We’ve spent a lot of time in 2018 revisiting 1968, which one of the newsmagazines at the time called “The Incredible Year.” I turned fourteen that October, a little young to fully grasp everything I saw, but half a century later, certain moments are as clear as day. One is the bulletin that interrupted the TV show I was watching one night in April with the news that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. Another is the Christmas Eve reading from Genesis by the astronauts aboard Apollo 8 on their mission to orbit the moon.
Like a lot of kids, I was a space nerd, following each flight closely on TV and in the newspapers. In those days, the real astronauts were the heroes and cultural figures, not fictional ones like James T. Kirk, whose mission on the Enterprise was aborted by low ratings, or Luke Skywalker, whose debut was still far, far away. Every launch brought excitement, but also anxiety that, sadly, was justified. In 1967, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee burned to death when Apollo 1 caught fire on the pad during a preflight test. A few months later, Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed after a parachute failed to open and Soyuz 1 crashed in Russia.
Apollo 8 marked the first time our explorers traveled to another celestial body, and was a crucial step toward President Kennedy’s goal of a moon landing. As such, it was by far the most dangerous flight either country had attempted. I remember watching the liftoff and seeing a newspaper photo of the spacecraft starting its escape from Earth orbit. I heard the reading on the TV, or maybe the radio on the kitchen table, not knowing it was the most-watched broadcast of all time, just listening, taking it in. It wasn’t a religious experience, it was a human experience. Three men, a quarter-million miles away, wishing Merry Christmas to all of us on “the good earth.”
I wish I recalled Christmas Day of 1968 that well, because it turned out to be the last one I’d have with my dad. He went to the hospital for minor surgery in January, then suffered a series of strokes and never came out.
Today, “orbiting” means an obnoxious trend in online dating. Few noticed when a current Soyuz carried US astronaut Anne McClain, Russian Oleg Kononenko, and Canadian David Saint-Jacques to the International Space Station. Of course, legions of people can name every Star Wars movie, plot twist, and character. But fifty years from now, will they get choked up remembering the first time they saw Revenge of the Sith?
Right now, this minute, you can listen to the winds of Mars, recorded by NASA’s InSight lander. The next time it comes your way and it’s a clear night, step outside and watch the space station pass overhead, carrying our brothers and sisters and hopefully leading us all to a better world. Peace.