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Apollo 8 Astronauts Captured World's Attention In 1968 Moon Mission


All this year, we've been taking a look back at the events of 1968. It was a remarkable time in this country's history. It included raging protests, political assassinations and racial strife. But on this day, 50 years ago, Apollo 8 lifted off.


JACK KING: And we have ignition sequence start. The engines are armed. Four, three, two, one, zero - we have commit. We have...

FRANK BORMAN: Liftoff - the clock is running.

KING: We have liftoff - liftoff...

MIKE COLLINS: Roger. Clock.

KING: ...At 7:51 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.

KING: It was the first time that human beings had ventured to and orbited the moon. And the trip was full of danger and full of surprises. As NPR's Russell Lewis reports, the mission capped a difficult year and was one of those rare moments when people could feel good about the world.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Any trip to space is risky, but a mission to the moon, nearly a quarter-million miles from Earth, was something else. There were so many questions, so many unknowns, so many things that could go wrong. But on Christmas Eve, 1968, the capsule made it to the lunar orbit.


GERRY CARR: Apollo 8, Houston. What does the ole Moon look like from 60 miles? Over.

LEWIS: The U.S. and the Soviet Union had spent the 1960s locked in the space race, and getting to the moon first was a thrilling achievement. But 1968 was a turbulent time in the United States. The Vietnam War was raging. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. both were assassinated. Protests roiled the Democratic National Convention. During the six-day mission, those things seemed to fade away as people were captivated by what they saw and heard.


WILLIAM ANDERS: For all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.

LEWIS: On Christmas Eve, at the time, what was the most watched TV broadcast, crew members Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders read a passage from the Book of Genesis.


ANDERS: (Reading) 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.

LEWIS: There was also an unexpected moment during the 20 hours they circled the moon. As they focused on the lunar surface below, something else caught the crew's attention.


ANDERS: Oh, my God. Look at that picture over there. There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty.

LEWIS: The Earth, rising above the barren lunar landscape. Anders rushed to snap a picture, and the Earthrise image remains one of the most famous ever taken in space. And Anders says it forever changed the way people think about where we live.

ANDERS: The only color that we could see - and contrasted by this really unfriendly, stark lunar horizon made me think, you know, we really live on a beautiful little planet.

LEWIS: It wasn't just the crew of Apollo 8 that reflected during the flight. Robert Kurson wrote about the mission in a new book entitled "Rocket Men." He says something unusual happened afterwards.

ROBERT KURSON: At the end of 1968, when Apollo 8 splashed down, you saw hippies hugging old men in the streets - something that was unthinkable just six days before that.

LEWIS: Kurson says the difficulty of 1968 washed away for a while. In an interview with NPR earlier this year, Frank Borman, the mission commander, noticed the same thing.


BORMAN: The only telegram I remember out of all the thousands we got after Apollo 8 was, it said, thank you, Apollo 8. You saved 1968.

LEWIS: Borman says there are a lot of parallels between 1968 and 2018, specifically how divided the country is - the anger, frustration and mistrust. He wishes there was something on the horizon today like Apollo 8 to bring people together. Russell Lewis, NPR News, Washington.


BORMAN: 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.