At 8:51 a.m. CST on Dec. 21, 1968 – 50 years ago – the engines ignited on a Saturn-V rocket on Launch Pad 39A at Cape Kennedy, Florida.
Apollo 8, carrying Air Force Col. Frank Borman, Navy Capt. James A. Lovell Jr. and Air Force Maj. William Anders, was on its way to the Moon.
The Saturn-V was a mighty machine. It was a three-stage rocket as tall as a 36-story-tall building and weighed 6.2 million pounds at launch.
It developed 7.6 million pounds of thrust, meaning that in those first few seconds after ignition, it rose slowly until it burned off enough fuel weight to speed up to reach Earth orbit.
At the time, I was what the American news service United Press International labeled a “Space Writer,” meaning that among my other duties, I was assigned to the Manned Spacecraft Center at Clear Lake City, just outside Houston, during Apollo missions.
This was the second of the Apollo missions that would – three missions later – land on the moon at what NASA called Tranquility Base.
But the previous mission – Apollo 7 – was launched using a Saturn-1B rocket – the second stage on the full Saturn-V assembly – what NASA called a stack.
Apollo 8 passed behind the moon 68 hours, 58 minutes, 45 seconds after earth launch, and circled the moon 10 times before beginning the return to Earth. It was the first time humans had seen the back side of the Moon.
The iconic photograph from that mission was the Earth rising above the horizon of the Moon.
I still get cold chills thinking about the night the astronauts televised Christmas greetings to the Earth, a quarter of a million miles away.
I’ve written several versions of that story over the years for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram where I worked for many years and for the Baptist Standard, the Texas state newspaper for Baptists.
What follows is a version of those columns.
Wire service bureaus are hurry, hurry places not prone to much sentiment: there isn’t time and it’s counter-productive to the task at hand. And they are loud with the sounds of many Teletype machines transmitting news to the world.
Wire service reporters – both AP and UPI – like to think of themselves as tough and cynical and hard-bitten.
Fifty years ago, there were reasons to be cynical.
The year opened with a bitter shock when as part of the Tet offensive in Vietnam, a small squad of Viet Cong seized the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and held it for six hours on Jan. 31.
Late in March of that year, President Lyndon Johnson – the politician’s politician – announced he would not run again.
On April 4, The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed as he stood on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots broke out in 125 cities. The worst rioting was in Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City and Washington.
Two months later, on June 5, U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was fatally wounded at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles while campaigning for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. He died a day later.
Just before midnight on Aug. 20, 600,000 Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops crossed into Czechoslovakia, crushing the liberal government of Czech Communist Party First Secretary Alexander Dubcek.
It may be that mention of some of these events trigger what psychologists call “flashbulb memories” in you ¬¬– memories so vivid that you can relive in detail the event as though it had been captured on film in your mind’s eye.
The attack on Pearl Harbor caused that kind of memory. So did the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
And so did the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001.
But flashbulb memories are not always about major events.
You may relive precisely the treasured Christmas gift as a small child or watching your father stuff newspaper into his hat, so he could go milk the cow during a hailstorm.
The common thread through this memory game our minds play is that the event is significant to us personally. In later years, we take that memory out and relive it, even if it is painful, for there is no guarantee that flashbulb memories consist of only pleasant events.
If you had been in the United Press International news bureau at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, 50 years ago on Dec. 24, 1968, you would have seen a no-nonsense approach to news coverage by men and women handling one of the biggest stories of their lives.
And in just a few minutes, Apollo 8 astronauts Borman, Lovell and Anders were going to turn on their spacecraft’s television camera and let us see the Moon as it really is.
As that stark and beautiful vista came onto our television sets that night, the astronauts read to us from 250,000 miles away:
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 …
UPI writer Jack Warner that night recorded it something like this:
In the beginning, God …
The words cut like a cosmic sword across the quarter million miles from the Moon to the Earth.
But my flashbulb memory is not of the television or of the reading or even of what we wrote that night.
It was what fell over that room of tough and cynical and hard-bitten and unemotional staffers in the UPI bureau as they heard those ancient words coming from space:
Christmas Eve broadcast and related items:
Historic ‘Earthrise’ Re-Created For 45th Apollo 8 Anniversary
Apollo 8 Facts:
Dec. 21, 1968; 7:51 a.m. EST
Launch Pad 39A
Altitude: 118.82 miles
Inclination: 32.509 degrees
Orbits: 10 revolutions
Duration: six days, three hours, 42 seconds
Distance: 579,606.9 miles
Dec. 27, 1968; 10:52 a.m. EST
Recovery Ship: USS Yorktown
Paul K, Harral is associate editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.