Merrry Christmas—From the Moon! reminded me that I had yet to read Robert Zimmerman‘s account of the Apollo 8 mission, Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8, The First Manned Flight to Another World (New York, Random House, 1998; Dell paperback 1999). The books seem to be out of print, though a Kindle edition is available from Amazon, but so are used copies. I got the paperback in decent condition and spent the next couple of weeks reading bits of it before falling asleep.
Reading at bedtime is a hazard, as one’s critical faculties and attention become dulled as sleepiness arises. On the other hand, it gets me away from the 27″ iMac screen, which while a marvel confronts one with a fierce white light and multiple windows and browser tabs, all leading in different directions. Because I am interested in practically everything, I am easily distracted. So reading a slightly yellowed paperback by a dim 7-watt bulb (so as not to wake my wife) does tend to focus my attention on the matter at hand.
And it was an adventure, most of which I didn’t remember, or had missed entirely. I was abroad, in the mountains of Eastern Nepal, for most of 1968 and 1969, far from the public turmoil roiling the United States. I did have a short-wave radio, and in July of ’69 did hear the Eagle landing, but I do not remember Apollo 8, except from later reports. So much of what Robert Zimmerman tells was new to me, even 46 years later. Of course I knew the names, Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, Bill Anders, from later missions and piecemeal histories of NASA and the Apollo Program, and I had seen the movie dramatization of the travails of Jim Lovell’s unlucky Apollo 13. But Apollo 8 was an appointment I had long meant to keep, ever since I had heard Robert Zimmerman describe his book on John Batchelor‘s excellent nighttime radio program, eponymously The John Batchelor Show. Mr. Zimmerman was for a time a fairly regular visitor to the show, discussing the latest space news (he maintains a blog called ‘Behind the Black’) and even some Climate Realism, but I haven’t heard him lately. So here it was Christmas, there were memorial recollections, and I finally got the book.
Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8 is somewhat breathlessly written, in a magazine style. Or perhaps more accurately, like a screenplay, as the narrative jumps back and forth from the mission itself to the astronauts’ biographies, back to their wives in real time, then to the Cold War and the Berlin Wall, and up to the tumultuous political events of the late ’60s, all against the backdrop of the Soviet space program, which for a time was not only ahead of ours, but looked ready to orbit the Moon in—1968! Mr. Zimmerman juggles all these elements with the surety of a director, and indeed I see from his biography that he has been a filmmaker as well as a magazine writer. Though like magazine writing, at times Mr. Zimmerman verges on the glib, and leaves one with the sense that perhaps there is more to be said, at another level.
On the other hand, the history Robert Zimmerman presents is compelling, even to the teen romances of the future astronauts. The work has been criticized in reader reviews for its overt, even exuberant, patriotism, and the role that the space program and especially Apollo 8 played in bolstering America’s image of itself at a critical juncture, faced as it was with the faltering war in Vietnam, the juggernaut of the post-war Soviet Union, a year of riots and assassinations, and a radical element that seemed intent on tearing down the very foundations of the Republic. Apollo 8, in Robert Zimmerman’s view, was a triumph capped with a moment of sheer inspiration (the reading of Genesis from the Moon with the Earth in view), one which could be seen in retrospect as reminding the American people of the Judeo-Christian ethos and the Enlightenment principles of individual freedom and achievement that were the foundations of the American Experiment. It is easy to criticize him for heart-on-his-sleeve jingoism, but I won’t do so—because I agree with him. Maybe Apollo 8 didn’t make all that much difference, for the war and turmoil continued, and maybe even Apollo 11 didn’t either. But they damn well should have, and we need to be reminded why.
The culmination of the book is the chapter entitled “Pilgrims to the Moon,” following an account before the voyage of the rather mundane search for something meaningful to say on Christmas Eve from that distant shore. As it turned out, the idea of reading from Genesis was not Frank Borman’s, but came ultimately from the wife of a writer turned bureaucrat, Christine Laitin, who perhaps appropriately had survived the war against the Nazis in the French Underground. The chapter begins with a quote from William Bradford, on landing at Plymouth Rock, and recounts how the individual astronauts began their TV broadcast by describing the bleak, unforgiving features of the lunar surface, and then commenced to read the first few verses of Genesis. At this point, Robert Zimmerman tells, activity on Earth seemed to cease, at Mission Control, at the wives’ homes, at the airport bar in Houston, until Frank Borman concluded,
“And from the crew of Apollo 8,” he said with utter conviction, “We close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth.”