It had been a tumultuous year. The North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive, attacking garrisons and invading the U.S. Embassy in Saigon; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated; and a rebellious decade reached its climax in 1968, as disenchanted citizens from Paris to Chicago took to the streets in revolt.
Marching in Mexico City, demonstrators were shot and many killed. Rioters turned British and West German universities into communes. They felled Italian and Belgian premieres and forced concessions from Yugoslav dictator Josip Titó. And students in Paris brought President Charles de Galle's Fifth Republic to its knees.
In the U.S., the cataclysm came in August, when 10,000 demonstrators--most of them truculent members of the emerging Baby Boomer generation--descended upon the Democratic Party's National Convention in Chicago. Given carte blanche by Mayor Richard Daley, Chicago's police beat not only rock-throwing demonstrators but passersby, journalists and convention volunteers. In the fall, frightened voters narrowly elected Richard Nixon--a law and order Republican who claimed to have a "secret plan" to end the war.
The turmoil of 1968 even reached into outer space. On December 21, the Apollo 8 spaceship blasted its way through the earth's atmosphere to begin the first U.S. mission to orbit the moon--a mission that would set the stage for the first moon landing less than a year later. On board were astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders. By Christmas Eve, the Apollo 8 had begun to orbit the moon.
Borman, who had planned to participate in the Christmas service at St. Christopher's Episcopal Church in League City, Texas, arranged with an engineer at mission control to read a short prayer that could be played for the church. During the third lunar revolution, Borman read:
Give us, O God, the vision which can see thy love in the world, in spite of human failure. Give us the faith to trust the goodness in spite of our ignorance and weakness. Give us the knowledge that we may continue to pray with understanding hearts, and show us what each one of us can do to set forth the coming of the day of universal peace. Amen.
"Amen," echoed the engineer back on earth.
During the ninth lunar revolution, the astronauts pointed their camera at the moon so that those on earth could get a glimpse of its cratered surface. Then they read the story of the creation from the Bible, as told in the first 10 verses of the Book of Genesis: "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."
As writer Mike Wright observed, "The Bible reading, with all three astronauts taking part, drew both intense joy and intense dissent." Acting NASA administrator Dr. Thomas D. Paine called it "the triumph of the squares--the guys with computers and slide-rulers who read the Bible on Christmas Eve."
One of the most vocal critics was the infamous atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the woman credited with getting prayer taken out of public schools. In a 1963 decision in Abington School District v. Schempp, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that schools could not require students to read passages from the Bible or recite the Lord's Prayer at the beginning of each school day. In response to the Christmas Eve scripture reading from space, "O'Hair remarked, "I think the astronauts were not only ill advised but that it was a tragic situation...that they should read portions of the Genesis Bible which is accepted by a very minor number of persons in the total world."
Minor or not, the Bible reading cut through the political haze and sent a strong message to those glued to their radios and TV sets--a message of hope in a torn and ravaged world. And before signing off, the crew of the Apollo 8 sent a final message back to earth: "We pause with good night, good luck and God bless all of you--all of you on the good earth," which apparently included Madalyn Murray O'Hair, whether she liked it or not.