Christmas Eve 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission – the first manned spaceship to leave the Earth’s orbit and first to circle the moon.
Because this would be the first time in history that human beings flew around the Moon, officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) planned for the Apollo 8 astronauts to televise the Moon’s surface as they orbited it on December 24, 1968. They correctly anticipated that at least a billion people or more would watch the broadcast, so they told the three astronauts “to do something appropriate.”
The astronauts struggled to find the right thing to say. They considered, and rejected, reading “The Night Before Christmas” or “Jingle Bells.” They ended up choosing a suggestion by the wife of a newspaper reporter, who said they should read the first 10 verses of the Book of Genesis, the Creation story.
As a young teenage boy, I remember my family interrupting its Christmas celebrations that evening to watch the black-and-white images of the moon’s stark and beautiful surface rolling beneath the Apollo space capsule. I remember the riveting effect of hearing, “[i]n 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 warm feelings of seeing ourselves as part of a created order much bigger than ourselves.
But not everyone was so moved.
In fact, this mission caused a prominent atheist to sue the federal government for “separation of church and space” because the crew of Apollo 8 read from the Book of Genesis.
Madelyn Murray O’Hair, the famous atheist, who had won the legal battle at the Supreme Court in 1963 to remove prayer from public schools, filed a lawsuit against NASA 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 she accused NASA of scheduling the Apollo 8 flight during Christmastime “for religious reasons” (even though the locations of the Earth and the Moon in their relative orbits dictated the timetable that had the astronauts arrive at the Moon on Christmas Eve).
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.” The Supreme Court rejected O’Hair’s appeal.
The main error of O’Hair’s extreme legal argument wrongly saw only religion in the Creation account from Genesis, and nothing more. She wrongly saw religion as some sort of verbal “hazardous waste” that needed to be quarantined and removed.
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. Three men circled the Moon for the first time ever, and their reading of the words from Genesis put their incredible achievement in a larger context. Their words reminded us of gigantic truths about God, the created order and human achievement that drew us together and made us all recognize that we are a part of something “cosmic” and much bigger than ourselves. Too bad Madalyn Murray O’Hair missed all of that and only perceived a dubious Establishment Clause violation.