That 1968 was a year from hell is to put the matter mildly. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Bobby Kennedy was murdered. The Tet Offensive blew the Vietnam War up from a running sore to an apocalyptic disaster. Race riot, anti-war riots, and riots just for the hell of it became a daily feature on the news. It seemed to many that the very fabric of American society was being torn apart.

Against that backdrop, NASA planned its boldest mission yet. Could a crew of astronauts, riding an Apollo capsule, use a Saturn V to travel all the way to lunar orbit and return?

If they succeeded, a great many questions on the way to fulfilling President Kennedy’s dream of a moon landing would have been answered. If they failed, the moon landing goal by the end of the decade would have ended, and 1968 as a hell-year would have been completed.

Not only did Apollo 8 succeed, but its astronauts, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, who would go on to command Apollo 13, and William Anders gave the world a Christmas present that provided a much needed cathartic event. In the midst of horror and anger, something beautiful and indeed holy was born.

Christmas in lunar orbit

The worldwide broadcast that took place on Christmas Eve had the most extensive audience that had ever listened to a human voice up to that time.

The Apollo 8 astronauts, as the lunar surface swept beneath them, took turns reading from the Book of Genesis. They ended their broadcast by saying, “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.”

The reaction from the good Earth

For the most part, the people living on the good Earth on Christmas 1968 reacted favorably to the broadcast.

The Apollo 8 astronauts provided a message of hope to a strife-torn world that in a real sense saved that year from hell. The Christmas Eve broadcast was a preview of things to come when the Apollo 11 moon landing became the most followed live event in the history of the world.

Not everyone was happy, however. Atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who caused a 1962 Supreme Court decision that ended official prayer in public schools, filed suit in federal court alleging violations of the separation of church and state. Even though the Supreme Court had dismissed the lawsuit, Buzz Aldrin was obliged to conceal the fact that he took holy communion on the lunar surface when Apollo 11 had landed on the moon.