In retrospect, there had been omens and portents.
(“We are now approaching lunar sunrise,” said William Anders, “and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.”)
Rivers flowed uphill. A new star was seen in the night sky. A butchered pig was found to have the word “OMEN” written on its liver in clearly visible letters.
(“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.”)
Lightning struck in clear weather. Toads fell from the clouds. All ten thousand lakes in Minnesota turned to blood; scientists blamed “phytoplankton”.
(“And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”)
A majestic golden eagle flew onto the Vatican balcony as Pope Paul VI was addressing the faithful. The bird gingerly removed the Pontiff’s glasses with its beak, then poked out his left eye before flying away with an awful shriek.
(“And God called the light Day,” said Jim Lovell, “and the darkness He called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.”)
A beached whale was found hundreds of miles inland. A baby was born with four eyes.
(“And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.”)
Pieces of paper with the word “OMEN” written on them fell from the clouds. A beached whale was seen in the night sky. Babies left unattended began to roll slowly, but unmistakeably, uphill.
(“And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.”)
One of the additional eyes on the four-eyed baby was discovered to be the left eye of Pope Paul VI, missing since the eagle incident. The provenance of the fourth eye was never determined.
(“And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place,” said Frank Borman, “and let the dry land appear: and it was so.”)
A series of very precise lightning strikes seared the word “OMEN” into the rust-red sand of the Sonora Desert; scientists blamed “phytoplankton”.
(“And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.”)
The New York Stock Exchange rose by perfect integer amounts eleven days in a row. An obstetrician published an article in an obscure medical journal claiming that the kicks of unborn children, interpreted as Morse Code, formed unspeakable and blood-curdling messages.
(“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of – ” [sudden burst of static, then silence])
If I had to choose a high point for the history of the human race thus far, it would be December 24, 1968.
1968 had been a year of shattered dreams. Martin Luther King was murdered in April. Democratic golden boy Robert Kennedy was killed in June. Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring in August. It felt like each spark of hope for a better world was being snuffed out, methodically, one by one.
Then almost without warning, Americans turned on their televisions and learned that a spaceship was flying to the moon. On December 22, the craft beamed a live TV broadcast to Earth informing viewers that they were about to become the first humans ever to orbit another celestial body. Communications issues limited the transmission to seventeen minutes, but the astronauts promised a second installment from lunar space.
On December 24, 1968, one billion people – more than for any television program before or after in the history of mankind – tuned in for Apollo 8’s short broadcast. The astronauts were half-asleep, frazzled with days of complicated calculations and near-disasters – but their voices were powerful and lucid through the static. Commander Frank Borman introduced the two other members of the crew. They described the moon, as seen up close. “A vast, lonely, forbidding expanse of nothing”. “A very foreboding horizon, a rather dark and unappetizing looking place”. Then the Earth, as seen from afar. “A green oasis, in the big vastness of space.”
Two minutes left till lunar sunrise broke the connection. The astronauts’ only orders from NASA had been to “do something appropriate”
“In the beginning,” read Bill Anders, “God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
So for two minutes on Christmas Eve, while a billion people listened, three astronauts read the Book of Genesis from a tiny metal can a hundred miles above the surface of the moon.
Then, mid-sentence, they crashed into the crystal sphere surrounding the world, because it turned out there were far fewer things in Heaven and Earth than were dreamt of in almost anyone’s philosophy.