Christmas, 1968. It was a stressful time for my family and my country. Stressful for my family because, well, it was Christmas.

The Moredocks, who never mastered the art of living under the same roof together, were trapped in our annual forced march through six weeks of relentless gaiety and seasonal cheer. I was home from my freshman year at the University of Georgia and wanted desperately to be back in Athens.

For America things were actually worse. The country was embroiled in an endless and pointless war in Southeast Asia. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy had been assassinated the previous spring and cities burned in racial rioting. Demagogues howled and bayed from the darker corners of the nation. The year closed with Richard Nixon awaiting inauguration as the 37th president of the United States. We would later discover that he had more demons than the national psyche, but in December 1968, he was simply the strange, sad man who had won a dispiriting election with 45 percent of the popular vote.

But there was some cause for celebration in that grim season. On December 23, the Republic of North Korea released the crew of the U.S.S. Pueblo, a spy ship that had been seized off the coast of North Korea in January. For 11 months the officers and crew had been tortured and the American people tormented by the threats of the North Koreans. After nearly a year of international recriminations and a U.S. apology, the crew was released. (The ship is still held by North Korea in Pyonyang harbor.)

And then there was Apollo VIII. In December 1968, America was on the verge of fulfilling John F. Kennedy’s dream of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Just a few more exercises were required to fulfill the great adventure.

At 12:51 p.m., on Dec. 21, a Saturn V rocket lifted off from Cape Kennedy with a crew consisting of Commander Frank Borman and pilots James Lovell and William Anders. They would be the first humans to leave Earth’s orbit. Their mission called for them to take 10 laps around the moon and return home, testing the theory and technology that would put men on the lunar surface in seven months.

Two and a half hours into the mission, the third Saturn stage ignited, boosting the command module out of Earth’s orbit. As the world watched and listened over the next three days, the astronauts crossed the vast gulf of space in a tiny craft that contained less computer capability than a modern video game.

Sixty-nine hours after launch, Apollo VIII settled into low lunar orbit. Lovell described the moon’s surface to Houston as “like plaster of Paris, or sort of grayish beach sand.” It was Christmas Eve. Far from a troubled, warring Earth, silent awe reigned aboard the command module.

Then the module emerged from behind the moon on its fourth orbit and the crew became the first to witness an earthrise, as Anders recorded the moment with a Hasselblad camera. There, in the darkness of space, above the arc of the lunar surface, was our little blue world, with wisps of white that looked like swaddling.

That was our home. All of our history and hubris, our art and empires, everything we were or ever hoped to be was on that little blue sphere, swimming in the darkness, no god or angels in sight, just us in the vastness of space and eternity. This moment of humility — seeing ourselves so small and alone in the universe — was perhaps America’s greatest gift to humanity. The image became part of Life magazine’s 100 Photographs That Changed the World. Adventure photographer Galen Rowell called it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”

Today satellite images of our planet are commonplace and, like other sacred images, are used to sell products and causes. It was dispiriting to see that Frank Borman is now hawking autographed prints of the famous earthrise photograph (a picture he did not even take) online for $169.

But in that jolting first glimpse, there was reason to hope, to dream that in seeing ourselves as the universe sees us, we might find some humility, some perspective; we might see the fragility of our world, with all our politics, beliefs, and ambitions.

Of course, nothing changed. The Vietnam War went on for years, and Richard Nixon would come to write his own traumatic chapter in our long traumatic history. Racial tensions lingered in our troubled nation as familial tensions lingered in my troubled home. A beautiful Christmas Eve came and went, and the long forced march went on. But family and nation survived, and we were left with a beautiful memory and a beautiful image.

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