yet. If successful, the crew would be the first humans to leave the earth’s gravity, fly to the moon and to orbit it. Landing on the moon would be the next goal.
On Christmas Eve, we watched as Frank Borman, James Lovell and James Anders broadcast from space, giving us our first glimpse of what earth looked like from afar. They captured the earth rising in the moon’s sky as they flew behind the moon, Anders taking a photograph that would become one of the most iconic images in history.
Everyone alive on that night in 1968 is in the picture. We are there, looking toward the moon and a camera almost 240,000 miles away looks back at us — a swirl of blue and white — and in that moment, there is no turmoil, only beauty.
As they orbited, the astronauts, with earth, the moon’s surface and the darkness of space as their backdrop, recited the first 10 verses of Genesis 1:
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”
The film is scratchy and old, the words garbled, but it is goosebump television, even today.
The next morning, we woke to presents, one of which was my first camera — a Kodak Instamatic with a flash cube on the top. With it, I began looking at the world through a new lens, one no doubt shaped by the events of that pivotal year.
Fifty years later, here we are again. Our culture — and Earth herself — is in daily turmoil. This Christmas, as I set about ordinary things — working and worshiping, wrapping and baking — I marvel at the extraordinary, how a single mission in a turbulent year 50 years ago gave us pause to come together for a few startling, historic minutes, in peace.
That’s what I’m asking for this year. For all of us: a moment, at least, when we are all one.