Society

The Night Before Christmas When Astronauts Read From the Bible As They Orbited the Moon

Would video of Apollo 8 astronauts reading from Genesis be possible today?

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AP Photo/Anthony Camerano

One of the earliest attempts at Christmas censorship occurred in 1969, after the crew of Apollo 8 read from the Book of Genesis during a telecast of their moon orbit on December 24, 1968.

Apollo 8 was the first manned spaceship to leave the Earth’s orbit and the first to orbit the moon.  So when Apollo 8 reached the moon on Christmas Eve, about 2 billion people, the largest television audience in history at that time, tuned in to see this historic event as the astronauts broadcast images of the moon’s surface from the spacecraft.


I remember as a young boy, my family interrupting its Christmas celebrations that evening to watch the black and white images of the moon’s stark and beautiful surface.   The astronauts then took turns reading the first ten verses of the Book of Genesis as we watched the pictures of the lunar surface.  I remember the riveting effect of hearing, “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” as we watched the moon’s craters and plains pass by the windows of Apollo 8.  We went to bed that night with secure feelings of seeing ourselves as part of a created order much bigger than ourselves.

But not everyone was so moved. Madelyn Murray O’Hair, the famous atheist, filed a lawsuit against NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), demanding an injunction forbidding NASA from “permitting religious activities, or ceremonies and especially the reading of the sectarian Christian religion Bible and from prayer recitation in space and in relation to all future space flight activity.”  O’Hair objected to the astronauts’ reading of Genesis during the television broadcast, and accused NASA of scheduling the Apollo 8 flight during Christmastime “for religious reasons.”

A special three-judge panel rejected O’Hair’s extreme legal arguments.  The judges correctly understood that when the government accommodates private religious expression, it is protecting their freedom of speech and religious liberty, not violating the Establishment Clause: “[T]he religious statements of the astronauts while on television were made by the astronauts as individuals and not as representatives of the United States government …Furthermore, to have prohibited the astronauts from making these statements would have been a violation of their own religious rights.”  O’Hair v. Paine, 312 F.Supp. 434, 437 (D.C. Tex. 1969). The Supreme Court rejected O’Hair’s appeal.
On reading this opinion, it saddened me to see how O’Hair’s atheism blinded her to the glory that happened that night. I along with billions of people watched something awesome and historic that night, as human beings from Earth circled the moon for the first time. By reading the words of Genesis they put their incredible achievement in a bigger context. Their words reminded us of gigantic truths about God and the created order that drew us together and made us all feel part of something much bigger than ourselves.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair may have missed all of that, but this Christmas season, in the rush and bustle, we are in danger of missing the glory of the true meaning of Christmas. Take time to reflect on the wonder of the same God who placed the moon in the sky, sending His own Son to be born in a humble manger, to be “God with us.”

Jordan Lorence serves as senior counsel and senior vice-president of the Office of Strategic Initiatives for Alliance Defending Freedom at its Washington, D.C., Regional Service Center. He has litigated religious liberty, free speech, and marriage cases across the nation since 1984. This article originally appeared on Alliance Defending Freedom’s blog and is reprinted here with kind permission.