Jesuit Astronomer Remembers the First Christmas in Space| National Catholic Register


In 1968, America was in the midst of turmoil. The Vietnam War raged on, claiming the lives of prominent leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. Meanwhile, riots erupted in cities across the United States. However, amidst this chaos, three men embarked on a journey beyond the earth, leaving behind the strife of the world below to experience the silent and contemplative vacuum of space. These men, orbiting the moon, shared a Christian message with an enraptured audience of millions. The impact of this moment was profound and unexpected, and it played a significant role in shaping the life and career of Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno.

Brother Guy, a Ph.D. astronomer who now directs the Vatican Observatory, vividly recalls watching the NASA astronauts blast off on a grainy TV set while surrounded by friends and family. He also distinctly remembers the astronauts reading a passage from the Bible during their mission, which he found both surprising and deeply moving. This event left an indelible mark on Brother Guy, setting him on a path of faith and scientific exploration.

The year 1968 marked a turning point in mankind’s dream of reaching the moon. In response to President John F. Kennedy’s challenge, the United States launched the Apollo program in 1961, with the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. With the Soviet Union also making progress in its own space program, NASA faced intense pressure to achieve this feat before their competitor. The mission that carried the USA’s lunar ambitions, Apollo 8, was incredibly ambitious. The rocket had never carried a crew before, and previous test missions had experienced failures. Additionally, a tragic fire in a test capsule resulted in the loss of three Apollo astronauts’ lives. Despite these challenges, NASA pressed forward.

On December 21, 1968, a Saturn V rocket carrying astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders was ready for launch. The Saturn V was the most powerful vehicle ever created by humans at that time, and it had never carried humans before. As the astronauts embarked on their journey, they chronicled sights no human had ever seen before, becoming the first to leave Earth’s orbit and catch a glimpse of the far side of the moon. They also set a new speed record for the human race.

By Christmas Eve, Apollo 8 had reached lunar orbit, and the astronauts began a broadcast that would captivate an audience of one billion people. NASA had given them no specific instructions on what to say, only that it should be “appropriate.” Bill Anders spoke first, followed by Lovell and then Borman. Together, they read a passage from the book of Genesis, describing the creation of the heavens and the earth. This choice of Scripture was unexpected but made a lasting impression on Brother Guy and many others. The astronauts believed that this passage held significance not only for Christians but for adherents of various world religions.

The Christmas Eve broadcast from Apollo 8 marked a historic moment. However, it was not without controversy. Some viewers took offense to the reading of the Bible passage, and one public atheist even filed a lawsuit against NASA, claiming that the agency was promoting religion. The Supreme Court later rejected the lawsuit, but tensions remained. Nevertheless, Brother Guy believes that expressions of faith should not be political but open to everyone. He has observed a growing acceptance of faith within the scientific community over the past 50 years, which he finds enriching and joyful.

Ultimately, the mission of Apollo 8 was a tremendous achievement that galvanized the public. It brought the possibility of reaching and exploring the lunar surface one step closer to reality. In July 1969, the astronauts of Apollo 11 would fulfill this dream. However, for Bill Anders, the reading of the Bible passage during the mission had a different effect. Seeing the small and seemingly insignificant Earth from space contributed to a loss of his Catholic faith. Despite the mixed reactions and personal struggles, the Christmas Eve broadcast of Apollo 8 remains a significant moment in history, impacting the lives of those who witnessed it and shaping the future of space exploration.



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